James Scholar: First Blog Post
“Romancing the Home: ‘The Female Quixote,’ ‘Betsy Thoughtless,’ and the Dream of the Feminine Empire”
Richard Barney’s eighteenth century analytical compilation, Plots of Enlightenment: Education and the Novel in Eighteenth Century England, makes several significant arguments for the Novel’s didactic purpose in eighteenth century society. One of his most interesting chapters, “Romancing the Home: ‘The Female Quixote,’ ‘Betsy Thoughtless,’ and the Dream of Feminine Empire”, draws a very relevant comparison between the protagonist of Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, Arabella and Defoe’s famous character, Robinson Crusoe. Barney’s argument is rooted in Defoe’s contribution to the emergence of domestic fiction: fiction marketed towards woman that delivered “didactic” messages, or messages that taught women how to properly fulfill their role in nineteenth century society. Although this type of fiction didn’t fully emerge until the nineteenth century, Barney argues that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, whose narrator’s “success depends at least in part or initially mastering the ways and means of maintaing a domestic economy-the functions usually assigned to women” (269), is a symbol of what women were expected to accomplish as eighteenth and nineteenth century females. Barney describes Crusoe’s story as “a man who learns to master the discipline of domestic management before then applying it to the larger project of forming his personal kingdom” (268). Barney’s argument is that, rather than Defoe presenting an imperialist, masculine figure, Defoe created a character who appeals to the female reader; a character who must establish domesticity to properly function in society.
Barney is creating an argument that is, interestingly, almost opposite from the way Defoe is commonly compared with female works. In our class comparison of The Female American with Robinson Crusoe, one of the major arguments is that Unca is recreating what Crusoe accomplishes, only she is a female. The reader looks at Unca as a female taking on a man’s role, not a female accepting her already established role. The way in which Unca is often compared to Crusoe revolves around the idea of Unca fighting for her role as the masculine imperialist, proving that she can be a missionary, only a better one. Through Barney’s argument of Crusoe as a domestic figure, is it plausible to envision Unca’s story as a reclaiming of her domestic superiority to Crusoe? Or is she fighting for the masculine role?
Also, if Robinson Crusoe really does mark the emergence of the domestic novel, what would women of the eighteenth century take from Crusoe as their “didactic” lesson? Do we get this same didactic lesson from Unca? And does gender at all play into who does it better? For example, when we look at both characters as domestic figures, does Unca appear more successful? And vice versa, if we compare them as entrepreneurs and leaders, does Crusoe take the lead because of his masculine status?
Barney, Richard A. Romancing the Home: ‘The Female Quixote,’ ‘Betsy Thoughtless,’ and the Dream of Feminine Empire. Plots of Enlightenment: Education and the Novel in Eighteenth-century England. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1999. 255-300. Print.