You know what happen when you assume things…

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.

The Adhesive Ingredient in Arabella and Charlotte Glanville’s Friendship

To offer some thoughts as to why Miss Glanville endures Arabella’s company despite thinking her ridiculous, in this week’s blog post I will focus on the relationship that emerges between Arabella and Charlotte Glanville in Books II and III.

Miss Glanville’s reaction to Arabella is mentioned right away: she is disappointed to see that her brother had not overstated Arabella’s beauty after all. Arabella does not hesitate to compliment Miss Glanville on her looks, which the narrator notes is “a sort of complaisance mightily in use among the heroines, who knew not what envy or emulation meant” – in other words, because Arabella is secure in her comeliness, and knows she has more of it than Charlotte does, she is magnanimous with her praise. Miss Glanville is doubly taken aback by Arabella’s elegance and gentility, and seemingly eager to latch onto some fault of Arabella’s that would make it easier to think less of her. Arabella gives her this ammunition by revealing the workings of her fanciful, unrealistic mind. At this point, it would seem as though Miss Glanville’s jealousy, coupled with the fact that she does not share Arabella’s views of the world, would prevent her from keeping company with her any further. Instead, Miss Glanville appears to be enjoying watching a train wreck, especially when she hears Arabella say that the Jockey at the Races had probably not entered because of her, nor was he inspired by her presence – as if something like that even needed to be stated! Miss Glanville seems not to appreciate Arabella’s intrusiveness when she asks to hear about her romantic adventures; indeed, they spar with every couple of sentences they utter to one another. Arabella, who is oblivious to how Miss Groves had been offended by her discovering all her secrets, is now experiencing essentially the same situation with Miss Glanville, except that Miss Glanville has the opportunity to keep her matters discreet and can return Arabella’s questions with vague answers such as, “Have you any reason to imagine I would grant any favor to a lover?” (89)

For me, the most amusing part of their exchanges occurs when Miss Glanville says that no other man but her brother would have put so much effort into pleasing Arabella, and Arabella replies that she would not have thought any other man but Miss Glanville’s brother as worthy of “serving her.” With exchanges like this, initially I had been surprised by the two women spending any time with one another at all, but it does appear that the very things that make them different also make them learn from one another. In Book III, I began to see more signs as to why there may have been something to the friendship beyond Miss Glanville just wanting to secretly laugh at Arabella’s absurdity. Although they disagree on their opinions of Thalestris’s compassion and degree of femininity, for instance, Miss Glanville does not stop asking questions: “Pray what became of this Queen of the Amazons? Was she not killed at the Seige of Troy?” Such moments that demonstrate her interest in what Arabella has to say (and Arabella’s eagerness to inform), help to compensate a little for their differences and allow them to maintain their friendship.

In Which a Reader Discusses Arabella’s Fondness of the Language of Romance

Everyone who converses with Lady Arabella agrees that there’s something rather strange about her, but though various explanations are proposed, none seem to get quite at the heart of the problem.

Early in the novel, the “insolent Unknown” (18) Mr. Hervey, after suffering humiliating and ungrounded accusations that he intended to abduct Bella, “concluded her Fears of him were occasioned by her Simplicity” (21), she having lived mostly in the retirement of the country and being seldom in the company of others. Later, Mr. Glanville puzzles over whether he ought “to resent as an affront” Bella’s taking offense at his declaration of love or whether it “was designed as a Jest” (33), but can do no better than tell himself, “One would swear this dear Girl’s Head is turned…if she had not more Wit than her whole Sex besides” (41). Even Arabella’s own father is “uneasy” and cannot account for her “ridiculous Objections,” blaming “Obstinacy” and disobedience (42)—though he himself acknowledges that she has never before disobeyed him (41) and that such contrariness would be outside “the natural Sweetness of her Temper” (42-3). Mrs. Morris, the servant of Miss Groves, is astonished at a lady of Arabella’s rank displaying manners “quite contrary to the Laws of Good-breeding” in asking her to relate her mistress’ “History” (69); likewise, Miss Groves herself “imputed her [Arabella’s] impertinent Curiosity to her Country Ignorance, and ill-Breeding” (78). Even Miss Glanville interprets what is “unintelligible” (83) to her in Arabella’s conversation as proceeding from malice or envy (89, 91).

Each of these explanations is inadequate in some way, the characters themselves often feeling misgivings about their attempts to make sense of some peculiarity in Arabella’s speech. Even when a given character decides on what appears a plausible explanation, he or she finds him or herself not able to entirely assent to reasoning that is inconsistent with some other well-established part of Arabella’s character.  The Marquis tries to reconcile these perceived contradictions between his daughter’s character and her behavior and speech by threatening what he sees as their cause—her beloved romances: “The Marquis…was resolved to cure Arabella of her Whims, by burning the Books that had put them into her Head” (56). When Glanville intercedes on Arabella’s behalf and saves the books in hope of winning her favor, his intervention is revealed to be even wiser than he intended: his preservation of what she treasures allows him a further glimpse into her thoughts and the reality she has constructed for herself from these romances—something no other character quite comprehends. Through several uncomfortable experiences of Arabella’s silly attachment to these books (50-52, 61, 64, 86, 102, 115), he comes to realize what the reader also is coming to realize: Arabella has so ingrained her romances into her reality that no physical separation of lady and book would have the effect the Marquis desired.  

