Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Female Quixotism Refashioned: Northanger Abbey, the Engaged Reader, and the Woman Writer

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Female Quixotism Refashioned: Northanger Abbey, the Engaged Reader, and the Woman Writer

Article excerpt

Though there are certainly many examples of gently parodied male quixotes in eighteenth-century letters and life, from Henry Fielding's Parson Adams to Horace Walpole's depiction of himself as a reader, the figure of the female quixote seems almost exclusively associated with uncritical, overly absorptive novel reading.1 A 1798 essay, "On the Reading of Novels," in The Monthly Visitor and Pocket Companion sums up contemporary anti-novel discourse with its contention that most novels "have a tendency to mislead the mind, to enfeeble the heart, to represent nature in improper colours, to excite, rather than to suppress, in the young and ardent, romantic notions of love, and to lead the unwary amidst the winding mazes of intrigue, and the flowery fields of dissipation." Furthermore, "females, in general, are the most inclined to peruse them, and from a fatal inattention to their education, they are the most likely to fall victims to their baneful insinuations."2 Such anti-novel discourse was so widespread by the end of the eighteenth century as to be a cliché.

Yet women wrote most of the female quixote characters in later eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century novels. At this time when novels were considered a primarily feminized phenomenon, however problematically, women writers had important stakes in legitimating the act of absorptive reading, the reading of novels, and women's reading in general. Professional writers keen to have their books read, whether for fame, profit, or both, were invested in the kind of reader who could both lose herself in the text and distance herself from the intellectual incapacity such absorbed reading purportedly caused. Examining the deployment of the female quixote as a significant mark of literary professionalism, I argue that women who were avowed readers of prose fiction and professional novelists created complex quixotic fictions in recognition of the novel's power. The figure of the female quixote proved particularly poignant for those writers who courted absorbed readers on the one hand while countering stereotypes about women's critical failings on the other. I contend that by reifying the specter of the professional writer's need for absorbed readers and dramatizing the occasion by which the woman writer demonstrates her own authority, the figure of the female quixote paradoxically becomes the means by which both woman novel reader and woman novel writer can claim intellectual authority.

Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1818) has been cited as both participating in the dominant ideological construction of the female quixote via Catherine Morland and offering a bold innovation: a defense of novels and novel-reading heroines. Reading Northanger Abbey in conjunction with several contemporaneous works reveals that accepted notions of female quixotism have often been oversimplified and that the rhetoric of Austen's famous novel defense already had some purchase by the late 1780s. Exploration of the intertextual play between commentary on novel reading in the emergent genre of fashion magazines, Charlotte Smith's Emmeline (1788), Henry James Pye's The Spectre (1789), and Austen's Catharine, or the Bower (written 1792) and Northanger Abbey (written 1798-99, and revised in 1816)3 reveals a counter discourse in defense of women's novel reading, even as it is figured as a type of quixotism. The engaged but ultimately discerning woman reader emerges as an ideal in response to the dangerously absorbed, anti-social female quixote. Northanger Abbey puts this discourse to work, introducing a female quixote only to break down gendered binaries between good and bad reading, and require that its own readers understand references to a range of cultural touchstones including novels and other fashionable pursuits of the day. While most critics have acknowledged that Northanger Abbey avoids moralistic clichés surrounding Gothic novels and other fashionable pastimes, what remains to be clarified are the productive associations between absorbed reading and female knowledge. …

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