The conceit of the novel is that the heroine, Arabella, has been kept in rustic isolation, spending her formative years reading French romances and thinking they are histories, and therefore expects everyone to behave as if they are in a romance. This leads to many misunderstandings with, as they would say today, hilarious results. Except that to understand the misunderstandings to their full comic potential, one must either have read large numbers of early French romances, or must read the rather convoluted endnotes supplied to explain them (which becomes a little tedious).
Her suitor (and cousin), Mr Glanville, repeatedly takes ‘a great deal of Pains to turn the Discourse upon Subjects, on which the charming Arabella could expatiate, without any Mixture of that Absurdity, which mingled itself in a great many others’; or, becomes ‘horribly vexed at a Question that was likely to engage Arabella in a Discourse very different from that she had been so capable of pleasing in’; or, ‘to avoid a longer Dispute, changed the Discourse ; having observed with confusion, that Sir Charles, and his Sister, seemed to look upon his beloved Cousin as one that was out of her Senses’; although occasionally, ‘as much Cause as he had for Uneasiness, [he] could with great difficulty restrain Laughter at this Ludicrous Circumstance’.
By Book VII, Chapter III they take themselves to Bath (I think it was obligatory in C18 novels to go to Bath, and they, of course, encounter highwaymen, which Arabella assumes have been sent by an admirer to carry her away), which at least gets her out of the house, and find some new people to vex or confuse.
At every opportunity there are mutual misunderstandings in conversations to reinforce her misbeliefs: as an author’s footnote explains, ‘This Enigmatical Way of speaking upon such Occasions, is of great Use in the voluminous French Romances; since the Doubt and Confusion it is the Cause of, both to the Accus’d and Accuser, gives Rise to a great Number of succeeding Mistakes, and consequently Adventures.
In public the singularity of her dress draws ‘a Number of Gazers after her’, and her strange speech occasions ‘Whispers and Scoffs among the Spectators’. If she is approached by a strange man, she immediately assumes he intends to ravish her, so any innocently passing traveller, or even her uncle, are all suspected.
Book IX takes them to London, and more of the same, and then ‘the gross Air of that smoaky Town affected her Health so much, that Sir Charles propos’d to her to go for a few Weeks to Richmond‘; here, while rambling with some female companions, ‘to avoid the Violence our intended Ravishers yonder come to offer us’, ‘she plung’d into the Thames, intending to swim over it, as Clelia did the Tyber. The young Ladies … scream’d out aloud at this horrid Spectacle, and wringing their Hands, ran backwards and forwards like distracted Persons, crying for Help.’ Rescued from the river, ‘to all Appearances dead’, she then suffers an extremity of Fever, from which she recovers.
In the subsequent, relatively long (15 pages), and penultimate chapter (Being in the Author’s Opinion, the best Chapter in this History) a clergyman dissuades her from her reveries by grave moralizing. Interestingly, there is a plausible theory that this chapter was actually written by Samuel Johnson: he showed an interested in Mrs Lennox’s work throughout; according to Boswell he wrote the Dedication; the chapter has much of Johnson’s literary style, not being characteristic of the style of the novel as a whole, and ‘embodies some typically Johnsonian [views]’ and ‘very mortifying Reflections on the Imperfection of all human Happiness’ which differ greatly from the rest of the boo
The Female Quixote was highly thought of in its time; the literati of the time (Fielding, Johnson, Horace Walpole, Richardson, etc) would all have read French romances in their youth, and so would understand all the jokes and multitudinous references to them. But although it’s very well written and has its moments, it’s drawn-out and repetitive: Anna Laetitia Barbauld wrote in an Introduction to an edition of the book that it is ‘rather spun out too much, and not very well wound up’.
So, if you enjoy novels from this period, and are interested in the development of the novel at this time, it’s worth a go, although you’ll end up wanting to do violence to some of the characters, and if you’re like me you’ll start skimming through the pages of talk about Oroondates, Prince of Scythia, or the daughters of Cleopatra, or Prince Thrasybulus, or even Pisistrates, and read the last half in record time.
Oh, and in case you don’t read the book, in the last chapter Arabella and Mr Glanville get married, being united ‘in every Virtue and laudable Affection of the Mind.’