Because of her intimacy with her romances, Arabella has so thoroughly appropriated the language peculiar to them that she speaks in a way that finds her largely misunderstood and leaves her interlocutors puzzling out explanations for why she converses so strangely. The danger that faces her by continued exposure to her romances is a linguistic one: Arabella is very often in a position to be heard and to be listened to, but she will run the risk of muting herself if she cannot make herself understood. Her challenge is, as Mr. Glanville insightfully identifies, to “Speak in [her] own language” (116) before she is reduced to a mere echo of fictional heroines’ flowery prose.

To Tell a History…

A clear focus of Lennox’s novel is the idea of a romance. Arabella endeavors to see each event of her life through the lens of her many treasured books—each man she encounters is either a hero out to woo her or a villain out to ravish her, and each woman has enough “Adventures” to warrant a “History” of her own. But what I found most interesting is how these stories are told (or almost told), specifically the Histories of women in the novel thus far: namely Miss Groves’ and Arabella’s.

First, the importance of each of the stories is emphasized. From Arabella’s perspective at least, these Histories are necessary before further events may proceed. While Mrs. Morris tells Miss Groves’ story in hope of a reward, Arabella wants to hear the story in order to better understand the woman. When she wishes Sir George to referee her disagreement with Mr. Glanville, she believes, “’tis necessary you should know my whole story” (120), before making a decision. She elaborates further on her understanding of the purpose of a History during her discussion with Lucy, asking her to recount their conversations on love and gallantry that her audience may know her “Humour” and thus “know exactly, before they are told, how [she] shall behave” in all circumstances (123).  A person’s story, according to Arabella, is immensely revelatory. She is greatly concerned with determining how people will act (and concerned that others know the same about her), which isn’t surprising given her desire to fit these actions into a romance. However, it is an interesting perspective to consider as throughout The Female Quixote Lennox is clearly exploring the function of stories.

A second significant characteristic to note about these stories is that they are each told (or almost told as is the case with Arabella) through a mediating voice. Miss Groves’ story is told by Mrs. Morris, who in fact heard it from Miss Groves’ previous maid. Rather than seeking to hear the story from Miss Groves’ own mouth, Arabella purposely asks her Woman (maid), a choice that is emphasized by the irregular and improper nature of the request. When Arabella wants her own story told, she tells Sir George, “For certain Reasons, I can neither give you my History myself, nor be present at the Relation of it: One of my Women, who is most in my Confidence, shall acquaint you with all the Particulars of my Life” (120). She chooses Lucy to tell her story rather than telling it herself, even though Lucy is anything but confident in her ability to complete this task and Arabella finds it necessary to impart specific guidance. Arabella never directly reveals these reasons to which she alludes, effectively emphasizing this peculiar portrayal of storytelling. Though I am hesitant at this point in the novel to pin down Lennox’s intentions or the exact ramifications of Arabella’s insistence at mediating voices, I think we ought to consider what this may say about storytelling and narrative—particularly the telling of women’s stories.

A final aspect of these scenes that I would like to briefly discuss is their content, or at least intended content. In these stories, as elsewhere throughout the novel, Lennox explores the relationship in narrative between imagination and meaning-making versus imparting specific, empirical details about a life. As with her fellow 18th century novelist pioneers, she is wrestling with the idea of truth in narrative. And true to her form throughout the novel, she approaches this through satire in these two scenes. Lennox critiques potential exactitude of realism when Arabella expects Lucy to remember all of her gestures over the past ten years, including the motions of her eyes. However, she also mocks the omniscience of the narrator who presumes to understand the inner thoughts of her characters. In both occasions Arabella expects the storytellers to know “all the Thoughts of [the characters’] Soul[s]” (70), even identifying Lucy as the one “best acquainted with her Thoughts” (121). However, Lucy—rightly so—protests when Arabella asks her to “decipher all his Thoughts, as plainly as he himself could do,” (123) lest her story be imperfect; Lucy responds “I can’t pretend to tell his Thoughts: For how should I know what they were? None but himself can tell that.” Even as Lennox critiques these aspects of storytelling, as the author she participates as well—lending another layer to her exploration of what it is and what it means to story tell.

The Power of Romance?

While continually acknowledging the comic ridiculousness of Arabella’s obsession with romances in The Female Quixote, Charlotte Lennox uses this preoccupation to indicate the heroine’s complicated power relationships with the opposite sex. This desire for agency and confusion as to whether she has an adequate amount of it can be seen first with her father. For most of Arabella’s life, her father was indulgent, perhaps excessively so. She describes him as “the best of Fathers, who, till now, has always most tenderly complied with my Inclinations in every thing” (Lennox 41).The power dynamics of their relationship change, however, when Arabella becomes old enough to marry. The Marquis believes that her cousin would be a desirable match and encourages him to pursue her (31). When Arabella initially resists Mr. Granville’s attention, her father intervenes by convincing Mr. Granville to return and even threatens to burn Arabella’s books (55). He defends this intervention to his daughter: “therefore I expect you will endeavour to obey me without Reluctance; for, since you seem to be so little acquainted with what will most conduce to your own Happiness, you must not think it strange, if I insist upon directing your Choice in the most important Business of your Life” (42). Discussions between father and daughter often center around this issue of obedience, even in regards to a decision that will have a great affect on Arabella’s adult life. The text remains ambiguous as to what degree the Marquis would enforce his choice of a spouse upon Arabella: “he resolved he could not force her Consent; and, however determined he appeared to her, yet, in Reality, he intended only to use Persuasions to effect what he desired; and, from the natural Sweetness of her Temper, he was sometimes not without Hopes, that she might, as last, be prevailed upon to comply” (43). This passage seems to be shedding light on the nature of the power dynamics of their relationship, but it only makes the situation more confusing. He has a clear goal for Arabella’s behavior but wants to bring about that goal with her consent, despite the goal being one that Arabella has outright refused.

