Recuperating Romance:Reading Lennox Reading Shakespeare
Introducing Margaret Anne Doody's "Shakespeare's Novels: Charlotte Lennox Illustrated," first published in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 19, No. 3 (special number: "Women and Early Fiction"), fall 1987, pp. 296-310.
Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote; or, the Adventures of Arabella, published by Andrew Millar in two volumes in 1752, tells the story of a beautiful young woman, who, "unfortunately for her," has her mind addled by reading "a great Store of Romances, and, what was still more unfortunate, not in the original French, but very bad Translations" (FQ 1: 4). The romances are a legacy from her deceased mother, who had purchased them "to soften her Solitude which she found very disagreeable; and, after her Death, the Marquis removed them from her Closet into his Library, where Arabella found them" (1: 4-5). Her "Ideas" having "taken a romantic Turn" from her retired and desolate surroundings, she supposes that "Romances were real Pictures of Life [and] from them she drew all her Notions and Expectations" (1: 5). Like Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1742), Lennox's novel is thus written "in Imitation of The Manner of Cervantes" (JA title page). Fielding, whose publisher was also Andrew Millar, wrote a glowing review of the novel in The Covent-Garden Journal 14 (April 20, 1752). Samuel Richardson, a printer by trade, printed the first volume and part of the second volume of the first edition of the novel (Maslen 102).
As Margaret Anne Doody documents in her ground-breaking, polemically exuberant essay, Lennox's novel was traditionally read as a simple story of a heroine who, made mad by reading bad books, regains her sanity when presented with rational evidence to change her mind. The Female Quixote was thus interpreted as part of the anti-romance campaign mounted by Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, and Samuel Johnson. As is commonly accepted, [End Page 69] Johnson provides (and might have ghost-written) the opinions of the "doctor" who brings about Arabella's "cure" at the end of the novel by teaching her to distinguish fact from fiction. Arabella repudiates romance and marries her unimaginative cousin, Mr. Glanville, a presumably better fate than that of Cervantes's original don, who regains his sanity and dies. Doody demolishes this traditional misreading of the novel by arguing that for women and women writers, "the romance was of great importance because it allegorized every woman's life" (299). In being forced to give up the romance, women lost a literary form faithful to their life experiences. With its satirical and classical orientation, the Augustan ethos emerging in the first decades of the eighteenth century swept women's romance codes from the literary scene. A shrewd observer of the marketplace, Lennox wrote a novel which, in seeming to discipline and exorcise romance reading, gave Augustan readers exactly what they wanted. Read from a feminist perspective, however, Arabella's shaming and conversion are disturbing; as Doody writes, "parts of the conversion conversation sound like the most melancholy brainwashing" (300). Doody's reading aims to recover the vital and creative Arabella who, to all intents and purposes, ceases to exist at the end of the novel.
Doody's exhumation of Arabella from the anti-romance plot provides the basis for her recuperation of Lennox's Shakespear Illustrated: or the Novels and Histories, on which the Plays of Shakespear Are Founded, a work largely dismissed as critically naïve from the time of its publication, usually because of the author's gender, but especially by Lennox's early twentieth century critics. Published initially in two volumes by Millar in 1753, the title page declares the work to be "by the Author of the FEMALE QUIXOTE." Like The Female Quixote, Doody notes, Shakespear Illustrated "deals at length with the reading and use of romances and novels" (301). Lennox sets her sights directly on Shakespeare, "now enshrined in the English Augustan pantheon," and reveals that he "read romances and novels" (302). As Doody avers, "it seems to Charlotte Lennox that Shakespeare (like his modern adulators) is guilty of the same fault as the male characters in The Female Quixote—he reads romances and stories wrongly, inefficiently, without full comprehension. And when he tries to re-work them, he usually bungles the matter" (303). Even more contentiously, Doody advances the idea that "Shakespeare, like the men in The Female Quixote, reads romances badly, or misreads, or bungles, partly or even largely because, Lennox suspects, Shakespeare is not interested in doing women justice" (304).
To expose and counteract Shakespeare's anti-woman prejudice, Lennox addresses "the bulk of [her] critical remarks…in some way to the problems of the female characters in Shakespeare, and to the problems of their characterization." Lennox "feels that the female characters are much prouder, freer, stronger, and more effective in source stories." Shakespeare, Lennox suspects, "wants to debase women and make them 'abject'; instead of dramatizing the heroines [End Page 70] of the stories he replaces them with female weaklings of his own" (305). Not content with debasing such women characters as Cordelia (King Lear), Isabella (Measure for Measure), and Helena (All's Well That Ends Well), "Shakespeare tends to let men off for vice, while making women suffer." Where "[r]omances show women as rulers, as powers in their own right, capable of 'Magnanimity,'" Shakespeare takes "from them the power and the moral independence which old romances and novels had given them," thus revealing himself as "an anti-romantic anti-feminist" (306). Given all the praise customarily showered on Shakespeare, Lennox "may be a solitary dissenter, but her critical remarks are not stupid." In Doody's estimation, Lennox's "whole scholarly labor is an achievement of which any professional academic might well be proud." Simply put, Lennox "is the first woman to produce a scholarly work on English literature, and the first feminist critic of a major author." Doody concludes her essay by asserting that "in Shakespear Illustrated Charlotte Lennox took revenge for her ridiculed, chastened Arabella. The critical work seems the work of an Arabella unreformed" (307). That was a provocative position to take in 1987. Thirty years later, thanks to Doody and other feminist critics, such against-the-grain readings have become canonical.