Arabella, Dorcasina, and Domestic Exceptionalism
Travel and civic engagement are not the only ways quixotes participated in the politics of exceptionalism during the eighteenth century. Because quixotism was from its beginnings a mode of behavior grounded in the literary imagination and the problem of fictionality, quixotes were well positioned to address eighteenth-century anxieties about the real-world effects of reading the wrong fiction. As we know, women—particularly young women—bore the brunt of such anxieties, given widespread impressions of women’s supposedly heightened capacities for inauspiciously fanciful reading. Novels like Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752) and Tabitha Gilman Tenney’s Female Quixotism (1801) concerned themselves primarily with the ill effects of romance reading on young, provincial women. This was the case even as, at least in Britain, provincial men were more likely than provincial women to buy and read novels, including novels written by women.1 Novels like Joseph Andrews and Modern Chivalry treat quixotic reading practices as comical but ultimately incisive critiques of mad societies. “Female quixote” novels do likewise, reconfiguring the “domestic” in the domestic scene from a description of national politics “at home” to a description of the politics of the home; yet the politics of the home in female quixote novels tell us as much about wider national politics as do novels featuring rambling, male quixotes.
The capacity of the politics of the home—as treated in female quixote novels—to illuminate national politics is understandable in light of what Michael McKeon identifies as women’s ambivalent relationship to the public sphere. On one hand, the Habermasian notion of the public sphere was always utopian, predicated on universal access that was nevertheless, in reality, “constrained by the same factors—education and the ownership of property—that define the actual reading public.”2 Given that the female quixotes under consideration in this chapter do not have control over the property they stand (conditionally) to inherit, and given that both female quixotes possess a wealth of literary knowledge, the literary public sphere becomes the venue through which female quixotes participate in public life. As McKeon observes, “The literary public sphere seemed to document, indeed to constitute, the public reality of humanity itself, to give voice to private individuals in their universal capacity as human beings.”3 As readers of female quixote novels witnessed quixotic heroines shaping their immediate social and political environments through quixotic exceptionalism—which created in these novels an extreme version of the literary public sphere that brought its notional effects into line with reality—they could imagine themselves gaining similar access to public life through what McKeon calls the literary public sphere. In this way the domestic scene in female quixote novels addresses the impact of civic issues within and beyond the domus, as the domestic exceptionalism of female quixotes renders reading a powerful means of shaping the social worlds quixotes occupy.
Understandably, then, scholarship on female quixote novels tends to focus on the prospects in such novels for the advancement of women and women’s domestic living conditions. But these novels also reflect two important and underacknowledged aspects of eighteenth-century quixotism. One, that while female quixote novels portrayed emancipatory prospects for educated, wealthy women, the societies in which these novels were published showed very little tolerance for disruptions of social class or rank. Two, that when female quixotism crossed the Atlantic from Britain it maintained its class stringency and reproduced British notions of social rank even in a US society with a very different class structure. Many of the same questions about women’s access to the public sphere in the eighteenth century—questions about literacy and property ownership as barriers to access—apply to commoners as well.4
Exceptionalism is the logic that enables the transatlantic portability of class structures in female quixote narratives of the long eighteenth century. Because Lennox and Tenney both write female quixotes whose sense of superiority allows them to shape the decisions of more powerful people (men) while bringing their less powerful—and less educated—female servants along for the ride, quixotic exceptionalism confuses class relations in both novels. For Lennox’s quixote, Arabella, an obsession with French romances creates expectations that, as in those romances, the ladies’ maids should also be women of the court, not lower-rank servants. And for Dorcasina, Tenney’s US-bred quixote, the class dynamics of British amatory fiction prove a perplexing guide to life on the Pennsylvania frontier. Because Arabella and Dorcasina treat their maids in one moment as more knowledgeable about French romance or British amatory fiction than they each prove to be, and in the next moment like ignorant, impudent servants for their lack of knowledge and decorum, historical differences in class relations between Britain and the early US become less pronounced in these novels. A form of domestic exceptionalism—whereby female quixotes simultaneously reconfigure domestic politics for themselves according to their own sets of rules, while holding in place the old rules that govern their servants’ conduct, drives the class dynamics in these novels.
We can observe the considerable implications of quixotism for understanding class dynamics—reflections of the classed nature of the traditional Quixote-Sancho relationship—by considering the role of domestic servants in female quixote narratives. This is the case because, in the domestic setting, the Sancho figure takes on greater political significance than it has out on the road. Due to the prominent roles of ladies’ maids in perpetuating their mistresses’ amorous fantasies in the European romances that Lennox and Tenney parody in their “female quixote” novels, female quixotes’ maids tend also to play very important roles as managers of and participants in quixotic fantasy. For this reason, the female quixote novels of Lennox and Tenney, typically discussed in terms of the empowerment of their quixotic heroines, also invite consideration of how representations of female domestic servitude intersect with the wider (and justified) critical tendency to read the quixotic imagination as a means of feminine empowerment in these texts.5 In other words, the similarly conflicted roles of ladies’ maids in The Female Quixote and Female Quixotism—roles that involve sustaining verbal and physical abuse by and for their mistresses to accommodate a liberating quixotic fantasy—bring each servant character to the forefront of her narrative as a subjugated counterheroine who upholds traditional socioeconomic distinctions, then fades into the background while her mistress challenges gender conventions.6
Perhaps to an even greater degree than itinerant male quixotes like Fielding’s Parson Adams or Brackenridge’s Captain Farrago, and certainly more out of the necessity imposed by the conventions of domesticity, Lennox and Tenney’s female quixotes rely on their socioeconomic advantage (and thus their servants) to interact with the worlds around them. Their servants receive and deliver romantic correspondences, guardedly supply compliments and carefully constructed comments to sustain and legitimate their mistresses’ fantasies, and become wholly enmeshed in quixotic escapades. This occurs, more often than not, by the quixote’s mandate and against the servant’s better judgment. The quixote and her servant develop a degree of codependency and participate in a cyclical power transaction, the quixote wielding social authority to get her servant to do her romantic dirty work, and the servant mimicking the quixote as a stand-in or a double within the quixotic fantasy to remain within her mistress’s good graces, or to prevent the higher-rank quixote from falling into greater trouble. Through this dynamic—and under the added pressure the strictures of domesticity impose on the servant-quixote relationship—female quixote narratives become especially useful texts for examining comparative class dynamics across the Atlantic.