Arabella seems to have a sense that even though her father would wait for her consent before settling her marriage to Granville, she does not have full agency in this area. Therefore, she turns to romantic conventions as a means of gaining power. When the Marquis tells her that she must consent to marry, she exclaims, “Since my Affection is not in my own Power to bestow […] I know not how to remove your Displeasure; but, questionless, I know how to die, to avoid the Effects of what would be to me the most terrible Misfortune in the World” (54). She deflects the question of actually marrying Mr. Granville by relying on the melodrama often found in romances. While Arabella might not characterize her father’s behavior as a “tyrannical Exertion of parental Authority,”  she resonates with heroines who do struggle with a complicated power dynamic in regards to their parental relationships (35).

Arabella’s desire for power also extends to her relationship with Granville. She refuses his requests, asks him to leave the castle, and forces him to maintain a respectful distance for some time. Granville soon becomes aware that “nothing pleased his Cousin so much as paying an exact Obedience to her Commands” (63). Admittedly, it is Arabella’s lack of exposure to society and an overindulgence in romances that lead her to believe that women should resist men’s advances to the degree that she does. Yet, she also benefits from obeying these conventions because they grant her a sense of power. She is drawn to romance because it allows a woman to “claim an absolute Empire of all his Actions” (138). She goes so far as to believe that her power as the beloved heroine can bring healing to the fevered Granville. Although she might not be conscious of her motivations in playing the role of a romance heroine, at some level she maintains these conventions because they make her feel empowered.

Unfortunately for Arabella, romantic conceptions of gendered behavior do not provide genuine and lasting agency. They fail not only because they make her seem ridiculous and alienate her from those of her own time, but also because they present men as initiators and women as receivers. Women have only the power to resist a man’s advances and decide the pace of their relationship. They lack the agency of seeking a mate and beginning a relationship on their own. This construct of male activity and female passivity seems to grant women power because they have the right to refuse. Ultimately, however, it denies women true agency because it defines them in relation to men. Their actions consist of responding, and they remain the object of someone’s designs rather than being able to make their own designs. Even the granting of favors, which might seem like an area in which a woman has the power to decide, is done in response to the man’s pursuit (89). In her desire for agency, Arabella has mistakenly believed that romantic conventions of gender roles will provide her a sense of power and control, when in actuality they constrain her by making her the object rather than the subject. Interestingly, Arabella does have the means of a considerable amount of power through her social status and fortune. Were she to rely on those avenues for agency, she would find herself less in need of emulating Cleopatra and Mandana.

The Values of Will and Discernment in The Female Quixote

In analyzing the first half of Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752), I am most interested in Sharon Smith Palo’s reading of the novel as a work that encourages its reader to consider the importance of female education and conduct. I agree with Palo’s assertion that Lennnox critiques the ideal of the subdued woman “to explore the potential of female education to completely reshape women’s role within society.” Lennox’s narrative precedes in many ways conduct novels that will be written decades later by the likes of Frances Burney and Jane Austen, who in their novels affirm their heroines’ agency and mental capacity, and use their narratives to portray the growth and refinement of their heroines’ strengths rather than unquestioning  submission to the men in their world. Lennox’s Arabella is similar, and rather than “encouraging women’s submission . . .self-denial and restraint,” as Janet Todd argues, Lennox challenges the passive female role that Arabella inherits from her father. Although the hasty ending complicates our reading, I think we can view Arabella’s inheritance of the French romances as an alternative form of education that provides Arabella with necessary defenses against self-motivated suitors and makes her fully aware of the disadvantages of being  a woman with a significant inheritance.

Arabella’s inheritance of French romances from her mother equips her with rhetoric to avoid or prevent marrying a future overbearing and tyrannical husband who would have no tolerance for the whims or even thoughts of the “inferior sex.” By submitting to her tests of his character and patience, Granville proves himself worthy. He not only loves Arabella’s mind and admires her heart, but he cares for her well-being, and is anxious to see that she is esteemed and treated well. (Not as much could be argued for Arabella’s parents). The lesson we could learn from this is: if circumstance cannot prove fidelity and worthiness, then women are compelled to resort to more artificial devices. Arabella protects herself from unworthy men—men who may only be after her fortune—by imposing on her interactions with them a narrative that, in spite of its unrealistic nature, helps her to discern character and ensure that she acts in a way that is guided by compassion and even morality. Furthermore, the novels allow her to be more sympathetic to the plight of women than her female counterparts (like Miss Granville and Miss Groves’s maid). The way she imposes tales of heroines on real-life women enables her to read more clearly than her female peers the disadvantages and difficulties of being a woman in her society.

