On Dead Writer Besties

by Alexandra Molotkow


Back in undergrad, my dead writer bestie was Charlotte Lennox, author of The Female Quixote. I liked that novel — it was way better than Heart of Midlothian — but not as much as I liked Charlotte Lennox, who appealed to me for the same reasons Courtney Love appealed to me in middle school: she seemed like a Crazy Bitch. Lennox was aggressive and messy — “exceptionally quarrelsome and imperious,” in the words of author/professor Norma Clarke — but also brilliant and industrious. She had hustle. She was an eighteenth-century woman who wrote for a living.

The Crazy Bitch, as I would have characterized her, is a female genius who is persecuted for “not behaving like a women should.” She embodies certain character tics that are easier to valorize than eliminate. It dawned on me, eventually, that you can be persecuted and still an asshole, but Lennox was misunderstood, that was the point. I liked the way her mind seemed to have worked, I was interested in how she lived. There was just something about her.

Lennox was born around 1730. Little is known about her early life, aside from the fact that she spent part of it in New York. As a teenager, she sailed to England, where she was supposed to stay with a relative, who turned out to be either dead or insane. She found a couple of aristocratic patrons, to one of whom she dedicated her first book of poetry. They had a falling out of some kind; Lennox’s first novel, The Life of Harriot Stuart, published in 1750, featured an unflattering portrait of her. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a friend of the slandered, “was roused into great surprise and indignation by the monstrous abuse.”

Some of Lennox’s most noteworthy haters were respectable women — partly because she goaded them, and partly because her attitude scraped their sensibilities. Lennox was a contemptuous outsider, without wealth or title; she married a bookseller’s employee, whom she’d end up having to support, and made no bones about writing for money. She was talented, charismatic, and approved by eminent men: Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and above all, Samuel Johnson. But in the end, her novels weren’t counted among theirs, and she was never a Bluestocking.

“Tho’ her books are generally approved,” said one contemporary, “nobody likes her.” She was buried in an unmarked grave.

* * *

“No more than threshold competence — a relatively low standard of merit — has ever been necessary to keep a writer’s works in favor,” writes Heather Jackson, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. Her latest book, Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame, is about the dream of living forever through literary accomplishment, and the reasons some writers thrive in history (William Wordsworth) while others do not (George Crabbe). Literary survival, Jackson writes, depends “more on external circumstances and accidental advantages than on inherent literary worth.” This might sound obvious, but it’s one thing to speak generally, another to explain how other poets might have been Keats had they only died tragically enough. (Not that she doesn’t love Keats.)

“The test of time is less like a separation of wheat from chaff than like clearing out the apartment of a dead relative,” Jackson writes, “when you can’t keep everything so you save the footstool but get rid of the clock, discard the nest of tables but reupholster the chaise longue because you can use it.” Works survive because they’re relevant, and because the author himself appeals to posterity — either they symbolize a cause, or they’re the right kind of sad.

When Heather Jackson was a student, canon was less debatable; over the course of a long career, she came to understand that neglected writers weren’t necessarily less worthy than famous ones. This book — which, she claims, is the last she’ll ever write — has a soft agenda, which is to encourage discovery. “It’s like realizing that there’s a garden when you’d only been shown one rose,” she says, from her office at U of T, where she has been since her undergraduate studies. “Or going off curriculum, like going off piste in skiing.”

Jackson was once my professor, and I admired her from a respectful distance. Her diction is faintly English, and her voice has the grain of a curtain opening. She gives the impression of having firm boundaries, within which you’re free to roam — she’s precise, but she gives off the glow of her enthusiasms. For her 2001 book, Marginalia, she examined the margin notes in over 2,000 books published from 1700 to the present, readers’ marks “that become part of the book and accompany it ever after.” The work, which she called a genre study, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for literary criticism.

Those Who Write is a different kind of book, just a little more traditional, but like Marginalia it applies rigor to a concept that feels more literary than academic; and it is, ultimately, about the underdog. “Somebody introducing me once said that the marginalia book was about the marginalia of famous people,” she says, “whereas in my view it was exactly the opposite — it was really a way of exploring the marginalia of anonymous people, or complete unknowns, people with no names at all, and of no importance. And the same would be true here. I guess there’s a bias in favor of the unimportant.”