This is important because the comparative study of class in eighteenth-century British and early US novels is often a fraught endeavor.7 One problem is that treating eighteenth-century British domestic servants as members of a common social class reflects an incomplete understanding of just how fluid was the domestic servant’s identity and relationship to the employer family. “Treating domestic workers as an identifiable and stable class,” writes Kristina Straub, “does not get at the knotty connections of contract, kinship, and affiliation that crisscross the British household at that time.”8 Another is that Britain and the US not only differed significantly in the ways that they conceived of class or social strata, but they also lacked an overarching sense of “class” society as we understand it today, or as it emerged in its modern (and primarily Marxian) incarnation in the nineteenth century.
Unlike in the US, where Tenney’s quixotic heroine, Dorcasina, is compelled to imitate what she understands as the manners of Britain’s “genteel” classes, Lennox’s Britain certainly had an aristocracy, and Lennox’s quixote, Arabella, would have been part of it. As G. E. Mingay’s oeuvre comprehensively demonstrates, however, provincial England of the mid-eighteenth century was better classified by “ranks” of merchants, yeoman, clergy, landed gentlemen, and the like, than by broad “classes” with concomitantly broad “class” affinities. As Mingay notes, “The word ‘class’ in the sense in which it is now commonly understood first came into use in the latter eighteenth century.”9 Arabella’s status as the heiress of a considerable country estate—not merely the holdings of a yeoman farmer or successful merchant—affords her significant and multifaceted socioeconomic advantage over her servant.
In the early US, class difference was certainly an operative aspect of daily social relations, though, as Ronald Schultz notes, US society was not “thoroughly class-dominated,” as “inequalities of power in all of its aspects took on many forms.”10 The plantation regions south of the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, influenced by the English plantation complex of the colonial period, maintained perhaps the only “well-articulated and centralized class system in early America,” while the rural Pennsylvania in which Dorcasina’s estate is set in Female Quixotism had a much less definitive class structure and relationship to the plantation complex (as evidenced, in part, by Dorcasina’s stated opposition to the use and ownership of slaves by a southern suitor, Lysander). By the 1780s, at which point “changes in trade, credit, and productive strategies” led to the gradual emergence of a capitalist system and, by the antebellum nineteenth century, capitalist class relations, rural regions in Pennsylvania and the Northeast witnessed “class dominance” in sporadic areas.11
Related to these regional differences in class structure and coherence, the early US differed significantly from Britain in its legal treatment of servants. Whereas England legislated punitive “master and servant” laws that “reduced to a single legal relation the heterogeneous manual labor statuses of early modern England,” grouping domestic laborers, outdoor servants, and apprentices generally as “servants,” the US witnessed no such laws until the first half of the nineteenth century.12 In Dorcasina’s Pennsylvania, disciplinary laws regarding “servants” applied only to indentured servitude, and certainly not to domestic servants like Dorcasina’s Betty.13 Outside the plantation region, the early US adopted very little of the British system of socioeconomic rank, and its class relations were qualitatively different from those of its British forbear. While acknowledging the existence of something like class in the US, Marx downplayed its social impact, arguing that because of rapid change and high turnover in class “membership,” the US had no “fixed” classes.14 In Democracy in America (1835), Tocqueville similarly emphasized the notion of upward mobility and fluctuation in class membership in the US, suggesting that almost everyone who lived in the US, including those who inherited wealth from prior generations of workers, tended to work for a living.15
Instead of relying on overbroad and anachronistic class descriptors (lower, middle, upper, aristocratic; proletarian, bourgeois, and so on) to explain the social relations and power dynamics at work between mistresses and maids in quixotic narratives from both sides of the Atlantic, we can turn to the specific power dynamics between quixotes and maids as a way of understanding how quixotic exceptionalism in novels of domesticity was key to reproducing class structures across the Atlantic. Accordingly, my readings of The Female Quixote and Female Quixotism focus on the power dynamics of class in the contexts of societies that did not necessarily behave like “class societies” in the postindustrial sense, comparing these power dynamics with social conditions in eighteenth-century Britain and the early US to gain a clearer understanding of what it meant for Lennox and Tenney to represent quixote-servant relationships as they did. The following readings of The Female Quixote and Female Quixotism illustrate a process by which the exceptionalism of female quixotes compels servants to imitate their quixotic behavior without fully understanding the logic or purpose of quixotism. This in turn produces highly mimetic servant-mistress relationships that show us how class operates in these narratives.
The Female Quixote contains myriad mimetic relationships. At one level, Arabella mimics the romantic conventions she draws from her store of European romances. At another, as Thomas Schmid observes, Arabella mimics masculine authority in the process of deriving her authority from the power men grant her over them.16 At a third level, Arabella’s suitors mimic Arabella’s mimicked romantic conventions. And at yet another level very different from the prior three, Arabella’s maid, Lucy, mimics Arabella’s romantic actions and mannerisms by serving as a surrogate Arabella when Arabella’s romantic austerity prevents her from having direct contact with male suitors. This third level of mimesis differs because the primary practitioner of mimicry is a servant who, though perhaps at times compelled by the romantic nature of Arabella’s constructed narratives, is also moved to mimicry through acts of Arabella’s authority over her.