While Lennox shows the failings of an overactive imagination, she does not criticize the empowerment Arabella receives from her beloved stories until that power borders on tyranny. Even her overbearing (though comically helpless) uncle Sir Charles recognizes that it’s not Arabella herself who needs to be reformed—but her harmful imaginative exercises (which produce real psychological distress) that result from of ignorance and a lopsided education. What we see in the novel so far, more poignantly than Lennox’s humorous critique of the romance genre, is that Arabella is moved by necessity to employ seemingly ludicrous devices in order to voice her concerns about the institution of marriage. As Margaret Ann Doody emphasizes in the introduction to our Oxford edition, Arabella is trapped; she doesn’t seem to be “allowed any Will of my own” (43). It is perfectly understandable that she retreats to narratives in which women had full command of their situation. In this sense, the novel seems to be pretty progressive. By allowing such an admirable heroine to experiment with the romance genre in her novel, Lennox provides a possible world in which women, even when they exaggerate aspects of their imaginative faculties, nevertheless match their male counterparts in reason, articulation, and will, and use these strengths to shed light on the lack of control that women have in this society.

Paper Faces on Parade

“Such is the power of Interest over almost every Mind, that no one is long without Arguments to prove any Position which is ardently wished to be true, or to justify any Measures which are dictated by Inclination”—The Female Quixote, prologue

Charlotte Lennox begins her prologue to The Female Quixote with a defense of her choice to ascribe her book to the Earl of Middlesex by claiming that “this subtil Sophistry of Desire” causes almost everyone to convince themselves that what they want to believe is true is, in reality, true (3). In the prologue, this argument provides Lennox with a back door, of sorts: If the Earl or the public doesn’t like the book, they can view her choice as mistaken, rather than vain or presumptuous. However, occurring at the beginning of our story of Arabella, this prologue can also serve as an explanation, and possibly even defense, of her tendency to “prove any Position” that she “wished to be true” as reality (3).

Arabella demonstrates a propensity to rewrite actual events into her desired, romantic framework, as is seen most clearly in the case of the gardener’s assistant. Because she finds that “his Person and Air had something…very distinguishing” (in modern, colloquial language, she would say “hot”), as well as well-spoken, she becomes convinced he is a gentleman madly in love with her, who has disguised himself in order to be near her (22). When, to her surprise, no expected token of romantic love appear, such as “her Name carved on the Trees” or the gardener’s assistant “increasing the Stream with his Tears,” she uses her “subtil Sophistry of Desire” to convince herself that she sees no evidence of his love because of “his Fear of being discovered” (23). Of course, her rewriting of the scene disables action on both the part of her supposed lover and herself, and even his eventual disappearance because he had been caught stealing carp becomes rewritten to fit the “Incident to her own Wishes and Conceptions” (25) as she repeatedly rejects Lucy’s factual observations (25-26).

In her introduction to The Female Quixote, Margaret Anne Doody identifies Arabella’s choice to dress, act, and rewrite her life as a character in one of her romance novels as a type of “masquerade” (xxvi). G.J. Barker-Benfield, in The Culture of Sensibility, conflates the novel and the idea of masquerades in the 18th century, observing that both provide “the expression of female wishes” and “women’s expression of egotistical will and creative freedom” (185). Arabella, then, functions in a novel which provides her a place of central importance even as she rewrites her environment to give herself that same centrality, providing Lennox two separate levels with which to express her own desires. Yet even still, as Doody observes, while her dress, at least, is rewarded with admiration, Arabella is never able to draw the other characters of the novel into her world, as is evident with Mr. Granville. Thus, Arabella’s masquerade fails, at least to some extent, even as Lennox perpetrates a similar, more successful masquerade in the writing of the novel. It seems, however, that to at least some extent, Arabella and Lennox are performing these masquerades for themselves because of their “Sophistry of Desire,” convincing themselves that the masks they wear are reality.

Clock-Time Versus Thought-Time in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Perhaps the most frustrating and amusing aspect of Sterne’s novel so far is not only the continually deferred progression of plot, but the narrator and characters’ delayed, interrupted, and aborted progression of ideas. For according to the world of this novel, clock-time is an enemy to the Shandys, and we follow instead (or at least try to follow) the progression of ideas that Sterne favors above communicating events within linear and unified time. Interrupted conversation, for the narrator and the characters, takes us a step further from other novelists we have read so far. Though Fielding often interrupts Tom Jones with his asides, his explanations for doing so are at least themselves uninterrupted, and the same cannot always be said of Sterne’s tortuous and disconnected ramblings. In the thoughts that follow, I consider the implications of Sterne’s rejection of regular, sequential time, both for the narrator and his characters.

The narrator and Walter reject the presence of clock-time, favoring instead the concept of what is “seasonable” in the moment. In the following passage, the narrator challenges Aristotle’s long-established and respected ideas of the unity of time, stating, “I would remind him that the idea of duration, and of its simple modes, is got merely from the train and succession of our ideas—and is the true scholastic pendulum,–and by which, as a scholar, I will be tried in this matter, –abjuring and detesting the jurisdiction of all pendulums whatever” (92). The character most hostile to time is perhaps Walter, who echoes the narrator’s wishes: “I wish there was not a clock in the kingdom. . . .’twill be well, if in time to come, the succession of our ideas be of any use or service to us at all” (TS 172). The narrator, then, affirms Walter’s rejection of the clock’s pendulum, replacing it instead with a pendulum of ideas, which is hilariously represented through the philosophical dialogues between Walter and his dense brother Toby. Ideas take precedence over action, as Sterne tells us repeatedly. By replacing the importance of plot-time with an emphasis on unity in ideas, Sterne is not only challenging an ancient convention of story-telling, but he is also cleverly introducing new possibilities for what we would consider to be transgressions in a narrative. He demonstrates that bad events that occur within time are somewhat secondary to unseasonable ideas (or questions) that occur within time, thus de-emphasizing the conventional morality that we expect in works from his time.

