Ik wil echt niet op de kap van die brave professor Schrickx zitten, maar vandaag kom ik alweer een schrijfster tegen, waarover nooit met een woord sprake was in zijn lessen. Het betreft Charlotte Lennox, die vandaag precies 215 jaar geleden is overleden. Zij is vooral bekend van “The Female Quixote” (1752). Op bovenstaand schilderij van Richard Samuel staat ze rechts boven (met in haar hand een “citer” zegt de Engelse tekst, maar wij zouden eerder van een “luit” spreken) samen met andere leden van “The Bluestockings” (*).
Charlotte Lennox was born as Charlotte Ramsay in Gibraltar. Her father, James Ramsay of Dalhousie, was a Scottish captain in the Royal Navy, and her mother Catherine, née Tisdall, was Scottish and Irish. She was baptised Barbara Charlotte Ramsay. Very little direct information on her pre-public life is available, but biographers have extrapolated from her first novel elements that seem semi-autobiographical. Charlotte and her family moved to New York in 1738; where her father was lieutenant-governor – he died in 1742, but she and her mother remained in New York for a few years. At the age of fifteen she accepted a position as companion to the widow Mary Luckyn in London, but upon her arrival she discovered that her future employer had apparently become “deranged” after the death of her son. As the position was no longer available, Charlotte then became companion to Lady Isabella Finch.
Lennox’s first volume of poetry was entitled “Poems on Several Occasions”, dedicated to Lady Isabella in 1747. She was preparing herself for a position at court, but this was forestalled by her marriage to Alexander Lennox, “an indigenous and shiftless Scot”. His only known employment was in the customs office from 1773 to 1782, and this was reported to be as a benefice of the Duke of Newcastle as a reward for his wife. He also claimed to be the proper heir to the Earl of Lennox in 1768, but the House of Lords rejected his claims on the basis of bastardry, or his “birth misfortunes”, as Charlotte tactfully described them.
After her marriage, Lennox turned her attention to acting, but without much success. Horace Walpole described a performance at Richmond in 1748 as “deplorable”. She did, though, receive a benefit night at the Haymarket Theatre in a production of “The Mourning Bride” in 1750. That year she also published her most successful poem, “The Art of Coquetry” in Gentleman’s Magazine. She met Samuel Johnson around this time, and he held her in very high regard. When her first novel, “The Life of Harriot Stuart, Written by Herself”, appeared, Johnson threw a lavish party for Lennox. He ensured that Lennox was introduced to important members of the London literary scene.
However, the women of Johnson’s circle were not fond of Lennox, either for her housekeeping, her ostensibly unpleasant personality, or her bad temper. They regarded her specifically as unladylike and an incendiary.
However, Samuel Richardson and Samuel Johnson both reviewed and helped out with Lennox’s second and most successful novel, “The Female Quixote, or, The Adventures of Arabella”, and Henry Fielding praised the novel in his Covent Garden Journal. “The Female Quixote” was quite popular. It was translated into German, French and Spanish. The novel formally inverts Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”: as the don mistakes himself for the knightly hero of a romance, so Arabella mistakes herself for the maiden love of a romance. While the don thinks it his duty to praise the Platonically pure damsels he meets, so Arabella believes it is in her power to kill with a look and it is the duty of her lovers to suffer ordeals on her behalf.
“The Female Quixote” was officially anonymous, but the anonymity was an open secret, though, as her other works were advertised as, by “the author of The Female Quixote”.
Learning several languages, Charlotte Lennox took an interest in the sources for William Shakespeare’s plays. In this work (“Shakespear Illustrated”) – seen by many scholars as the first feminist work of literary criticism – Lennox discusses Shakespeare’s sources extensively, and she is especially attentive to the romance tradition on which Shakespeare drew. Her central critique is that his plays strip female characters of their original authority, “taking from them the power and the moral independence which the old romances and novels had given them.” Though Johnson’s patronage protected her reputation in print, the literary world took its revenge upon the presentation of her play, “The Sister”, based on her third novel, “Henrietta”. Several groups of attendees concerted to boo the play off the stage on its opening night, though it went on to several editions in print.
Her third novel, Henrietta, appeared in 1758 and sold well, but did not bring her any money. From 1760 to 1761 she wrote for the periodical “The Lady’s Museum” material that would eventually comprise her 1762 novel “Sophia”. David Garrick produced her “Old City Manners” at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1775 (an adaptation of Ben Jonson’s “Eastward Ho”). Finally, in 1790, she published “Euphemia”, her last novel, with little success, as the public’s interest in novels of romance seemed to have waned. “Euphemia” is an epistolary novel set in New York State before the American Revolution.
Lennox had two children who survived infancy. She was estranged from her husband for many years, and the couple finally separated in 1793. Charlotte subsequently lived in “solitary penury” for the rest of her life, entirely reliant on the support of the Literary Fund. She died on 4 January 1804 in London and was buried in an unmarked grave at Broad Court Cemetery. [Wikipedia]
(*) A bluestocking is an educated, intellectual woman, originally a member of the 18th-century Blue Stockings Society led by the hostess and critic Elizabeth Montagu (1720–1800), the “Queen of the Blues”. Until the late 18th century, the term had referred to learned people of both sexes. It was later applied primarily to intellectual women. The term later developed negative implications and in some instances such women were stereotyped as being “frumpy” (slonzig). The reference to blue stockings may arise from the time when woollen worsted stockings were informal dress, in contrast to formal, fashionable black silk stockings.