Arabella’s ability to ensnare supporting characters into her imaginative world, whether by the authority of her social position or by fantastic wiles, merits careful consideration. As Eve Tavor Bannet argues, Arabella possesses “Don Quixote’s amazing ability to make everyone imitate his chosen model.”17 And as April Alliston argues of quixotes, “having introjected their own romance ideal of a character, they violently project that ideal onto the quotidian world around them, trying to force others to act out their fantasy.”18 Being in a position of social disadvantage in relation to her male suitors, Arabella affects their behavior and exercises considerable agency through her ability to inspire imitation. Though Glanville refuses to read the romance novels that Arabella recommends to him and believes that Arabella is “governed by . . . antiquated Maxims,” he nonetheless remains “resolved to accommodate himself, as much as possible, to her Taste, and endeavor[s] to gain her Heart by a Behavior most agreeable to her” (45–46). Glanville’s rationale for this devotion, which overtakes his sound reasoning that Arabella is reading more into the situation than is there in reality, is both because he is “passionately in Love with her” and because he admires the “Wit and Delicacy” with which she makes her romantic pronouncements (45–46).
Glanville’s admiration of Arabella’s “Wit and Delicacy” suggests that Arabella indeed possesses a particular set of qualities—her attitude, her intellect, her care and adeptness with words—that makes her capable of inspiring the imitation of her suitors. His love for her, which he professes quite early in the novel, not long after he first becomes acquainted with her, is highly romanticized; he develops passionate love based on a series of trivial interactions with Arabella that adhere to the romantic modes of courtship that Arabella prefers. As her interactions with Glanville suggest, Arabella’s source of power over those otherwise more powerful than her is indeed not simply her romantic idealism but her mimetic appeal.
However, in the situations in which Arabella’s mimetic appeal operates alongside the influence of Arabella’s social advantage, not in the context of her femininity but in the context of her wealth and status—in other words, in those situations in which Arabella interacts with Lucy, a woman of lower social standing—mimesis is not merely a function of Arabella’s appeal but also of her authority. Arabella’s projection of her quixotic ideal onto Lucy is indeed a terrifying practice. Though at times Lucy’s alacrity in delivering Arabella’s letters or inquiring after Arabella’s affairs bespeaks a form of emotional or at least fanciful investment in Arabella’s romantic saga, a tendency to become swayed by Arabella’s mimetic appeal, readers are often privy to Lucy’s stated fear of upsetting her mistress, her frequent acquiescence on account of this fear, and her occasional questioning of her mistress’s motives while simultaneously carrying out her mimetic tasks. While Glanville acquiesces to Arabella’s romantic models, even while questioning them, primarily because he is in love with her, Lucy acquiesces in large part because of the gravity of Arabella’s reproachfulness and haphazard behavior, being in a social position in which, unlike Glanville when he has had enough, the decision to quit Arabella’s company and simply walk out of the house might have realistically meant walking out of her job as well. Though the servant market in mid-eighteenth-century Britain was such that demand for domestic labor was high, and servants could realistically leave a household and find a new contract with another family with relative ease, rural domestics like Lucy would have had fewer prospects than urban servants in London, which Daniel Defoe glibly called a “paradise for Servants.”19 Further, as Kristina Straub has shown, the complex status of the eighteenth-century servant as both employee and intimate part of the family would have put a servant like Lucy in a difficult position with respect to demands like Arabella’s.20
Arabella demands that Lucy partake of her romantic fantasies from the very beginning of the novel, when Arabella has her first encounter with a suitor from London, Mr. Hervey. Arabella orders Lucy not to accept correspondence from Mr. Hervey, at the same time expecting that Lucy will deliver some news of the London gentleman’s interest. Arabella’s unpredictable behavior—her charges to refuse correspondence from Mr. Hervey, then her constant expectation that Lucy indulge her desire and bring Mr. Hervey’s letters anyway—is the novel’s first occasion for verbal abuse. When Lucy reports that Mr. Hervey kissed his own letter to Arabella that Lucy returned to him, thinking it Arabella’s reply, Arabella erupts: “Foolish Wench! . . . How can you imagine he had the Temerity to think I should answer his Letter?” (14). As the situation escalates and Arabella imagines that a woeful Mr. Hervey might attempt suicide after having been deprived of a response letter from his inamorata, Lucy finds herself both confused and compelled by the possibility: “Lucy now began to think there was something more, than she imagined, in this Affair. Mr. Hervey indeed, in her Opinion, had seemed to be very far from having any Design to attempt his own Life; but her Lady, she thought, could not possibly be mistaken” (15).
These brief intimations of Lucy’s reasoning, reminiscent of Sancho Panza’s tentative protests when Don Quixote sees giants for windmills or advancing armies for shepherds, abound in Lennox’s novel and provide considerable insight into the complexity of Lucy’s position relative to her mistress. On one hand, Lucy relies to an extent on her own judgment and rightly apprehends a disparity between her own rational, if uncertain, perceptions and Arabella’s far-fetched yet gravely asserted suppositions. On the other, despite the accuracy of her own judgment, Lucy concludes that “her Lady . . . could not possibly be mistaken” (15). Lucy reaches a similar conclusion later in the novel when Arabella suspects that the gardener, Edward, might be a gentleman of high quality in disguise. When Arabella shares these thoughts with Lucy, Lucy replies: “Truly, Madam . . . I never took him for any body else but a simple Gardener; but now you open my Eyes, methinks I can find I have been strangely mistaken” (24). At these important junctures, after having been harshly reprimanded for relying on her own (accurate) judgments already, Lucy is compelled to partake of Arabella’s fantasies not just because of Arabella’s dramatization and mimetic appeal but also because Arabella, doubly aristocratic-minded as a landed heiress and imitator of high-bred French heroines, is in the social position to mandate fantasy in place of material reality. Like Sancho’s opportunistic suspension of disbelief, practiced in the hope of obtaining islands, riches, or a new and more adventurous life from Don Quixote’s pursuits and conquests, Lucy tries to adopt Arabella’s way of seeing things to avoid rebuke and participate as best she can in quixotic adventure. By the force of Arabella’s passionate mandate, Lucy is entered into a mimetic world in which her actions, emotions, and beliefs come to either mirror or stand in for those of her mistress. Lucy neither understands nor benefits from Arabella’s exceptionalist reasoning.