Sterne’s primary motive in writing seems to be to delight (and challenge) the reader rather than to instruct, but if we could choose a moral of the novel so far, it would be that the greatest violation—the most dangerous violation, is the violation of ideas, whether by interruption or inattention. Distraction and inattention within an idea, or thought-time, is unforgiveable. Indeed, it even threatens man’s existence (in Tristram’s case), and perception of existence (in Walter’s mind), itself. As Sterne explains, “Whilst we receive successively ideas in our minds, we know that we do exist, and so we estimate the existence, or the continuation of the existence of ourselves, or any thing else commensurate to the succession of any ideas in our minds, the duration of ourselves, or any such other thing co existing with our thinking” (172). If we accept Sterne’s position, then interrupting the succession of ideas is a very serious transgression indeed, for it calls into question our very knowledge of existence or “any such other thing.” Sterne further demonstrates the danger of unconsummated ideas through Tristram’s mother’s fatally distracted query during consummation, Toby’s frequent uncomprehending questions in response to Walter’s attempts at theorizing, and the poor Madam, who is confused by the hidden ideas within the narrator’s account of his life.

The importance of consummated ideas explains the hysterical, melodramatic reactions of Tristram’s father whenever he is interrupted by Toby, as well as the narrator’s frequent scoldings directed at readers and “criticks.” Unseasonable interruptions introduce a catastrophic dissonance and clash horribly with the rules of time (thought-time) established in Shandy’s account. In a world where the fate of characters is so absurdly determined by untimely interruptions of ideas (especially bad or irrelevant ones), it is no wonder that the form of the novel itself mimics the disastrous results of unfinished thoughts. However, while Sterne seems to think we should not lose our temper over his interruptions, the broken attention we commit as readers is a terrible faux pas, and if we are instructed in nothing else, we are at least taught not to violate our attention to Sterne’s novel experiment.

Humor for “publick sale”

In light of our interest in authorial prefaces to help make sense of these early novels and to assess what the authors themselves believed they were doing, I resolved to remember to pay attention when I began my reading to Sterne’s preface to Tristram Shandy. However, I found nothing like a statement about how art ought to be both diverting and instructive (as in Robinson Crusoe), or an attempt (by means of a preface in the form of a letter from the author to a friend and patron) to defend his novel from (anticipated) charges of being morally offensive and to assert that on the contrary, he intended his story to be morally enriching (as in Tom Jones). Instead, Sterne’s brief preface, a letter like Fielding’s, hints that he sees his novel as having somewhat of a different purpose.

His first paragraph indicates that that he himself is in a rather pitiable condition, removed from society (“in a bye-corner of the kingdom…in a retired thatch’d house”) and plagued by “ill health” (3). His one consolation, he implies, is humor: “being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles,—but much more so, when he laughs, that it adds something to this Fragment of Life” (3). Sterne then offers the same consolation to “the Right Honourable Mr. Pitt,” to whom he has dedicated his work: “if I am ever told, it [Tristram Shandy] has made you smile, or can conceive that it has beguiled you of one moment’s pain” then the author should be very happy (3). This is as close as Sterne comes to a prefatory defense of his novel or a declaration of its purpose as he sees it, that is, it exists to make people laugh and forget their troubles.

This is a satisfactory purpose for a text, and in beginning to read the novel itself, I felt that Sterne was certainly going to make good on his intent to make me laugh. However, he complicates things only a few pages into the work by having his narrator first write a mock dedication (15) and in the next chapter, insist that the dedication has not “yet been hawk’d about or offered publickly or privately, directly or indirectly, to any one person or personage, great or small” (15) so that he may not be censured for “putting it [the dedication written in the previous chapter] up fairly to publick sale” (16). This, for me, raises further questions about the novel’s purpose: In allowing the narrator to mock dedications in general, does Sterne also mock his own? And if so, does this mockery invalidate what he said in his dedication?

Also clouding the question of the purpose of Tristram Shandy are the narrator’s own assertions of his purpose, primarily in Chapter X of the first volume: “[M]y purpose,” he claims, “is to do exact justice to every creature brought upon the stage of this dramatic work” (18). In clearing up the story of the parson’s horse, the narrator introduces his explanation by saying, “But the truth of the story was as follows” (20). Finally, in the same chapter, the narrator declares, “But this is not the moral of my story” (21)—continuing to explain what the moral actually was. Justice, truth, a moral—in the course of three pages, the narrator offers three different and noble purposes for a novel—none of which are mentioned in Sterne’s own preface. Perhaps for Sterne, humor was a way of getting at all three?         

Or, perhaps, we should simply take the narrator’s word that he simply wants to make money

by selling a dedication. 