Jackson test-drove some of the ideas that became Those Who Write for Immortality through an undergraduate seminar called Literary Afterlives. The idea was to choose an author, read everything they’d written, and study their reputation from the time of their death to the present. I chose Lennox, for the reasons described above; also because I knew I’d be able to get closer to her than I would to a better known writer — someone with too many admirers already, about whom there was too much written.

There’s some altruism in the obscurantist impulse, but I wouldn’t call the impulse altruistic. I think my own obscurantism is slightly predatory — you can take all sorts of liberties with an author in the shadows — as well as practical. If you’re the kind of person who seeks out intimacy with dead people, it makes sense to adopt those who might need you, too. On some level, there’s probably a sense of self-recognition, and a sympathy for the overlooked. “I might say that every right-thinking person is on the side of the underdog,” Jackson says, “but that probably wouldn’t be fair.”

Some things you read just to marvel at, and some things you read because you should, but favorites are friends. They make us happy and they meet our needs. “The popularity of literary biography has always been a bit of a mystery to me; why do people want to read about writers? Who do practically nothing, except read and eat. And drink, of course,” Jackson says. “But they have access to writers’ lives. And they have access to writers’ inner lives, through the works. At least they believe they do. So I think what they’re looking for is help with their own lives, and that writers are perhaps particularly well qualified to give it to them.”

* * *

Lennox’s early career was adventurous and “saucy.” Her poem “The Art of Coquetry,” published by Gentleman’s Magazine in 1750, advised girls to work their feminine wiles — “Such by these arts their empire may improve/And unsubdu’d controul the world by love.” The witty protagonist of Harriot Stuart stabs a captain when he tries to rape her. The Female Quixote, published in 1752, is about a headstrong girl who grows up reading her dead mother’s romance novels and believes herself to be the heroine of one. In the book’s final, incongruent chapter (“Being in the Author’s Opinion, the best Chapter in this History”) she is “converted” to better sense, though not very convincingly.

The Female Quixote was hugely successful, commercially and critically: Henry Fielding praised it as both diverting and instructive. The following year, Lennox began publishing the multi-volume Shakespear Illustrated, both an ambitious work of scholarship — she had translated Shakespeare’s source materials — and an ambitious hatchet job. Lennox, a girl of around 23, had the melons to criticize Shakespeare. The book was not well received.

“When Shakespeare is demolished your wings will be full summed and I will fly you at Milton; for you are a bird of Prey, but the Bird of Jupiter,” wrote Samuel Johnson, Lennox’s greatest supporter, and possibly her best friend. When Harriot Stuart was published, he threw her an all-night rager, serving “a magnificent hot apple-pye… stuck with bay leaves” and crowning her with laurels after “invok[ing] the muses by some ceremonies of his own invention.” They remained close until his death, and their correspondence, collected by Duncan Isles (an annotated collection of Lennox documents, edited by Norbert Schürer, was published in 2012), suggests two things: that Johnson cherished her friendship, and that Charlotte’s friendship wasn’t always easy.

From 1753:

I hope you take great care to observe the Doctor’s prescriptions, and take your physick regularly, for I shall soon come to enquire. I should be very sorry to lose Criticism in her bloom. Your remarks are I think all very judicious, clearly expressed, and incontrovertibly certain.

Around 1780:

Dear Madam
When friends fall out the first thing to be considered is how to fall in again, and he is the best that makes the first advances, I have designed to come to you ever since half an hour after you ran from me but I knew not whither.


By telling your friends how much you expect from them you discourage them, for they finding themselves unequal to your expectation, will rather do nothing and be quiet, than do their utmost, and yet not please.

After Shakespear Illustrated, Lennox’s fiction became sterner and more didactic, following Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Pamela (but less hot. But probably more fun to read). This might have reflected a genuine change of heart, or been an act of self-repositioning. Either way, you can’t really fault her — working writers, then as now, have to advertise their values as well as their skills, and Lennox needed money. Her husband, “an indigent and shiftless Scot,” in Isles’s words, never pulled in much — it may or may not be fair to call him a layabout, but Charlotte certainly did. By the 1770s, she had a daughter and son to support.

“Throughout her life she either bit the hand that fed her or contemptuously disdained to eat the crumbs,” writes Norma Clarke, but we can excuse her for having frayed at the edges. She gave up a pension from the Duke of Newcastle to secure her husband a place; her son took after his father, and she appealed to the Royal Literary Fund for money to send him to America. Her daughter died young; Charlotte lived long, but died in poverty in 1804.