We can observe this at the height of Mr. Hervey’s courtship, when Arabella decides to write him a letter to pardon him from his supposed, self-inflicted death sentence. Only instead of writing the letter herself, or even having Lucy take dictations in her mistress’s name, Arabella hands Lucy a handwritten note and makes Lucy copy it. The result is a letter from Lucy, addressed to “the unfortunate Lover of her Lady.” Lucy’s letter begins, “My Lady, who is the most generous Person in the World, has commanded me to tell you . . .” and proceeds with Lucy—not Arabella—at the center of Arabella’s fantasy, standing in for her mistress as the speaking subject of Arabella’s letters (16).
The mimetic joining of Arabella and Lucy—the voicing of Arabella’s words in Lucy’s name and the casting of Lucy’s actions in Arabella’s name—binds Lucy to the consequences of Arabella’s whimsy, but without the degree of agency that Arabella deploys in creating and perpetuating her fantasies. After Arabella’s behavior leads Mr. Hervey to lose interest in her and retreat back to London, it is Lucy who stands in for her mistress to assume the blame. Mr. Hervey, “not acquainted with Lady Bella’s Foible . . . concluded her Fears of him were occasioned by her Simplicity, and some Misrepresentations that had been made her by Lucy, who, he thought, had betrayed him” (21). In the end, Arabella is presumed innocent in her alleged rural simplicity, and Lucy falls victim to her surrogate role in the ordeal.
In addition to Lucy’s mimicking Arabella’s words and actions, Lennox’s novel is littered with instances of Lucy (and other female servants) shadowing Arabella’s movements and mimicking Arabella’s thoughts and emotions. Lucy “always thought as her Lady did”; and when Arabella walked in the garden with Glanville, “Lucy, and another Attendant, always followed her” (26, 46). Perhaps the most pronounced of these examples comes when Arabella believes she is about to be abducted and elicits Lucy’s mirrored emotional response to the melodrama. When Lucy fails to show bravery in the face of her mistress’s imagined danger, Arabella excoriates her: “Weak-souled Wench! . . . How unfit art thou for Accidents like these! Ah! had Cylenia and Martesia been like thee, the fair Berenice, and the Divine Princess of Media, had not so eagerly intreated their Ravishers to afford them their Company in their Captivity!” (93).
Arabella’s allusion here to seventeenth-century romances, in which female attendants were themselves of aristocratic birth, raises yet another mimetic issue. Through Arabella’s mimicking of romantic conventions and simultaneous insistence on differentiating herself and the noble-born attendants of seventeenth-century romances from the lower-born Lucy, she demonstrates the perceived trouble—in Gillian Brown’s terms, the quixotic fallacy—of taking romance for reality.21 Lucy, an undereducated servant, always fails to be the aristocratic attendant of seventeenth-century romances, though Arabella insists on the paradox of Lucy being both at once. If romance is itself a mimetic genre, capable of inspiring imitation (courtly behavior, abduction scenes, complicity between lady and lady-attendants)—and Lennox was clearly addressing this possibility—then Lucy must grapple with a double and self-contradictory mimetic imperative: play the surrogate mistress and the aristocratic lady-attendant at the same time, in fulfilment of her responsibility as a servant and her mimetic attraction to Arabella’s fantasies.
Still fearing the “ravishers” and drawing Lucy into her dire fiction, Arabella charges her servant to suffer the consequences of her own imagination. Lucy, mimicking Arabella’s fear and moving in close to Arabella, becomes Arabella’s unfortunate double, in accordance with Don Quixote’s pronouncement, “quando caput dolet” (2.2.499).22 When the two women decide to escape the room, head through the garden, and set out for refuge at Lucy’s brother’s farm, Lennox’s use of pronouns makes it particularly difficult to follow which woman is Arabella and which is Lucy: “Lucy, upon whose Arm she leaned, perceiving her fainting, screamed out loud, not knowing what to do with her in that Condition: She placed her upon the Ground; and, supporting her Head against that fatal Stump, began to rub her Temples, weeping excessively all the time. Her Swoon still continuing, the poor Girl was in inconceivable Terror: Her Brother’s House was now but a little Way off” (95). These mimetic vignettes effectively bring Arabella and Lucy ever closer and ever less distinguishable from one another in descriptions of Arabella’s imaginative world; however, the crucial authority distinction remains: whereas Lucy is pulled into her mistress’s fantasies to bear the harsh consequences with little power or awareness to opt out of them, Arabella is the sovereign impetus for their escapades. And, just as Arabella brings about these escapades, she too assumes the power to end them, as she does at the novel’s end when she admits to the folly of her quixotic behavior.
Arabella experiences at the end of the novel “violent” emotions of shame and regret for her behavior, behavior that, notably, Lennox is careful not to vindicate (383). Arabella apologizes to Sir George and gives herself over to Glanville for marriage with an air of humility that would seem to betray her independence, and likewise her prior desire “to live single, not being desirous of entering into any Engagement which may hinder [her] Solicitude of Cares” (41). Nevertheless, in the mimetic circle of exchange between Arabella and Lucy, Arabella is in the end enlightened, redeemed, and married, while Lucy disappears, as servants do, quietly into the background.
After observing how Lucy is abused, ridiculed, terrorized, and blamed during the course of her mimetic role-playing in Arabella’s fantasies, we can see more clearly how mimesis can take unfortunate turns in Lennox’s text. Playing the part of the incredulous Sancho Panza willfully laying aside his doubts to follow his Quixote into a costly skirmish, Lucy seeks Arabella’s approval and kind treatment by modifying her own thoughts and behavior to mirror those of her mistress. Arabella continually responds with demands and derision, reaffirming her superiority according to the servant-mistress relationships in her romances. In this sense, the relationship between Lucy and Arabella is one of constant, self-perpetuating struggle—Lucy’s struggle to ingratiate herself by mimicking Arabella, and Arabella’s struggle to differentiate herself by rebuking Lucy. The struggle comes to an end by relegating Lucy to the background.