Focused Thoughts on Tristram Shandy

The lack of immediate resolutions in TS initially seem to make it the kind of novel that one would, the second time around, start reading from the middle…or whenever the action begins. Tristram (or the narrator) reassures us, however, that he has a master plan, and that we should be patient and trusting. More interestingly, he says that there is good reason to pay attention because there are subtle clues as to what is going on. There can be two effects of his telling us this: (1) we could pay attention to the details because we believe they will contribute to the bigger picture (2) we could give each detail its due attention and try to make meaning of it, even if we don’t believe it leads anywhere in terms of the larger plot. Readers may play along with Point 1, but it seems likely that Point 2 will be the popular option.

In Chapter 19, Tristram talks at length about naming, and how it is often believed that “good or bad names…irresistibly pressed upon our characters and conduct” (47). This seems to be contributing to Point 1: adding to the bigger picture. Since Tristram begins the novel with the contention that his mother’s interruption of his father’s coital motions had determined the very “figure in the world” (5) he became, Tristram’s naming also appears to hold significance. Usually (when it has a meaning), a name given to a child reflects the hopes of the parents for that child. Because Tristram’s name was decided upon through error, and his father detested it, there is the sense of his having turned out for the worse because of this “chance” occurrence, as was the case when his mother had interrupted his father during sex.

Point 2: The act of taking each detail for what it shows, regardless of the rest of the novel, enables us to look closely at some tidbit of knowledge that Sterne wants to impart. In Chapter 18, Tristram mentions his “dear, dear Jenny,” entreating the reader not to form the impression that Jenny is his mistress until she has “better evidence” (45). It would not be impossible, says Tristram, for this Jenny to be his child or his friend. The purpose of this mysterious reference to Jenny, and the subsequent request for suspended judgment implies a kind of training for the reader. In reading about Jenny and agreeing not to categorize her immediately, we are trained to do the same with other similar characters. We continue to entertain our hunches, but keep an open mind about the role the character may fulfill. We are also given Tristram’s opinion that it is possible for men and women to be friends.

Because TS is so replete with unexplained details, or delayed resolutions, it appears that Sterne’s writing will affect more of Point 2 than Point 1. The only way for the reader to not become frustrated while reading is, for the time being, to take each mini-story for what it is in isolation, and to make meaning out of it. In Chapter 22, Tristram declares that “Digressions, incontestably, are the sun-shine – they are the life, the soul of reading,” (64) and in Chapter 25 he says that if it were easy for his reader to guess the circumstances of his characters (Toby, for instance), he should “blush as an author” (69). Book 2, chapter 11 seems to get to the heart of what he holds true: that writing is like talking, and often, talking is not neat and tidy. For the reader with limited time and patience, however, a means of being satisfied with seemingly pointless digressions is to appreciate each piece of knowledge or insight imparted for its individual value.

Homunculus Rex

A modern reader approaching an 18th-century novel, like Tom Jones (TJ) or The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (TS), might be surprised by the noticeable presence of the narrator. The narrator in these novels is not only present, but he can seem intrusive and downright pushy—directing readers’ judgments, mocking them at times, and dragging them along through seemingly endless digressions. Having already read TJ, I had some idea of what to expect from the narrative voice in TS, and in many ways, my expectations were on target. However, there is one key difference between these two narrators that shifts my perspective as a reader: Tristram Shandy, though narrating his own life story, is not the author. Tristram speaks with an authorial voice, but can I expect him to have the same depth of knowledge as, say, Fielding’s narrator? Tristram seems to think so and takes great pains to build his credibility.

Having spent too many hours in the Writing Center working through essays from freshman comp, I am tempted to use the Toulmin model to analyze Tristram’s many claims. Like 18th-century authors, though, I must consider my reader, so I will refrain. My reader can pick out Tristram’s warrants on her own time. But I digress…

Sandra Sherman notes the way Fielding uses Bakhtin’s idea of an author’s “essential surplus” of knowledge to entice the reader to read further. This surplus is comprised of information about the story and the characters that the author knows but that the readers, and the characters themselves, do not (Sherman 237).  Like Fielding, Tristram plays with this surplus of knowledge, toying with the reader and leaving stories mid-sentence. But, as I’ve stated before, this can be problematic for the reader since Tristram is a character in the novel, not the author. I could expect Laurence Sterne to have such a surplus, but can I really trust Tristram to relate a story that takes place before he was even born? Throughout the novel, Tristram seems like an omniscient narrator. He recounts in detail what characters are doing and thinking at any given time when, in fact, for many of the events of the novel up to this point, he is a mere Homunculus.

Tristram acknowledges that we are getting his history secondhand. Though he does not mention all of his sources, he does note that his uncle told him the story of his conception. At the beginning of Chapter III, he says, “To my uncle Mr. Toby Shandy do I stand indebted for the preceding anecdote” (7). In other circumstances, Tristram inserts evidential documents directly into the text. He gives his mother’s marriage settlement in its entirety. He also includes a tale from Slawkenbergius and a response from the Doctors of the Sorbonne on the issue of baptism by injection, both in the original language.

It seems, though, that Tristram is not as concerned with proving his knowledge as with proving himself a master storyteller. He begs the reader to “let me go on, and tell my story my own way” (11).  Though he states that he is hesitant to brag on himself, he points out his expert use of progressive digression: “there is a masterstroke of digressive skill, the merit of which has all along, I fear, been overlooked by my reader” (63).  He plants little hints in the text and chastises the reader when she doesn’t read closely enough to pick up on them. He is even concerned that he has given the reader enough time to prepare his mind for upcoming events. The reader’s experience with the text is of utmost importance to Tristram.

