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women writers of the long eighteenth century

The Beauty of Fake “Savages”; Or, Charlotte Lennox’s The Life of Harriot Stuart, Written by Herself

Little is known about Lennox until her publication debut in the 1750s, and few images of her are available.

Little is known about Lennox before her publication debut in the 1750s, and few images of her are available.

Charlotte Lennox could arguably be described as one of the most famous (or infamous) female authors of the eighteenth century. Her second novel, The Female Quixote, was critically well received in her time and is still studied and discussed extensively today. Samuel Johnson included quotes from this second novel as examples in at least four entries in A Dictionary of the English Language (which, if you want to have a look through, can be found here : http://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/?p=10143) and, according to anecdote, once threw her a party where he crowned her with laurels.

But, it is of note that The Female Quixote was not her first work and was not the text that brought her to the recognition of the male literary circles of London. Her first novel, The Life of Harriot Stuart, Written by Herself was published in 1751. Little is known about Lennox’s life prior to her hitting the publishing scene of London in the 1750s, but many, then and now, consider this novel a semi-autobiographical account of her early years and personal experiences in the North American colonies. Harriot Stuart, writing to a friend to impart sage wisdom learned from adversity, tells of her travels across the Atlantic and her inevitable captivity in both the New York colony and France. Although not often discussed in current scholarship, this is a novel that raises many questions regarding what it might mean to be British in light of colonial expansion and new cultural encounters.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is her captivity in the American colonies by Captain Belmein. Having her desires to properly marry the Captain thwarted by both their fathers, Lennox refuses a clandestine marriage when pressed by Belmein. Not deterred, he hires a few American Indians to help him capture the reluctant Harriot. He dresses as an American Indian himself, and at first Harriot believes he is just another “savage”; however, she discovers his true identity soon after being taken from her home. Although she still refuses his advances, she cannot help but note his beauty despite his lack of British dress. She writes:

The moon was now risen, and discovered to me the whole person of Belmein, so altered by his Indian dress, that it was impossible to know him: he wore the same kind of [s]andals, an Osnabrig’s vest which reached to his knees, and a mantle of blue cloth trim’d with several rows of worsted lace; his face was painted, his hair, which he had been obliged to cut short, was combed into their frightful fashion, and sprinkled, in the divisions, with a kind of fine red sand which looks like blood, and which the Indians affect, in order to give them a more tremendous appearance. You may imagine, dear Amanda, that a lover thus disfigured, was not very agreeable object in the eyes of his mistress: however, the fine shape and regular features of Belmein, shone thro’ the savageness of his disguise; and tho’ it would have been difficult to have believed him any other than an Indian, yet it must be confess’d he was a very handsome one. (42)

This small section raises some interesting questions about the ways ideas of beauty can shift or change in a colonial context. At the same time, Belmein’s nefarious and rakish actions make him into a British version of savagery. Finding beauty both despite and because of a change in cultural standards is noteworthy, particularly in a novel by a then little-known female author. Much of the text interrogates issues of Britishness and civility in light of Atlantic exchange and encounter, and this is just one specific instance where the eye of the beholder may have changed due to various interactions and a more hybrid sense of identity and cultural awareness. In a new, expanding Atlantic world, Lennox’s Harriot Stuart sees new concepts of beauty and savagery in the wilds of New York.

If you are interested, the full text of the novel can be found here via the University of Virginia: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA96/owens/

Works about Lennox and The Life of Harriot Stuart, Written by Herself:

Susan K. Howard “Identifying the Criminal in Charlotte Lennox’s The Life of Harriot StuartEighteenth-Century Fiction 5.2 (1993): 137-152.

Eve Tavor Bannet “ The Theater of Politeness in Charlotte Lennox’s British-American Novels.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 33.1 (1999): 73-92

Thorell Porter Tsomondo The Not So Blank “Blank Page”: The Politics of Narrative and the Woman Narrator in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century English Novel. New York: Peter Lang, 2007 (The second chapter focuses entirely on Harriot Stuart)

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This entry was posted on September 30, 2013 by and tagged , , , , .
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