Lennox’s novel restores Arabella by its end, and in so doing affirms a number of its core principles (most notably the virtue of reason) while complicating others (the virtues of female independence and imagination). However, Lucy, who played an instrumental role in Arabella’s imaginative affairs, remains a vestige of all that Arabella cast off.23 Between Arabella and Lucy—two subjects in mimetic struggle—the former is the face of redemption in the text, while the sacrifice of the latter accompanies an abandoned sensibility, perhaps even the abandonment of Arabella’s imaginative independence. Because Lucy—Arabella’s double and the primary instrument of Arabella’s imaginative affairs—is abandoned in this way, Arabella can be restored. Despite Lucy’s prominent role in Arabella’s fantasies, we do not expect Lucy—a servant, a dispensable double—to be redeemed alongside her mistress.
Like The Female Quixote, Tenney’s Female Quixotism features a relationship between its quixote, Dorcasina, and her servant, Betty, which is heavily defined by mimetic acts. These mimetic acts are a function of Dorcasina’s exceptionalism, her ability to treat Betty at once as a friend and a subordinate, an educated quixote on her level and a buffoon who fails to make sense of quixotism. Betty’s forced mimetic behavior is at times very similar to that of Arabella’s Lucy; however, the nature of Betty and Dorcasina’s relationship produces for the most part a different read on mimesis, one in which Betty does not always mimic Dorcasina but sometimes is made to mimic for Dorcasina. This difference is predicated on Betty’s rather explicit objection to her lady’s behavior and her consequent refusal to consent to that behavior through mimicry. But as the novel develops and Dorcasina’s fantastic indulgence intensifies, it is ultimately Dorcasina’s influence over her servant that obviates Betty’s initial withholding of consent and compels Betty into mimetic participation.
Whereas Lucy rarely voices dissent to her mistress out of both a fear of admonishment and a tendency to become emotionally absorbed in her mistress’s affairs, even in those cases in which the narration tells us that Lucy is skeptical, Betty initially takes considerable liberty with Dorcasina in letting Dorcasina know when her words or actions sound or appear ridiculous. Tenney indicates at the beginning of her novel that Dorcasina has the capacity to view Betty as a companion as much as a servant. We are told that Dorcasina considers Betty “indispensable; for it would be entirely out of character, and setting aside a most essential circumstance in the life of a heroine, not to have had either a friend to whom she could confide the secret of her love, or a maid who could be bribed by an enamorato, to place a letter in her way, and then confidentially assert that she knew not from whence it came.”24 The duality of this servant-friend relationship, the “friend” component ostensibly more pronounced at the beginning of Tenney’s novel than in all of Lennox’s, greatly informs the nature of Betty’s subjection.25
Because Betty protests throughout Dorcasina’s episodes, we get at times a more vivid, realist sense of Betty’s confusion over Dorcasina’s exceptionalism than we do of Lucy’s confusion over Arabella’s. Dorcasina’s treatment of Betty serves as a reasonably accurate gauge of the extremity of Dorcasina’s immersion in fantasy, and the progression of this immersion sets up a series of cruel and violent mimetic acts. As Dorcasina becomes increasingly consumed by her fantasies, she becomes decreasingly tolerant of Betty. When Dorcasina is overcome with anxiety over the news that Lysander, a slave-owning gentleman from Virginia, will be visiting her estate and will have the opportunity to be her first suitor, her first scruple over their prospective marriage is his possession of slaves. As Dorcasina troubles herself over how she might persuade Lysander to free his slaves, Betty provides an immediate reality check: “ ’Tis pity you should make yourself so uneasy beforehand; perhaps you and the young gentleman won’t fall so violently in love with each other as you imagine; and perhaps you will never become his wife” (9). We can imagine how offensive Betty’s blunt wisdom might be to a quixote; but, while Dorcasina is dismissive of these words, she is not at this point derisive toward her servant.
Similarly, when Dorcasina first expresses her love and admiration for her next romantic object, O’Connor—a fraud and convicted criminal who tries to con Dorcasina into marrying him in the hope of taking possession of her valuable estate—Betty immediately sees through the con and lets Dorcasina know what she thinks:
“Well, my mind of him,” said Betty, “is, that he is a bold, impudent fellor, to go for to talking about love the first time he seed you; and as he has been walking in the grove for some days, I suspects that he is after no good, and that he is no better than he should be. As to what you say of his warm manner, compared with Lysander’s, you never heard him talk of love, he only writ you a letter; perhaps his talk about it would have been as lively as this forward fellor’s, who nobody knows.” (28)
Betty gives Dorcasina innumerable warnings about O’Connor, but as Dorcasina’s infatuation intensifies, Betty’s protests are met with condescension, ridicule, and outright coercion. In spite of her reasonable appeals, aimed at protecting Dorcasina from a series of pranksters and con men with designs on her wealth, Betty descends into a passive role in Dorcasina’s adventures. After she witnesses Dorcasina make several clandestine appointments with the unknown and untrustworthy O’Connor, Betty remonstrates with her mistress, accusing her of drawing her romanticized image of O’Connor from books rather than reality. When Betty continues her protests, noting that real people “don’t so easily die of love,” Dorcasina, piqued by the amorous possibilities on the horizon and deluded about O’Connor’s background and integrity, delivers a telling line: “Those are the ideas, Betty, of vulgar minds; they know nothing of that pure, refined passion, which, absorbing every faculty of the soul, swallows up all concern except for the beloved object” (33).