Perhaps we are to view this tale as an oral history, one that is more concerned with the spirit of the events rather than the facts. If this is the case, then I think I am comfortable tagging along behind Tristram through the rest of his story. Though he might not have the same surplus of knowledge that a typical authorial narrator would have, he is, in own unique way, the master of a very unusual type of narrative.

Progressive Digressions?

As in Tom Jones, with Tristram Shandy I found myself again drawn to the relationship between the narrator and his readers. And as I was puzzling it out, it became clear that wrapped up in Tristram (the narrator)’s shaping of this relationship was Sterne’s treatment of time and space.

One of the marks of TJ’s narrator is his deliberate and direct engagement with and instruction of the reader. Fielding creates what Chambers calls an “implicit contract” between the narrator and the reader (qtd in Sherman 236). The narrator of TS also directly interacts with readers, but the contract he negotiates relies less on holding back the secrets of the plot and more on how he holds back. Indeed, Sterne would seem to maintain his contract by mocking its very creation.

Sterne very deliberately and transparently delays what appears to be the main action of the narrative—at this point in the novel the birth of Tristram. He even takes the entirety of chapter 22 in volume I to justify his digressions by discussing how his work is still “progressive” (64). At first, this delay would seem to seek out and accomplish what Fielding attempts in TJ: compelling the reader to keep reading through a plot revealed little by little. But as volumes pass in TS  and Tristram is still yet to be born, the delay becomes ridiculous. While TJ is fairly successful at obtaining and maintaining my attention through this secrecy (and was certainly successful for 17th century readers, according to Sherman), I am frustrated at the lack of progression (despite Sterne’s protestations) in Tristram Shandy. However, it seems that it is this frustration that Sterne relies on for his contract with the reader. He mocks this convention of secrecy that Fielding embraces by taking it to an extreme, such an extreme that it becomes clear that it is the delay and thus the passage of time that takes center stage rather than the action itself.

By drawing readers’ attention to this delay, Sterne focuses attention on the passage of time within the novel. He negotiates a complex narrative in which time passes (or pauses) at different rates within the main narrative, within Tristram’s digressions, within the world in which Tristram writes, and within the space created between the reader and the narrator. Passage of time is one of Watt’s key characteristics of the novel (22), but just as Sterne employs satire to mock nearly everything else in the novel, in TS he seems to not merely explore this convention, but push it to an extreme to poke fun.

He repeatedly mentions the ‘main’ story line that he has left behind, but only to continue with his digressions. However during these digressions, time passes not only in the world of the ‘main’ narrative but also for Tristram as he writes and also as he imparts the story to his readers. He states, “I declare I have been at it these six weeks, making all the speed I possibly could,—and  am not yet born,” at once revealing the passage of time within his writing world and mocking the slow progression in the world of the narrative (35). In Tristram’s direct addresses to the reader, we also see time passing within the theater space Sterne has created for his audience to enjoy his novel. (I don’t have the space or time here to discuss this theater space, but consider the interaction Sterne depicts between Tristram and “Madam” in chapter 20, where he seemingly pulls one member out of the audience to converse with—who leaves and returns, as well as Sterne’s use of scene and stage throughout the novel.) Tristram reckons that “about an hour and a half’s tolerable good reading” has passed (referring to the time within the realm of the reader) and then discusses how the time within the narrative has only been “two minutes, thirteen seconds, and three-fifths,” as would be measured by a pendulum (92). He plays with this notion of time passing, suggesting that the reader may think it hasn’t been long enough for the action to have been probable, but then in true Sterne fashion, turns the discussion into a mockery by revealing that indeed it has been enough time, as Toby ran into Dr. Slop in the yard.

So what is Sterne’s purpose in manipulating and mocking this convention of the passage of time? Perhaps it will become clearer as the novel progresses, but at this point it would seem that Sterne creates his contract with the reader by mocking the conventions of the novel. He draws the reader on not through anticipation of the plot but by a conscious delay of the plot and mocking readers’ willingness to keep reading regardless.

Talking with Tristram

“Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation” Tristram Shandy, p. 68

One might call the tone of Tristram Shandy “conversational,” with good reason. The fits and starts, the digressions within digressions, all savor of a discussion with a somewhat flighty, if periodically insightful, friend. This is not to say, however, that Tristram Shandy isn’t precise and intentional. The narrator’s conversations with his audience hold an important place within the text. Why, then, does our whimsical (if not capricious) narrator banish “Madam,” his stereotypical female reader, to re-read the previous chapter? What is he trying to achieve?

Shandy challenges Madam at the beginning of the chapter, accusing her of being “inattentive” (35). We then have a somewhat extended dialogue between the two, as she defends herself, claiming to have “miss’d a page” or fallen “asleep,” both of which Shandy rejects for the sake of his pride. Instead, he blames her for “[knowing] nothing at all” and sends her off to reread “the whole chapter over again” (35). Indeed, Shandy appears somewhat patronizing to his alarmed and defensive female reader, treating her as a schoolmaster might, both in his “punishment” of her and in his choice to include the word “whole” in his description of the chapter, which belittles her potential understanding of the task he sets for her.

