Friday, November 16, 2007

Men Who Read Too Much?

"Don Quixote in His Library" by Gustave Doré. Image from (Click here to see it enlarged--the detail is amazing.)

I didn't expect to have more thoughts about literary characters who read too much so soon after my previous post, but inspiration can come from the oddest sources, and it did today.

I was reading Aphra Behn's delightful farce The Emperor of the Moon, which concerns a silly old doctor who is fascinated by astronomical and esoterical books, and is convinced that there is a kingdom on the moon. Two young men pretend to be princes of the moon kingdom in order to marry the doctor's daughter and niece. When the doctor finds out that he's been duped, and there is no lunar empire, he vows:
Burn all my books, and let my study blaze,
Burn all to ashes, and be sure the wind
Scatter the vile contagious monstrous lies.
Here the editor notes an allusion to Don Quixote, who also burns his books when he becomes aware that they have deceived him.

And that made me realize: in literature, it's not just women who read too much. Because the granddaddy of all those 19th-century female characters is Don Quixote de La Mancha--the most thoroughly literature-deluded character ever created. And one of the most memorable--and from one of the world's earliest novels.

I love how, nearly from the start, novels have satirized other genres, commented upon themselves, made claims about storytelling, described how a good novel requires a wise and critical reader. I just love that.

The missing link between Don Quixote and Northanger Abbey might be a 1752 novel by Charlotte Lennox called The Female Quixote, or the Adventures of Arabella (thanks, Wikipedia). It's the comic story of a girl who has read too much and convinced herself that she should behave like a beautiful and dazzling romance heroine. Thus she is ancestor to Catherine Morland, Tatiana Larina and Emma Bovary.

And also to Briony Tallis. Because I may be stabbing in the dark here, but I think I've discovered an Atonement allusion/in-joke. In the novel, 13-year-old Briony writes a play called The Trials of Arabella, and her plot has some similarities to Lennox's. Lennox's Arabella "suffers a severe illness caused by her leap into a river to escape imaginary ravishers" (source) and during her convalescence finally realizes that she can no longer live her life as a romance. Briony's Arabella "contracts cholera during an impetuous dash towards a seaside town with her intended" and during her convalescence realizes that "love which did not build a foundation on good sense was doomed" (source).

The more I think about Atonement the more it seems to self-consciously tie in with various literary traditions: country-house novel, war novel, modernist novel of shifting perceptions... and now, with references to Northanger Abbey and The Female Quixote, novels about reading the world versus reading a novel. And that's what gives it so much resonance and power--its reshaping of past traditions. Isn't the world's literary heritage grand?


Dr.J said...

Dear Marisabidilla: I prefer the spanish way as I am a spaniard (not in the works, gladly) haven´t you noticed any connections between Atonement and the Virgin in the Garden. I have, but I am still at page 220 of a spanish translation of the later (it is 642 in my edition). I think that both of them interested you deeply. What do you make of Possession by the way? Dr.J

Marissa said...

You're right, I am very fond of both of those books! They are both very "English"--and, though I hadn't thought about it before, there are definite similarities of theme and event. Amateur theatricals, relationships between siblings... Briony and Frederica are similar characters, and remind me of my adolescent self, which is one reason I love these books so much!

I LOVE "Possession" too--I reread it last year and wrote a blog post, you can search for it!

Dr.J said...

Thanks a lot I am not alone out there! of course by now I finished TVITG and Still life has just come to the bookshops in spanish. When I read about Frederica I just thought Mr. McEwan had inspired himself for Briony, at least Dame Anthonia is the right age for being an inspiration to the Granta generation. Have you already got to grips with War and Peace? you know the joke about a fellow who read it in the coffe-break (he worked 23 years for the company and you are about that age, are you not? Best wishes from sunny south-east Spain, Dr.J

Marissa said...

No, I never heard that joke before. I haven't read "War and Peace" yet, though I have read "Anna Karenina."

Best wishes from sunny (though sometimes foggy) San Francisco!