As quixotes do, Dorcasina mistakes her delusional “passion” for love, which indeed “swallows up all concern” for those around her. Betty slinks off after these words “in silent dejection” and under the impression that she offended Dorcasina “by the liberty she had taken” in communicating her doubts about O’Connor (33–34). This is the most prominent indication we get early on in Tenney’s novel that Betty feels she has crossed the line with her mistress and forced her onto the defensive. Shortly thereafter, Dorcasina forbids Betty from partaking of “such infamous fabrications” about O’Connor, who is now under scrutiny from Dorcasina’s father and other members of the village. From this point onward, Betty is inclined to keep most of her protests to herself, thus “effectually checked” by her mistress, and Dorcasina is engrossed in her relationship with O’Connor to the extent that material proof of his fraudulence bears no effect on her judgment (50). Dorcasina’s detachment from the physical world around her, coupled with her swelling tendency to relegate Betty from friend-servant to utilitarian object, sets the stage for the novel’s two central acts of mimesis.
After Dorcasina’s father catches O’Connor in his daughter’s bedchamber and drives him out of town, Dorcasina endeavors to bring to life her fond memories of their romantic trysts in the grove. Toward this end, she approaches Betty for a favor: “Well, then, Betty, you must know I have taken a fancy to dress myself in the arbour, as I did then; and to have you dress yourself in a suit of my father’s clothes, and then come to personate O’Connor.” Betty does protest her mistress’s request this time, but Dorcasina successfully goads her into compliance. While suiting up in the mirror, Betty “was ready to die with shame and vexation, at the ridiculous figure she made” (97–98).
Betty has gone from cautionary friend-servant in the nascence of Dorcasina’s flights of imagination to Lucy-like accomplice; and she suffers the consequences of this role more explicitly than does Lucy as Arabella’s instrument of fantasy. After Dorcasina herself ridicules Betty for her inability to mimic O’Connor’s smooth talk, the other servants on the estate spot her with Dorcasina in men’s clothing. Thinking Betty a thief, they form a mob and approach her, only to find out that their thief is, inexplicably, Dorcasina’s maid dressed as a man. The group of servants bursts out in raucous laughter, while Betty, “the mortified object of their mirth, sinking with shame and vexation, endeavored to conceal herself from their view, by skulking behind her mistress” (99).
Betty’s forced mimesis in this case results in emotional duress at the behest of her mistress. In another instance, Betty suffers physical violence as a surrogate Dorcasina when another villain, Philander, mistakes Betty for Dorcasina and beats her. As Betty recounts the experience: “I was thump’d, and cuff’d, and bounc’d, and shook, and twirl’d, and had my clothes stripp’d off, and tore to tatters, as if I had been nothing at all. Besides, what I shall not soon forget, in a grum and angry voice, that was no woman’s, he call’d me old and ugly” (116). As when Sancho assumes Quixote’s knightly prerogative of refusing to pay his bill at the inn, then is captured and tossed in a blanket for his transgression, Betty experiences role-playing for her mistress as a traumatic event, even as we read such scenes, rightly, as comic instalments (1.17.135). As Sancho confusedly recounts to Quixote, “It isn’t a good idea to go tempting God by taking on such a tremendous feat that you can only get out of alive by some miracle—you ought to be content with the ones that heaven worked on you when it stopped you from being tossed in a blanket, as I was, and when it brought you out safe, sound and victorious from among all those enemies that were riding with that corpse” (1.20.155).
Cathy Davidson has argued that Dorcasina “is victimized by both her own delusions and by men who calculatingly exploit those delusions.”26 Certainly Dorcasina, like her British counterpart Arabella, plays victim to an array of ill circumstances and deficient judgments. But, also like Arabella, she manages to avoid many of the material consequences of her actions. Dorcasina’s socioeconomic advantage and mimetic appeal enable her to burden her servant with tasks that indulge her whims, and likewise to put her servant in harm’s way in place of herself. Tenney’s novel displaces onto Betty the majority of Dorcasina’s romantic fallout. Gillian Brown picks up on this: “As the unwilling participant in Dorcasina’s Quixotism, Betty very personally feels the difference between Dorcasina’s perspective of life and the circumstances of life that they actually inhabit. Thus Tenney shows how imaginative activities, far from being merely frivolous or inconsequential, require real exertions and produce material effects. Dorcasina’s pleasure proceeds at the cost of Betty’s pains. . . . Betty serves as the surrogate for the sufferings to which Dorcasina could be subjected.”27
In Female Quixotism Betty pays the price for Dorcasina’s decisions through two kinds of mimetic struggle. In the first instance, Dorcasina and the other servants ridicule Betty because her mimetic attempt is ridiculous, and ridiculously unconvincing. Unfortunately enough, Betty is made to stand in for one of the novel’s major villains; and beyond this, her attempt at mimicking O’Connor in the grove is (understandably) poor. Betty is sacrificed as Dorcasina’s surrogate quite straightforwardly when she faces the brunt of the ridicule for dressing up as O’Connor, despite that the absurd idea to do so was Dorcasina’s, but she is also sacrificed as O’Connor’s double, as the sole remnant of the departed villain. For all of O’Connor’s misdeeds—never mind Dorcasina’s—it is only Betty who suffers punishment, literally, in O’Connor’s name.
In the second instance, Betty again stands in for Dorcasina when she suffers physical assault at the hands of Philander. In the act of sustaining Philander’s attack in place of Dorcasina, Betty forestalls any potential harm done to Dorcasina—harm that could register as a major violation of the novel’s class equilibrium. As Brown suggests, “Because her mistress believes these events to be part of a familiar and cherished narrative, and because Philander carefully respects Dorcasina’s actual status as an upper-class woman throughout his prank, Dorcasina is immune to the emotions and pains that Betty suffers.”28 Betty standing in for Dorcasina while being attacked by Philander prevents the greater evil of Philander transgressing the novel’s class parameters by assaulting Dorcasina. Betty, then, functions as a preventative surrogate.
