California State University, Long Beach
Inside CSULB Logo

Carlile Gets Into Mind Of Lennox

Published: November 30, 2012

English’s Susan Carlile returned to campus this summer after a year in the United Kingdom as part of her one-year National Endowment for the Humanities research fellowship to write a critical biography titled Charlotte Lennox: A Powerful Mind.

Carlile’s fellowship ran from August 2011 to this August. “My hope is that this critical biography will show Lennox’s powerful mind as a woman author who succeeded in publishing in a wide range of genres, long before Jane Austen, and managed to maintain her reputation in the process,” she said.

Charlotte Lennox (1729/1730-1804) was an English novelist, poet, playwright, and literary critic. In scholarly circles Lennox is most often thought of simply as a novelist, primarily because of her well-known The Female Quixote centering on a feisty young woman who challenges mid-18th-century aristocratic society. In fact, Lennox produced 18 works—six novels, three plays, a book of poetry, a critical work on Shakespeare, a woman’s periodical and six translations from French. The biography’s title comes from a compliment made by the prominent 18th-century man of letters, Samuel Johnson, who said Lennox had “a powerful mind.”

Carlile feels her year at the UK’s University of Winchester was time well-spent. “It was fantastic and intense,” she said. “Because it was very concentrated, I got an enormous amount of work done. I wrote a chapter every five weeks and am ready to send a proposal to Johns Hopkins University Press, who has expressed interest in the project.”

In Winchester, Carlile worked in a 19th-century cottage which was located in a graveyard. “I wrote in an attic room with one leaded glass window that looked out on a cemetery. I found myself glancing up from my work and tombstones came into focus. It was poetic and the perfect environment to think about those who have gone before us and about 18th-century women’s influence on history,” she said. “I struggled over each chapter, trying to find the best way to join up a vast array of details into a coherent and compelling narrative. While I was appreciating Lennox’s fascinating life full of economic hardship in the London metropolis, my husband and I were living a simple English small-town life and being very thankful for warm coats and boots. We didn’t have a car so we walked everywhere and in all kinds of weather. It was a particularly aesthetic experience.”

There were also surprises in store for Carlile in London’s British Library. As part of her study, she found herself perusing a Lennox anthology of Greek drama and discovering handwriting on the flyleaf of the third volume. “The notes demonstrated someone grappling with the concepts raised by the Greek dramas in this volume. Understanding these dramas was helping this person think about better government and the relationship of people to their monarch. I kept asking myself who would make such notes?” she said. “These dramas were translated by Lennox in 1759. Then I realized that this very volume was part of the personal library of America’s last monarch, King George III. If he wanted to read about Greek drama, this translation was the most accessible way to do it. George III may have been taking notes directly from Lennox’s translation to think more about his role as a monarch. This raises questions about Lennox’s potential influence on politics.”

A good reputation in mid-18th-century England was seen as essential to literary success for women. “Unlike so many other women writers, Lennox’s name was not dragged through the mud. She was not condemned as a prostitute, nor was her name slandered in the press. Such actions were taken against her female predecessors,” she said. “Lennox managed to keep publishing and to keep her reputation. She stayed with a bad husband, did nothing to draw unwanted attention to herself socially, and had two children; all while being incredibly successful as a professional author.”

Lennox’s Shakespeare Illustrated (1753-4) is the first comprehensive study of Shakespeare’s source material and reveals her knowledge of Italian, French and Latin, all of which she learned on her own despite living in a time when women were rarely given any type of formal education.

Shakespeare Illustrated was groundbreaking and was a standard study of Shakespeare’s source material into the 19th century,” Carlile said. “Some of Lennox’s French translations were very highly regarded in their time, and one, The Memoirs of the Duke of Sully, was still the standard translation in the 20th century. And the periodical she edited, The Lady’s Museum, was one of the first directed at a female audience with articles on history, philosophy, female education, and biology. My critical biography highlights not just her academic and literary intellect, but also Lennox’s street smarts.”

Susan Carlile standing in front of screen
PHOTO COURTESY OF SUSAN CARLILE
Susan Carlile presenting Charlotte Lennox

Lennox’s heroines have self-sufficiency and self-respect. Regardless of their difficulties, they manage themselves with dignity. “Lennox figured out how to avoid being a victim of her circumstances. Orphaned, poor, from a less advantaged class, and a woman, she could have easily given up and resorted to more tedious or less savory forms of employment. Instead, she pursued something she loved. She used her mind and put her attention toward something less practical, but far more satisfying,” Carlile said. “Lennox’s writing reminds readers of all generations that human vanity and hypocrisy are far more transparent than the offender may realize. She also inspires readers to think carefully, to question societal expectations, and to appreciate the tremendous power of the mind.”

Carlile’s most recent book, Masters of the Marketplace: British Women Novelists of the 1750s appeared in 2011 from Lehigh University Press. She also published a modern edition of Lennox’s novel Henrietta with the University Press of Kentucky. She received her B.A. from Taylor University and both her M.A. and Ph.D. from Arizona State University.

Carlile is pleased she made the commitment to study Lennox, beginning with her master’s thesis in 1995. “In fact, Lennox is a literary innovator—not just an innovator of women’s writing, nor an innovator of just the genre of the novel—in a wide variety of ways,” she said. “She was a writer of many firsts: the first to reverse the gender structure in Cervantes’ Don Quixote; the first to critique Shakespeare for his lack of originality; the first to adapt her own novel, Henrietta, into a play, The Sister, and the first to write a novel, Sophia, for serial publication. She was also among the first group of women who were able to earn their living by their pen and still maintain their reputation.”

In writing Lennox’s biography, it became clear to Carlile how difficult it is to narrate a person’s life with the thread of a story line to make that story engaging. “A reader of biographies does not want to read fact after fact but needs a compelling account to get them inside those facts, to make meaning out of the complex nature of an individual’s life. It is the biographer’s job to know the difference between the facts that are known and possibilities, and to report all of this responsibly. It is an enormous challenge,” she said.

Completing this Lennox biography adds to Carlile’s classroom credibility. “Now my students have a new reason to believe me when I try to teach them how to take facts and turn them into a coherent whole,” she said. “This year of writing has honed my skills and also given me a fresh way to talk about writing with my students. I want them to understand how writers need to give themselves plenty of time and work hard to compile compelling but seemingly divergent pieces of information and turn them into something readable and enjoyable.”

Carlile thanked the English Department and the College of Liberal Arts for its support. “I recognize that it can be hard on the department when a faculty member is not there for a year,” she said. “But they’ve been very supportive about this project. Anybody who writes knows it takes a lot of time and doesn’t come out fully formed. It is a process of a 1,000 revisions. That is why writing is exhausting. Anyone who writes knows you have got to find uninterrupted time.”

–Richard Manly