- Romantic TransportsTabitha Tenney’s Female Quixotism in Transatlantic Context
At the conclusion of Tabitha Tenney’s Female Quixotism (1801), her hapless heroine, Dorcasina Sheldon, finally awakens from “the romantic spell, by which she had been so many years bound” that has animated the plot and entangled her in a lifetime of ever-more humiliating scenarios (317). She confesses her chagrin to her maid: “my own conduct will not bear reflecting upon; I cannot look back without blushing for my follies” (322). Dorcasina’s confession anticipates that of a far more famous British heroine, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett, who, after reading Fitzwilliam Darcy’s letter explaining the deception George Wickham has imposed, rebukes herself: “How despicably have I acted!” She continues, “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! . . . How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation!” (136).
Perhaps the most salient difference between these two moments of awakening is that whereas the highly perceptive Elizabeth Bennett recognizes her initial misjudgment while she is still young, and while Mr. Darcy is still inclined to renew his suit, Dorcasina Sheldon requires four decades to awaken from the misprision of reality induced by her having read too many romances. After rejecting an eligible suitor in her youth, because he did not act according to her exaggerated notions of romantic heroism, Dorcasina is rendered increasingly an object of ridicule—for her readers as well as her friends and family—as she continues coquettishly, well into graying middle age, to encourage fortune-hunting suitors who deceive her through the strains of romance.
In situating Tenney’s work in relation to a tradition of British female novelists, we depart somewhat from recent work on her novel, which interprets it primarily in relationship to early American sentimental novels, [End Page 517] including, most famously, Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797). Significantly, while Eliza, Foster’s heroine, is certainly a victim of her delusional notions of female “liberty,” and is characterized as capricious, naïve, foolhardy, and, of course, coquettish, she is never explicitly framed as “quixotic”; nor is Susannah Rowson’s titular transatlantic heroine, Charlotte Temple.1 Our intention is therefore to supplement existing nationalist readings of Tenney’s novel by acknowledging and foregrounding the explicit allusion her title, Female Quixotism, makes to a British literary tradition emblematized by Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752), and thereby to recover the novel’s debt to that tradition’s emphasis on political and cultural specificity as the hallmark of its heroines’ nuanced transformations from delusional girls to perspicacious women.
While Tenney’s novel preceded Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) by about a decade, the two writers are clearly working within a novelistic tradition of deluded and delusional women readers that circulated throughout the British Atlantic in the eighteenth century. Whereas earlier British novelists had often depicted their heroines as either impeccably virtuous or tragically prone to yield to self-will or passion,2 starting in about the 1750s, novelists increasingly moved to create heroines who, while fundamentally “virtuous” in character, had yet to learn to recognize youthful mistakes in judgment and to refine their behaviors accordingly. British author Eliza Haywood (c. 1693–1756) offers an early example of this plotline in The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751): Betsy is inherently virtuous but eponymously thoughtless in her initial inability to appreciate Mr. Trueworth, despite his suggestive name. The work of Charlotte Lennox (c. 1730–1804), a British writer raised in the American colonies, further explores the flawed-yet-redeemable heroine in The Female Quixote (1752), whose title Tenney clearly references some half century later. Lennox’s tale depicts the virtuous Arabella, whose cousin-suitor almost despairs of marrying her because of her “foible” of misreading the world through the prism of heroic romance. Haywood’s Betsy Thoughtless and Lennox’s Female Quixote were extremely popular novels, appearing in numerous English editions and foreign translations; in addition, both were anthologized in the canon-shaping The Novelists’ Magazine (1780–89). They thus influenced many subsequent novels and moral tales, including Maria Edgeworth’s Angelina; or, l’Amie Inconnue, published in London in 1801, the same year...