Here it is important to understand that Dorcasina’s exceptionalism is what brings about Betty’s plight. Betty finds Dorcasina compelling—even when Betty’s better judgment indicates otherwise—because Dorcasina can simultaneously bring Betty in as a confidante, enchanting her with high romance while admonishing her lack of understanding. This form of domestic exceptionalism—having it both ways when it comes to the quixote’s expectations of her maid—regulates Arabella’s Lucy and Dorcasina’s Betty from two ends simultaneously: they are intrigued, compelled, and flattered on one end, and ordered, shamed, and ridiculed on the other.
Domestic exceptionalism raises two relatedly underexplored questions. First, how does the representation of class distinction in these novels compare with the realities of class or rank in eighteenth-century Britain and the early US? Second, how might this comparison reframe the critical conversation such that we can understand class (alongside gender) as a competing sphere of ethical concern in these novels, deserving of critical attention?
In The Female Quixote, Lucy’s subordination is restorative: the elision of Lucy, the primary instrument of Arabella’s regrettable past, allows Arabella to disavow her quixotism and marry Glanville without any remaining traces of her foible. In Female Quixotism, however, Betty’s subordination is preventative: Betty’s standing in for Dorcasina in the novel’s most violent and raucous scenes forestalls any transgression of class protocol, or any infringement upon or contamination of Dorcasina’s privilege of imitated, faux-aristocratic aloofness. Lucy helps to enable a relatively comical series of events, then fades into the background while Arabella’s restoration furnishes the romance-like happy ending that one might expect of an eighteenth-century British quixotic narrative. Betty, by contrast, undergoes blatant assault and still appears by her mistress’s side at the novel’s end as the unfortunate foil for Dorcasina’s socioeconomic advantage, a silent participant in Dorcasina’s tragic solitude. If Lennox ties The Female Quixote nicely together in the mode of the British quixotic narrative, and in so doing partially compromises her critique of romantic idealism and its pitfalls, Tenney’s Female Quixotism is a cautionary tale of the highest order, casting its quixote in its final pages as a pitiable spinster rather than a happy penitent.29
Davidson has described Female Quixotism’s disheartening conclusion as reflective of a “hard core of realism” particularly suitable for the world of the early US frontier and its readers, a realism that is perhaps distinguishable from The Female Quixote’s measured burlesquing and clean ending, both apropos of a British readership who were less concerned with the uncertainties of frontier life.30 Sarah Wood concurs, noting that while the romance-reading women of British literature often inhabited comic texts raising laughter on their way toward a happy end, their US “counterparts were more frequently the tragic figures of cautionary tales, fallen women facing ridicule, ruin, and even death.”31 Missing from this dichotomy, however, is an explanation of what Lennox’s and Tenney’s prominent representations of servant-mistress interaction suggest about these differing British and US landscapes, and how class or class-like power dynamics in these novels tell a very different story than that of the “hard core” of the US frontier versus the British “happy ending.” In other words, though reading The Female Quixote and Female Quixotism primarily through the lens of quixotic protagonist has engendered a critical affirmation of national difference in the comparative study of these novels, a reading of these novels from the perspectives of their female servants produces a counterintuitive conclusion: on account of domestic exceptionalism, both class and socioeconomic advantage are actually represented quite similarly in both texts.
Though The Female Quixote plausibly characterizes Arabella and her family as landed, aristocratic types, Arabella’s quixotic romanticism and thorough education add elements to her social advantage over Lucy for which class or rank per se do not fully account. As I have shown, a significant component of Lucy’s confusion in The Female Quixote is the peculiar literacy gap that renders Arabella capable of reading romances imaginatively, but Lucy incapable of “reading” Arabella’s behavior as a product of overreading. Lucy respects Arabella’s authority as a compelling, articulate, and impassioned reader of romance even as Lucy knows better. Curiously, Lennox emphasizes Lucy’s inability to mimic adeptly or to meet Arabella’s expectations that she be familiar with and conduct herself according to the conventions in Arabella’s romances; however, this would seem out of step with wider eighteenth-century assumptions that romances were precisely the kind of “low” material in which morally misguided servant girls were inclined to indulge.
As Lori Newcomb illustrates, the critical study of female domestic reading habits has focused unduly on the “primal scene” of consumption in which “a lower-class woman, rapt with misdirected erotic desire, reads an indulgent text, unaware of the mocking but riveted men who have summoned her up.”32 The prospect that female domestics like Lucy would have been functionally literate and familiar with romances was, according to Newcomb, “economically possible, sociologically likely, and ideologically meaningful.”33 However, in The Female Quixote, it is the aristocratic Arabella, not Lucy, who occupies the “primal scene” of reading out of one’s depth. Lennox’s collapsing of the stereotypical servant-reader and the aristocratic quixotic-reader into mimetic doubles effectively critiques the widely represented, elitist narrative of the insolent servant girl reading rubbish, but in the service of empowering Arabella, not Lucy. If, as Newcomb argues, the scene of the servant-reader “masks elite fears that the romance of service may tell her something all too true: that service is founded on an arbitrary system of social assignment,” then the “arbitrary system of social assignment” that The Female Quixote critiques through Arabella’s fanciful reading is not Lucy’s domestic servitude, but the patriarchal norms that encumber Arabella.34 Though the historical reality of eighteenth-century Britain would suggest that a literate Lucy would have been familiar with romance reading and might have stood something to gain by the imaginative reading of romance, The Female Quixote rather explicitly confers the liberating potential of romance reading to Arabella, not to her servant. This reaffirms Lucy’s role in the narrative as a subordinated figure, one whose potential for liberation is sacrificed in the narrative for the purpose of restoring her mistress to an acceptable degree of compliance with aristocratic norms and expectations. In this way The Female Quixote avoids a critique of arbitrary socioeconomic injustice or antiquated class roles while launching a critique of arbitrarily limited gender roles.
