Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Charlotte Lennox and Mothers of the Novel

Charlotte Lennox (died 4 January 1803)

Born around the year 1730 (sources vary), Charlotte Ramsey married Alexander Lennox in 1747, the same year she published Poems on Several Occasions.

The marriage was not a success, nor was Lennox's attempt to launch an acting career, but by 1750 she had published her first novel, The Life of Harriot Stuart Written by Herself, and gained the attention--and support--of the formidable poet, critic, and editor Samuel Johnson and of the most famous novelists of their day, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding.

Richardson acted as Lennox's adviser for the publication of her most successful novel, The Female Quixote; Or, the Adventures of Arabella, published in 1752. The novel follows Cervantes' Don Quixote in its satire of romance--in Lennox's novel, the sheltered Arabella, brought up by her widowed father in a remote location, entertains and "educates" herself by reading the "Store of Romances" she discovers in her father's library.

(The novels had belonged to Arabella's mother; unhappy with her husband's decision to retire to his isolated castle, she had tried to while away the "disagreeable" time with the novels. Unfortunately for her, her husband disapproved of her romances, "removed them" from her, and locked them up in his library. The unhappy woman died shortly after giving birth to Arabella.)

As Margaret Anne Doody notes in her introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition of The Female Quixote, "The volumes of romances are Arabella's only inheritance from her mother, and the female inheritance is customarily presented by women in their novels as dangerous or double-edged" (xxi). In this case, after her father's death, the orphaned Arabella attempts to live her life according to what she believes are the "histories" she has discovered in her father's library. 

Less well known but perhaps more interesting for an American reader, Lennox's 1790 epistolary novel, Euphemia, is set, in large part, in colonial North America prior to the Revolutionary War. The novel begins just after Euphemia Lumley's marriage to a man she does not really know and certainly does not love, a marriage urged on her by her widowed mother. Euphemia's mother believes Mr. Neville is financially secure, he believes Euphemia is an heiress, both are disappointed.

Neville moves Euphemia to New York, then to a fort in Albany, and finally to the remote fort of Schenectedy. This devastating anatomy of eighteenth-century marriage not only contains fascinating views of the land itself, but of the British in North America, of Dutch colonists, of Africans who have been brought to the colonies, and of the indigenous native peoples, in particular the Hurons.

The first-edition title page of
The Female Quixote
Despite the popularity of her novels, Lennox published anonymously. The title page of The Female Quixote did not include her name until after her death. The title pages of her subsequent novels indicated they were "by the author of The Female Quixote." (This is the same authorial strategy used later by Jane Austen.)

Like Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte is one of the "mothers of the novel" whose work precedes and informs Austen's. Indeed, in a letter to her sister Cassandra, Austen describes reading and thoroughly enjoying The Female Quixote, and scholars have recently noted this novel's influence on Northanger Abbey.

In addition to the wonderful editions of The Female Quixote and Euphemia that I've linked to here, Lennox's novels are available for free download at Google Books, and there are inexpensive Kindle editions that are also available. Read! Enjoy!