I’ve been blogging for over ten years. While the blog has lain dormant at times, there are still hundreds of posts to sift through. When Travis Perry asked if I could share one of my old posts as a guest blogger for him, the task seemed a little daunting at first. However, my attention was soon caught by two old analyses of The Female Quixote I discovered in the “similar posts” prompt below the one I had landed on. I had written the same post twice with over a year gap between them. I copied and pasted them into Word for comparison. There were big differences in how the paragraphs were composed, but the sequencing and conclusion were the same in both posts. Why my mind gets stuck on certain subjects is a mystery for a brain scientist to solve; why it can’t remember what I write is also a mystery. The fact is, though, the subject of these posts is one I still care about to this day. It’s a big drive in my current fiction writing: restoring the heroic mythos we lost during the Enlightenment.
The Female Quixote was written by Charlotte Lennox in the mid 18th C, over a hundred years after Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. In Cervantes’ novel, you can already see the rupturing of heroism — the protagonist is well-known for being a fool who tilts at windmills as if they were monsters instead of, say, for being a knight who rescues princesses after slaying dragons. Don Quixote is a fool precisely because he has read too many heroic stories. On his deathbed he renounces heroism, even adding a stipulation to his will that his niece will lose her inheritance if she marries a man who reads chivalric romances. Conclusion: Believing in heroism is madness that can’t exist in a modern rational world.
In The Female Quixote, the protagonist Arabella is very like Don Quixote, albeit the female counterpart. Arabella views the world through romantic French novels and expects adventures around every corner. Why no villains have yet attempted to kidnap her, nor any heroes fought duels to win her heart is a mystery to her. In short, she believes French chivalric novels are historical texts. This is presumed to be madness, and a rational-minded doctor is called in to talk sense to her.
She asks the doctor this question: “The Fables of Aesop, said Arabella, are among those of which the Absurdity discovers itself, and the Truth is comprised in the Application; but what can be said of those Tales which are told with the solemn Air of historical Truth, and if false convey no Instruction?”
The doctor is forced to admit that the novels which have formed her thoughts can’t be defended. Intent on reforming her mind, he asks her many leading questions, e.g.: “How is any oral, or written Testimony, confuted or confirmed?”
She responds, “By comparing it . . . with the Testimony of others, or with the natural Effects and standing Evidence of the Facts related, and sometimes by comparing it with itself.”
This isn’t the response of a delusional person; it’s, in fact, reasonable and intelligent. Yet the novel moves forward with the idea that, while Arabella is insane, her madness is a result of a poor education. What she needs is a proper education that matches the rationalism of the modern world. Eighteenth-century England is no place for knights to run around rescuing imprisoned girls. It’s a country of science, of the Royal Society, of microscopes and telescopes, of businessmen who marry their daughters off to the landed gentry (and vice versa).
While the setting straight, or healing, of Arabella’s mind might be of some relief to other readers, as well as to Arabella’s honorable suitor, Mr. Glanville, I can’t help feeling let down, as though I, as well as the heroine, have lost something beautiful when she realizes that chivalry, adventure, and the divine art of love are fantasies. Although I’m always disappointed in the end of The Female Quixote, I refuse to conclude that Lennox merely meant to instruct society on the type of novels young women ought to read, favoring the moralistic and rational Richardson over Madeleine de Scudery.
No, the following exchange doesn’t support this interpretation:
The doctor claims that “[Arabella’s] Writers have instituted a World of their own, and that nothing is more different from a human being, than Heroes or Heroines.” Her writers — and yes, he gives Arabella ownership of them — have created their own worlds. They exist as false worlds within false words and create false notions within minds, especially the minds of young girls.
Arabella gives a frank reply to the doctor: “I am afraid, Sir, that the Difference is not in Favour of the present World.”
This is a far cry from the conclusion of Don Quixote, where irony subverts the ideal of the heroic. Heroism isn’t realistic and, hence, not what humanity needs because…realism is what we need, surely? Yet, while epic heroes might have gone the way of ghosts as the 16th C turned over into the 17th, villains didn’t disappear. Evil men still march their way through history, devising plots to kidnap and imprison others, to steal from them, to overthrow kings and chop the heads off princesses. I have to agree with Arabella; the difference is not in favor of the present world. More than two-hundred years have passed since Lennox first published her novel, and our hyper-rational, post-enlightenment society has not yet eradicated villains, even if the heroes have fled from our collective unconscious.
One of my blog commenters responded: “And this is why I’m in the Society for Creative Anachronism. Heroes are possible there.”
They’re still possible in literature, too, and I have a feeling I’m not alone in wanting to restore heroism in what I write. The Enlightenment has done a lot of damage (it has also done a lot of good, which I wrote about here), but it can’t ultimately destroy the human soul, which needs heroism to thrive. Why does it need heroism to thrive? The short answer is the Sunday school answer: Jesus. Jesus was the ultimate hero, who broke our chains and set us free from the roving dragon of sin and death and evil. When we as humans lay down our lives and act as heroes for others, we are following Jesus’ model. When we tell stories of heroes in our books, we’re feeding the soul that longs for Jesus.
This is the reason I get stuck on the subject, and it doesn’t actually take a brain scientist to figure it out.