We can observe a comparable affirmation of socioeconomic norms in Female Quixotism, though Tenney presents perhaps a more ambivalent picture of domestic servitude in Betty. Despite Betty’s outwardly American characteristics, the servant-mistress relationship in Tenney’s novel suggests that, at least in terms of its portrayal of socioeconomic status, Female Quixotism is not as distinctly American as critics have suggested. Most prominently, Dorcasina is a faithful imitator of British aristocratic attitudes and behavior, even though such attitudes and behavior are woefully incompatible with US frontier life. Dorcasina’s imitation of aristocratic norms compels Betty, an outspoken servant character ostensibly modeled on the US domestic servant, to take on roles and characteristics that often appear as much European as American. As we would expect from servants in the US but less so in Britain, for example, Betty is boldly critical and sarcastic toward Dorcasina. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich points out, “European visitors commented frequently on the lack of deference shown by American servants,” and early US diaries contain numerous instances of what Ulrich characterizes as maids’ sarcastic responses to their mistresses.35
Among the servants on Dorcasina’s family estate, Betty is the isolated object of ridicule, an outsider; yet beside Dorcasina, as though part of a British household or a French romance, she is an intimate (if unfortunate) part of her employer’s domestic and amatory affairs. Tenney portrays Betty as an uneducated servant who speaks in the “low” vernacular of the US frontier laborer and is regarded as too naïve, too unrefined, and sometimes too insolent to understand and communicate on Dorcasina’s quixotic wavelength. Yet Betty is also typically, if unflatteringly, described in the novel as “good-hearted,” “honest,” and “possessed of a tolerably good natural understanding; but very ignorant and extremely superstitious,” a description that comports with British elites’ stereotype of the good-natured but readily corruptible servant girl (8). While Betty possesses some characteristics typical of the early US domestic servant, she is also, along with Dorcasina, a projection of British and wider European sensibilities, Americanized on the surface in attitude and dialect but fundamentally adherent to the servant-confidante model that Arabella acquires from French romances and Dorcasina absorbs from British amatory fiction.
Beyond its preservation of European sensibilities in Betty’s servant role, Female Quixotism also preserves Dorcasina’s pretensions to European-style aristocracy. Though Dorcasina’s quixotic errors do not go unpunished by the end of Tenney’s novel, the faux-aristocratic class position that Dorcasina assumes remains protected, even as she renounces her quixotism. Davidson notes that Dorcasina “almost triumphantly . . . takes control of her life and of the final words of the text,” which are expressed in a letter that “announces she will spend the rest of her days in assisting others less fortunate than herself, in sewing, and in reading novels.”36 Absent from this reading is the caveat that, far from assisting the likes of Betty, Dorcasina’s charities are aimed not merely at “those less fortunate” but also at those “who, by misfortunes, and without any blameable misconduct of their own, have been reduced from opulent or easy circumstances to indigence” (324). In other words, Dorcasina invests charitably only in the formerly rich, a curious detail that demonstrates not only her intent to counteract any kind of US social mobility for which the opulent are “reduced . . . to indigence” but also her insistence on maintaining, after her conversion from quixotism, an aristocratic class affinity that registers as European, not American. As in The Female Quixote, the potential for liberation that Betty might have gained from having Dorcasina’s assistance in reading novels is reserved for the socioeconomic elite.
Through the mimetic relationship between Dorcasina and Betty, which compels the latter to adopt the adopted class preferences of the former, we can see more clearly how Female Quixotism largely preserves a simplified European model of socioeconomic distinction, even if such a model was incommensurable with the reality (or ambiguity) of class in the early US. Betty’s subjection—in which Betty stands in for her mistress in situations in which violent or uncouth behavior might otherwise rupture Dorcasina’s fantasy of aristocratic living—allows for a comic critique of romantic ideals from British novels that were potentially incompatible with US frontier life, but simultaneously prevents the narrative from violating or condemning the borrowed socioeconomic elements of British amatory fiction. This sympathetic borrowing holds, even, for the class sensibilities that Female Quixotism borrows from The Female Quixote, itself a novel that also parodies aspects of British amatory fiction but avoids socioeconomic critique.
In one sense this is unsurprising, since both of these female quixote narratives, like Cervantes’s original and its countless other progeny, are fundamentally based on the fraught importation and misreading of the customs of foreign times and places. In another, however, the fact that the comic (or tragic) sacrificing of servant characters carries over with such consistency in transnational rewritings of the quixote story, while other aspects of the narrative ultimately change when written for new national audiences, tells us something important about both The Female Quixote and Female Quixotism, and about quixotic narratives more generally. The preservation of socioeconomic norms though the quixote-servant relationship in quixotic narratives from Cervantes to Lennox to Tenney contradicts one of the dominant theses of quixote studies: the idea that, as Thomas Scanlan has so succinctly put it, “Don Quixote fails to provide ideological or some other sort of intellectual consistency to the text in which it appears.”37 Contrarily, as servant-mistress relationships in The Female Quixote and Female Quixotism demonstrate, the eighteenth-century quixotic narrative had a remarkable ability to preserve traditional class conceptions and socioeconomic power dynamics, even as it was reconfigured in its travels across time, oceans, and national borders to address or unsettle a great plurality of other ethical and political concerns.
What we learn from the success with which Tenney’s Female Quixotism imports the class structure and concerns of Lennox’s The Female Quixote—even as early US class systems were very different in practice—is that the exceptionalism of quixotes could also comment on and unsettle early forms of US exceptionalism. Circulated within a Revolution-era US society that saw itself as more liberated than Britain in its class structures—particularly in terms of how servants understood their roles and relationships to the families that employed them—Female Quixotism reached back to British literary and political models to suggest that preservation of socioeconomic rank was important for stability on the frontier. Whereas civic exceptionalist texts like Modern Chivalry and The Algerine Captive (in its opening parts set in the US) reflected a desire for civic stability, Female Quixotism suggests that stability of socioeconomic rank is consequential not just for Dorcasina’s love life but also for the safety and civic well-being of her surrounding society.