Charlotte Lennox (c. 1730 – 1804) , poet, playwright, novelist, and versatile woman of letters, was in her lifetime one of the most widely admired among a great crowd of minor female writers. She is still remembered and praised for The Female Quixote (1752), which continues to be ranked with the two or three finest of the numerous imitations of Cervantes to appear during the middle years of the eighteenth century. Lennox’s contemporary Henry Fielding, himself the author of one such imitation in Joseph Andrews (1742), reviewed her work enthusiastically in his Covent-Garden Journal, and the terms of his endorsement in this review–probably the best thing of its kind Fielding ever wrote–have been echoed by later generations down to the present day.
Lennox was the friend of Samuel Richardson and Samuel Johnson, both of whom encouraged her, liked what she wrote, and in some instances helped her to publication.
Charlotte Lennox was born in Gibraltar. Her father, James Ramsay, was a Scottish captain in the Royal Navy, and her mother was Scottish and Irish. She was baptised Barbara Ramsay. Very little direct evidence for her pre-public life is available, and biographers have extrapolated from her first novel elements that seem semi-autobiographical. Charlotte and her family moved to New York in 1738; where her father was lieutenant-governor – he died in 1742, but she and her mother remained in New York for a few years. At the age of fifteen she accepted a position as a companion to the widow Mary Luckyn in London, but upon her arrival she discovered that her future employer had apparently become “deranged” following the death of her son. As the position was no longer available, Charlotte then became a companion to Lady Isabella Finch.
Her first volume of poetry was entitled Poems on Several Occasions, dedicated to Lady Isabella in 1747. She was preparing herself for a position at court, but such a future was rendered moot by her marriage to Alexander Lennox, “an indigenous and shiftless Scot”. His only known employment was in the customs office from 1773–1782, and this was reported to be as a benefice of the Duke of Newcastle as a reward for his wife. He also claimed to be the proper heir to the Earl of Lennox in 1768, but the House of Lords rejected his claims on the basis of bastardry, or his “birth misfortunes” as Charlotte tactfully described them.
After her marriage Charlotte turned her attention to becoming an actress, but without much success. Horace Walpole described her performance at Richmond in 1748 as “deplorable”. She did though receive a benefit night at the Haymarket Theatre in a production of The Mourning Bride in 1750. That year she also published her most successful poem, The Art of Coquetry in Gentleman’s Magazine. She met Samuel Johnson around this time, and he held her in very high regard. When her first novel, The Life of Harriot Stuart, Written by Herself, appeared, Johnson threw a lavish party for Lennox, with a laurel wreath and an apple pie that contained bay leaf. Johnson thought her superior to his other female literary friends, Elizabeth Carter, Hannah More, and Frances Burney. He ensured that Lennox was introduced to important members of the London literary scene.
The women of Johnson’s circle were not fond of Lennox. Hester Thrale, Elizabeth Carter, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu all faulted her, either for her housekeeping, her unpleasant personality, or her temper. They regarded her specifically as unladylike and incendiary. However, Samuel Richardson and Samuel Johnson both reviewed and helped out with Lennox’s second and most successful novel, The Female Quixote, or, The Adventures of Arabella, and Henry Fielding praised the novel in his Covent Garden Journal. The Female Quixote was quite popular. It was reprinted and packaged in a series of great novels in 1783, 1799, and 1810. It was translated into German in 1754, French in 1773 and 1801, and Spanish in 1808. The novel formally inverts Don Quixote: as the don mistakes himself for the knightly hero of a Romance, so Arabella mistakes herself for the maiden love of a Romance. While the don thinks it his duty to praise the Platonically pure damsels he meets (such as the farm girl he loves), so Arabella believes it is in her power to kill with a look and it is the duty of her lovers to suffer ordeals on her behalf.
The Female Quixote was officially anonymous and technically unrecognised until after Lennox’s death. The anonymity was an open secret, though, as her other works were advertised as, by “the author of The Female Quixote”, but no published version of The Female Quixote bore her name during her life. The translator-censor of the Spanish version, Lieutenant Colonel Don Bernardo María de Calzada, appropriated the text, saying “written in English by unknown author and in Spanish by D. Bernardo”, even though de Calzada, who was not fluent in English, only translated to Spanish the previous French translation, which was already censored. In the preface, de Calzada also warns the reader of the questionable quality of the text, as good British texts were only written by “Fyelding” [sic] and Richardson, the two authors with international fame (in contrast to the often mechanical “romances” produced by various names for shops like Edmund Curll’s or the satirical romances appearing under one-off pseudonyms that were not, first and foremost, novels).
Joseph Baretti taught Lennox Italian and several helped her translate The Greek Theatre of Father Brumoy, the most influential French study of Greek tragedy at mid-18th century. Learning several languages, Charlotte Lennox took an interest in the sources for Shakespeare’s plays. In 1753, she wrote Shakespear Illustrated, which discussed Shakespeare’s sources extensively. She preferred originals to their adaptations, and so her work ended up being critical of Shakespeare. She did not discuss any of the beauties of Shakespeare’s poetry or the power of his personifications, and so Garrick and Johnson both regarded her work as being more of a case of Shakespeare exposed than Shakespeare illustrated. In 1755 she translated Memoirs of Maximilian de Bethune, Duke of Sully,which sold well.
Her third novel, Henrietta, appeared in 1758 and sold well, but it did not bring her any money. From 1760 to 1761 she wrote for the periodical The Lady’s Museum, which contained material which would eventually comprise her 1762 novel Sophia. David Garrick produced her Old City Manners at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1775 (an adaptation of Ben Jonson’s Eastward Ho). Finally, in 1790, she published Euphemia, her last novel, with little success, as the public’s interest in novels of romance seemed to have waned.
She had two children who survived infancy, Harriot Holles Lennox (1765–1802/4) and George Lewis Lennox (b. 1771). She was estranged from her husband for many years, and the couple finally separated for good in 1793. Charlotte subsequently lived in “solitary penury” for the rest of her life, entirely reliant on the support of the Literary Fund. She died on 4 January 1804 in London and was buried in an unmarked grave at Broad Court Cemetery.
During the ninteenth century, The Female Quixote remained moderately popular. In the twentieth century, feminist scholars such as Janet Todd, Jane Spencer, and Nancy Armstrong have praised Lennox’s skill and inventiveness.