Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Writing Men Reading in Charlotte Lennox's 'The Female Quixote.'

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Writing Men Reading in Charlotte Lennox's 'The Female Quixote.'

Article excerpt

The Female Quixote (1752) has remained a fairly marginal text in twentieth-century histories of the novel because any number of critics have explicated it as primarily revealing Charlotte Lennox's and women's vexed relationship to the romance.(2) These readings neglect, however, Lennox's more complex argument about the way in which the term romance functions in her novel. In The Female Quixote, Lennox points to eighteenth-century literary culture's use of romance as a tool with which to exclude readers and writers from participation in the new profession of literary reviewership on the basis of class and gender.(3) In this essay, I will read The Female Quixote not as romance, but as a form of literary criticism.

The mid-eighteenth century saw the birth of the professional critic,(4) and that critic was no longer necessarily, as in the past, the best writer. Now that anyone could write for money, so could anyone be a critic. A consequence of the professionalization of writing and reading was that the new professionals began to argue explicitly and implicitly that certain types of people (educated, upper-middle or middle-class, and male) could better perform the labor of reading. Novelists such as Lennox attempt to wrest the authority for literary judgment from both aristocratic dilettantes and upstart Grub Street hacks by presenting themselves as performing the labor of criticism in their novels-proper.

The self-ascribed business of the eighteenth-century critic was to instruct society on its reading habits, to offer suggestions about which type of literature would best teach moral behaviors and principles to its audience even as it entertained them.(5) In her novel, Lennox argues that in order to enter the business of criticism a critic must not only be capable of recognizing immoral texts, but also must show that he or she can reform them, too-in the form of a moral narrative, such as the one she herself writes, The Female Quixote.

As literary criticism, The Female Quixote is not simply about the need to control and contain women's desire for the romance; it also represents the literary establishment's desire and need to control men's desire for it. Few have noticed that while the pivotal women characters, all women of leisure, are described as avid readers in the novel, the only male character who reads is a man who also writes: Sir George.

Romance was the scapegoated discourse of the period that saw the rise of the novel; it was that discourse which the dominant critics of the period argued needed to be morally reformed into "novel" discourse. Lennox implies that there is another motivation beyond the moral one that impels the dominant writers and critics of the period to denigrate publicly the practice of reading the romance: reading the romance produces the desire to write. All the major writers of the period use romances as source material for their own writing.

In her struggle for power, authority, and economic security as a writer and critic, Lennox exposes the economic, class, and gender biases that operate within the field of letters. But she also shares some of those biases--particularly those that involve class. The ability to write is perceived by other members of society as giving one the legitimate right to read authoritatively, to make public that judgment and to influence other readers' choices and practices--to be, that is, a professional critic. I want here, then, to focus also on what Lennox contributes to the discussion of who does or does not belong in the literary profession designated "criticism," by reading the way that Lennox writes the relationship between men and romance in The Female Quixote.

A crucial scene of reading occurs about midway through the novel. The character, Sir George, literally constructs a romance story in the attempt to woo the heroine, Arabella. As the only male character who actually reads, Sir George is also a nefarious and deceitful upper-class gentleman of leisure. …

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