115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Coding "to-be-looked-at-ness": Self-Authorship and Spectatorship in The Female Quixote

Diana Rose Newby, Columbia University

This paper offers a reading of Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752) as a nuanced critique of social systems of punitive spectatorship that subordinate women to the male gaze. I argue that the novel's protagonist, Lady Arabella, strategically participates in and even perpetuates her own objectification; by exploiting her "to-be-looked-at-ness" at the levels of both plot and form, Arabella demonstrates one of the rare means of agency and self-authorship available to the eighteenth-century woman.


            For readers concerned with ascribing to Charlotte Lennox some degree of proto-feminism, The Female Quixote’s deflating conclusion presents an unsavory snag. The novel’s penultimate chapter finds heroine Arabella seemingly renouncing her Romantic foible, a forced cure that modern critics tend to view as begetting Arabella’s submission to patriarchal authority. Yet the implications of this seeming submission remain a matter of debate. Amy Hodges, for one, argues that Arabella’s fate derives from her lack of social literacy; through perpetual misreadings of gendered power relations, Arabella fails to recognize, according to Hodges, that “women who exist only as objects do not have the power to control the reception of their character.” Such a reading assumes that, by the novel’s end, Arabella has been fully dispossessed of command over her body—and, correspondingly, her subjectivity—as a legible “object” for male spectatorship. On the other hand, critics like Erin Labbie insist that Arabella, despite or through her dispossession, exposes the problematics of eighteenth-century domestic ideology, thereby arguably “mak[ing] visible the means by which the female subject is exploited, made the pure object of the scopic gaze, and commodified through the gaze." To thus posit Arabella’s submission as subversion accordingly engenders a feminist interpretation of The Female Quixote: that is, as a social critique of modes of spectatorship that subordinate women to the male gaze.

            Taking for granted that Lennox unmasks what Hodges describes as “the ways in which English culture uses the gaze to discipline women," I want to complicate the notion that Arabella is subordinated to and by this system of punitive spectatorship—or, rather, that her participation therein is fully forced. Over the course of The Female Quixote, Arabella demonstrates not only her keen awareness of but also her clear desire for the male gaze, albeit a form of this gaze over which she can wield control. All the more provocatively, Arabella also registers her position as an object for narrative spectacle: a striking bit of metatextual play that I locate in Lennox’s complex manipulation of narrative voice, which directs the reader’s “gaze” in much the same way that Arabella shapes instances of male spectatorship. Arabella is thus figured not merely as a remarkably “literate” reader—both of Romantic fiction and of eighteenth-century gender norms—but also as an accomplished author of her own identity as an object to be “read.” Rather than interpret Arabella’s capitulation to the clergyman’s cure as signifying her loss of authorial power, I propose inverting Hodge’s reading and applying Laura Mulvey's gaze theory in order to argue that Arabella develops a heightened understanding of her status as object, or her "to-be-looked-at-ness," and that she manipulates this status at the levels of both plot and form. Specifically, in the penultimate chapter, Arabella carefully produces “the reception of [her] character” as spectacle, strategically withholding, from the clergyman and the novel’s readers alike, access to her subjective interiority. By participating in and even perpetuating her own objectification, Arabella exhibits a form of control that is not, perhaps, what contemporary critics would class as feminist; yet it is nevertheless subversive in its own right, demonstrating one of the only means available to eighteenth-century women pursuing authorship (especially self-authorship) under the auspices of the male gaze.