Here, in the middle of the paragraph, as Madam trots off to do his bidding, Shandy turns to explain himself to his remaining readers. He claims that he has acted thus to “rebuke a vicious taste” that causes readers to jump to the action of a story, rather than read the more ruminative parts of a work (35). He derides such simplistic reading, arguing that even romances like Parismus and Parismenus and romantic characters such as the Seven Champions of England provide the profit he cites Pliny the younger as finding in every book he read (35).

And yet, Madam then returns, and we pick up the conversation with her again, as if she had physically removed herself from the conversation to reread the previous chapter. Fascinatingly, there is no implication she takes the time to review the conversation that takes place in her absence, as we would have done if we had followed her to reread the previous chapter ourselves. Instead, Shandy immediately engages her via questioning and reveals that she misses the all-important indicator of his mother’s religious beliefs because of a lack of familiarity with an obscure meeting held in 1733. Of significant interest is that, arguably, Madam has no voice in this second conversation. She responds, as we see Shandy respond to her by repeating all or part of her responses, but in his repetition, he omits her presence (35).

This very small conversation, then, has interesting implications for the way time functions within the novel and for the role and the agency of the reader. As he does elsewhere in the novel, such as when Mr. Shandy sends Obadiah after Dr. Slop, the narrator here indicates that time is linear and progressive and that the readers are experiencing it in “real time.” The time we spend reading the narrator discuss Pliny, then, is the amount of time Madam spends rereading the previous chapter. This is both important for the structure of the novel, as it suggests that the digressions might be necessary to prolong the reading of certain events, and for the perception of the reader.

In terms of space, Madam spends one half of a paragraph “rereading” a significantly longer section of the book. First, there is a suggestion here that regardless of how quickly we as readers consume this tidbit, Madam is reading at a rapacious pace. Thus, Shandy’s critique of her reading seems born out; if Madam reads so quickly, she is not taking the time to “make wise reflections, and draw curious conclusions” (35). Despite the esoteric nature of the hint, Shandy is justified in his criticism, but his reaction—the removal of her voice from the text—seems marginalizing. While we know Madam returns later in the book (in talking of Sir Toby on page 41, for instance), here she loses the ability to interact with the text because of her choice of reading quickly.

This conversation within the text might stand as a subtle warning to Shandy’s readers, then. He requires us to read closely and with attention, and if we do so, the events within the novel will take place at the pace he wishes. However, if the reader skims the pages, looking for action, not only will she miss interesting information, she will effectually lose her voice within the text, because she will no longer be able to interact with it.

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Amazon Digital Services, n.d. eBook.

Do You Have the Time?

Like other early novel writers, Laurence Sterne was interested in the possibilities that this new genre gave to the treatment of time.  In his classic work The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt points to an awareness of the passage of time as a distinguishing factor in the developing novel (22). No longer did works take place in the course of a day; “histories” covered the whole span of a person’s life. The proper pacing of stories became an important consideration for novel writers and had a great impact on the degree of realism that a novel could attain. In Tom Jones Henry Fielding displays a consciousness of this need to pace the history intentionally and explains to the reader his reasons for skipping over years at a time (101).

Interestingly, Sterne seems less concerned in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen with how much of Shandy’s history to include and more preoccupied with the pace at which the reader digests the story. For instance, he writes, “It is so long since the reader of this rhapsodical work has been parted from the midwife, that it is high time to mention her again to him” (Sterne 31). The emphasis lies less in how much time has elapsed in the events preceding Shandy’s birth and more on how much time has passed in the reader’s receiving of the history.

This concern for the pacing of his audience’s reading experience extends to Sterne’s attempts to control the reader’s pacing. He wants to make time a part of the contract that he establishes with the reader. Ross Chambers notes that “[n]o act of narration occurs without at least an implicit contract” (qtd. in Sherman 236). Both parties have expectations for what they will receive from the writing/reading experience. For Sterne, part of this contract entails the author guiding readers in how fast they should read this work. In the first volume he instructs, “Lay down the book, and I will allow you half a day to give a probable guess at the grounds of this procedure” (16). While this approach of specifying the readers’ time frame is certainly straightforward, Sterne does not rely on merely telling his readers how much time to take off from the text. He also employs temporal markers that he achieves through unusual formatting. When advising his readers to only finish the chapter if they are inquisitive enough, he includes in the text a series of dashes before and after the words “Shut the door” (8). This break in the prose interrupts readers’ attention and gives them an opportunity to do something other than finish the chapter. Later in volume one Sterne has two pages completely blacked out (29-30). These pages stand between the end of poor Yorick’s tale and the resumption of the midwife’s story. The black pages provide a sense of closure and finality to the parson’s tale and cause the reader to pause before moving on to the next chapter.

Although Sterne employs creative means for guiding the readers’ pace, ultimately the reader has the final say in the matter. J. Paul Hunter observes that during the eighteenth century “writing for readers involved greeting them in the privacy of their closets where they were responsible only to themselves for their responses to a world of print” (qtd. in Sherman 233). Readers can easily skip over black pages and ignore instructions to shut the door. Instead of being wholly dependent upon temporal markers in the text, Sterne must also rely on the reader submitting to the author-reader contract. In the dedication, Sterne declares his intention to “fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth” (3). He seems to be promising his readers that if they humor him by going along with his games, they will have fun in the process. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman differs from other texts of its day because it does not limit time to a tool for increasing a work’s realism. Sterne sees time—particularly the pace at which the reader consumes the text—as another facet of the author-reader relationship, hopefully one that will make everyone happy.