Reading The Female Quixote feels very much like watching a farce. The plot moves quickly, building on one misunderstanding after another. The events are improbable yet, somehow, still believable. Lennox’s Arabella hilariously leads the cast of characters through a string of absurd situations. It is interesting to note, though, that much of this comedy relies on false assumptions based on class. Lucy and Arabella, to great comic effect, make incorrect judgments regarding social status and its implications.
Lucy incorrectly assumes that Arabella’s elevated social standing corresponds s to an elevated insight into human behavior. Upon Arabella’s first encounter with a potential admirer, she confides in Lucy, her “favourite Woman” (10). Though Lucy is common and uneducated, she possesses a greater measure of a common sense than her mistress does. While Arabella attributes every event to a secret romantic plot designed to gain her affections, Lucy’s mind naturally jumps to more probable explanations. However, Lucy’s veneration of Arabella as a lady causes her to hop on Arabella’s bandwagon and actively participate in her delusional adventures.
When Arabella returns Mr. Hervey’s letter, she assumes his devastation is inevitable, and she can’t imagine any other reaction than his immediate desire to kill himself. Lucy is doubtful, and reasonably so. However, she is persuaded by her mistress and writes a letter expressing Arabella’s command that Mr. Hervey live despite his broken heart. Lucy’s confidence in Arabella’s judgment is confirmed with the coincidence of Mr. Hervey’s headache. From this point on, when Lucy has trouble reconciling Arabella’s assumptions with probability and reason (as in the case of the heroic nobleman disguised as a gardener who steals carp), she puts her faith in Arabella’s superior reason. No matter the circumstance, Lucy “always thought as her Lady did” (26).
Many of the ridiculous events of the novel result directly from Arabella’s own misconceptions of social order. Since she has lived a secluded country life, she has no experience with society or class dynamics. Yet, she is intimately familiar with the outward signs of gentility described in her romances. When she meets men who are handsome, polite, and witty, she naturally assumes they are gentlemen, regardless of their position. At the races, she supposes the jockeys to be “Persons of Distinction” and gives one who pleases her more attention than a lady normally would give someone below her station, causing Miss Granville to point out that others might infer some sort of impropriety.
I cannot say with any confidence that Charlotte Lennox intended The Female Quixote to be a commentary on the 18th-century class structure. However, the bizarre and misguided assumptions that characters make based on class call into question some of the conventions of social order. Arabella’s status as a lady does nothing for her in the way of basic wisdom. Outward expressions of refinement lend little insight into a person’s character. So, if it does nothing else, this whimsical novel at least forces us as readers to evaluate the foundations of our judgments.