“Alphonsine did not do. We were disgusted in twenty pages as, independent of a bad translation, it has indelicacies which disgrace a pen hitherto so pure, and we changed it for the “Female Quixotte,” which now makes our evening amusement; to me a very high one, as I find the work quite equal to what I remembered it.”
So wrote Jane Austen to Cassandra in 1807. Austen evidently had a taste for the lively and burlesque; she had also expressed a liking for E. S. Barrett’s The Heroine, a quixotic novel about a young lady who decides that she has not been told the truth about her parentage, and who resolves to go out into the world in quest of her birthright.
The Female Quixote, or the Adventures of Arabella, published in 1752, was the second novel of poet and novelist Charlotte Lennox, and it is no surprise that Austen liked it enough to re-read it, as her “equal to what I remembered it” suggests. In the words of author and critic Anna Barbauld, who was influential in reviving interest in the work some fifty years after its publication, The Female Quixotewas “…an agreeable and ingenious satire upon the old romances, and I really think it is written in a modern spirit…”.
The Female Quixote, like Northanger Abbey, satirizes the effects of popular fiction on the reader. In fact, it would not be a stretch to suppose that Lennox’s most popular novel was a direct influence on the Austen work.
The target of Lennox’s novel is romantic fiction. “Romantic” did not refer to love and courtship, but to highly imaginative, usually episodic tales of adventure, heroism and exaggerated sentiment, authored by the likes of Eliza Heywood, Henry Fielding or Mary Davys. Unlike Austen, Lennox offers up a suitable candidate for her heroine; “Nature had given [Arabella] a most charming face, a shape easy and delicate, a sweet and insinuating voice and an air so full of dignity and grace as drew the admirations of all that saw her.” Compare this to Catherine Morland: “[The Morlands] were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any. She had a thin, awkward figure, a sallow skin without color, dark, lank hair and strong features.”
In accomplishments, as well, Catherine is a direct contrast to Arabella, whose “…naive charms were improved with all the heightenings of art…The best masters of music and dancing were sent for from London to attend her. She soon became the perfect mistress of the French and Italian languages”, whereas Catherine “…was often inattentive and occasionally stupid” and regards one of the happiest days of her life as the day that her music master was dismissed.
Arabella “would have made a great proficiency in all useful knowledge had not her whole time been taken up by another study” (i.e., reading novels of romance). Catherine takes to books, but only when “…nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them…all story and no reflection…such works as heroines must read…”
There are other comparisons, in the two suitors – the self-important one (Arabella’s Sir George, and Catherine’s John Thorpe) and the sensible, tolerant one (Arabella’s Glanville and Catherine’s Tilney) – and in the move from relative seclusion to society where the novels’ vision of the world is tested against the social order. There is, however, a comparison to another of Austen’s early novels: Sense and Sensibility. Unlike Catherine’s mistaken notions that are corrected, at the cost of some embarrassment, by her own innate level-headedness, Arabella judgment is corrupted to the point where her behavior has life-threatening consequences; her determination to see the world in romantic terms is as indulgent as Marianne Dashwood’s emotional excess. Just as Arabella at last owns up to her errors “…my heart yields to the force of truth…I begin to perceive that I have hitherto trifled away my time”, Marianne says that, “My illness has made me think – it has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection….Whenever I looked towards the past, I saw some duty neglected or some failing indulged.”
But back to Alphonsine, or Maternal Affection (1806) the work by prolific author Madame deGenlis, that Austen rejected. The plot presents an interesting spin on a young lady whose understanding has been distorted, not by novels but by the extreme limitations of her physical world. Alphonsine, the illegitimate daughter of a countess is born in a dungeon – the mother’s vengeful husband has imprisoned his wife, and neither he nor her attendants are aware of the child’s birth or existence – and is raised entirely in both sensory and social darkness. When, after thirteen years, they are released, Alphonsine’s introduction to the world becomes not only an expanded social experience, but a more fundamental sensory revelation. Perhaps Austen would have found something more relevant in Alphonsine if she had not succumbed to the “twenty page rule”. Her own view of epistolary integrity – “I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth” is not all that different from The Critical Review’s assessment of the rejected novel, that “[Madame deGenlis] has attained the true moral end of novel writing, that which consists not in a few pages of poetical justice, but in the general impression left upon the reader’s mind when he closes the volume.”