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  • Gendering the Quixote in Eighteenth-Century England
  • Amelia Dale (bio)

English interpretations, appropriations, and transpositions of the figure of Don Quixote play a pivotal role in eighteenth-century constructions of so-called English national character. A corpus of quixotic narratives worked to reinforce the centrality of Don Quixote and the practice of quixotism in the national literary landscape. They stressed the man from La Mancha’s eccentricity and melancholy in ways inextricable from English self-constructions of these traits.2 This is why Stuart Tave is able to write that eighteenth-century Britons could “recast” Don Quixote in a fashion that followed “national pride” in the “freedom” of their humors.1 However, Don Quixote’s integral place in patriotic self-constructions was troubled by gender. While national character was construed as masculine by default, quixotism’s association with masculinity was complicated by the potential passive penetrability of quixotism and the proliferation of narratives about female quixotic readers. This essay will analyze these tensions. Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759–67) are key examples of quixotic texts that respond to the figure of the female quixote by interrogating the relationship between Englishness, masculinity, and quixotism. [End Page 5]

National Character and Don Quixote

There was English interest in Don Quixote from the time of its publication in 1605, even before Thomas Shelton’s translation in 1612.3 Sarah Wood observes that “Don Quixote became a widely disseminated, virtually de-nationalized classic.”4 Similarly, Aaron Hanlon argues in this volume for an understanding of quixotism as a global heuristic, noting how difficult it is, upon each transposition of Don Quixote in eighteenth-century Britain, to ascribe the “cultural phenomenon of quixotism” to Cervantes.5 Anglicized quixotic narratives thus print over Don Quixote’s Spanish origins, enacting a belligerent claim on quixotic practice as inseparable from English print culture. Even though Don Quixote—as Elizabeth Lewis observes—became part of an Anglicized construction of Spain, English quixotic transpositions use Don Quixote to construct and reconstruct an eccentric English national character.6

The quixotic character, then, must be read alongside Deidre Lynch’s observation about the way literary character is bound to both Enlightenment epistemology and print technology: the eighteenth-century conception of character is sutured to a Lockean, printerly formulation of experience that involves the “imprinting of surface and the acquisitions of characters.”7 Quixotes are characters who are imprinted—typically by the texts they have consumed—to such an extent that impressions from this contact indelibly shapes their subjectivity. Here, I follow Scott Paul Gordon, who characterizes quixotic practice, as the obverse to enlightenment ideals of “proper” perception. The mind of the quixote is not the Lockean ideal: objective, unprejudiced, and able to process reality because it is “a fair sheet of paper with no writing on it.”8 Instead, it is prejudiced and already inscribed by the genres he or she has consumed. Quixotes possess a subjectivity imprinted by their favorite genre, be it chivalric romance or sentimental novels. This formulation of quixotism is useful for the way it encompasses quixotic narratives’ concern with (imperfect) textual replication: quixotic characters embody and attempt to reproduce their reading.

Recognizing quixotism as embedded in print technology also productively links the conceptual underpinnings of national character to quixotism. For example, David Hume’s essay, “On National Characters” (1748) argues that one of the reasons national character exists is because the “human mind is of a very imitative nature.”9 The “moral causes” Hume outlines that prompt the development of a national character (the system of government and the position of the country in relation to its neighbor), as much as the “physical causes” he dismisses (the quality of the air and climate), suggest that the phenomenon of national character stems from the capacity for people to [End Page 6] have their subjectivity overwritten by their environments. At the crux of both quixotism and national character are crises of individuation within “imagined communities,” to draw on Benedict Anderson’s perpetually useful term. The quixote enacts—despite differences in cultural and communal contexts—topoi imported from texts they have quixotically consumed. Resultantly, the quixote becomes comically displaced, an incomplete reproduction...


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