* * *

In Those Who Write for Immortality, Jackson includes a checklist of factors relevant to literary survival. Did the writer have family and friends to ensure that her work stayed in print? When was her biography written, and by whom? Was she associated with a movement, or significant people? (Positively associated: “It’s one thing to agree that there is no such thing as bad publicity and that controversy feeds fame, another to cope with the fact that after two centuries, Byron’s jokes at [Robert] Southey’s expense…are still remembered and quoted when Southey’s poems are not.”)

Lennox died mostly alone, twenty years after Samuel Johnson did. The association never made her a star, but it did keep her in the footnotes throughout the nineteenth century. In my research as an undergrad, I found more substantial biographical accounts cropping up in the early twentieth century, but they were sometimes dismissive: “few modern readers will find it worth while to face the longuers of The Female Quixote, for the sake of the occasional amusement which can be extracted from its pages,” wrote one author in 1924, “but a book which entertained Mrs. Lennox’s famous contemporaries is still not wholly devoid of interest.”

In 1935, the first full Lennox biography, as far as I’ve found, appeared: Charlotte Ramsay Lennox: An Eighteenth Century Lady of Letters, by Miriam Rossiter Small. It presented Lennox as a talent in her own right, but failed to give her an angle. As I wrote in my paper for Jackson, the book’s title was its thesis: here lies Charlotte Lennox, one of many minor writers in whom a scholar may, for whatever reason, take a special interest. Closer to mid-century, certain scholars tried to sell her as “the first American novelist,” but she wasn’t really American, so it didn’t really take. Then came feminist criticism, which tried, in some cases, to uncover the empowerment message hidden in works like The Female Quixote.

These readings are valid, but it’s hard to present Charlotte Lennox as some kind of proto-feminist. She doesn’t seem to have gotten along with other women, and they don’t seem to have gotten along with her. Small noted “a feminine disapprobation which is steadily and impressively cumulative through her life.” A 1967 biography by Philippe Séjourné asks outright if she was a “woman-hater.” Her female characters are sometimes contemptuously drawn; the periodical she edited, The Lady’s Museum, advocated for some women’s education, but not too much: “The learning proper for women is such as best suits the soft elegance of their form, such as may add to their natural beauties, and qualify them for the several duties of life.”

In 1778, Clarke writes, Lennox and her daughter were accused of assaulting a maid, which might help to explain why, according to one observer, her home was “[lacking] all order and method, all decorum of appearance, and regularity of proceeding.” A letter sent to Lennox anonymously, just a few years before her death, claimed that “Several Ladies who met Mrs Lennox at Mr Langton’s were astonish’d to see a Gentlewoman’s hands in such horrid order — for God’s sake wash them & rub back the skin at the roots of the Nails.” (This makes me like her that much more.)

Lennox’s complexity is attractive, but it has made her difficult to package. Her life is much more radical than her work, or the fact of her work is more radical than the content. She had admirable qualities, ones that defy gender stereotypes, but she wasn’t working for the advancement of her gender. She was working for herself, which was radical in its own way, but it makes her a harder sell for posterity.

What do I see in Charlotte Lennox? I enjoyed The Female Quixote, but I found the rest of her work unmemorable. She was obscure, and that appeals to me, but the stacks are full of obscure authors (who are actually very popular, relative to the authors no one remembers). She was a woman who did good work, but, same thing. At age 20, when I first read her work, I was messy and probably a bit hostile. I liked to think of myself as “not a joiner.” Lennox flattered my self-image. I’m a grownup now, which is to say I’m less proud of my shitty characteristics, and less likely to seek them out in others. But favorites become old favorites. Lennox feels like a friend I’m still fond of, even if I don’t always enjoy her company.

* * *

Affinity means more than admiration — or, admiration follows affinity, since, as Jackson writes, “there is no Olympian view of literary merit. There never will be.” There are cultural affinities (Wordsworth because he’s a giant of Western literature) and subcultural affinities (William Blake, because he wrote for the special), and then there are personal affinities, which matter more and more.

Scholars need work to do, and, as Jackson writes, our culture is more sympathetic to failure than it was when she was a student. New names are unearthed, and argued for, all the time. As our spread of options grows, the question becomes, How do we find our authors? Again, we find them like we find our friends: on the basis of sensibility, on the strength of the connection. It makes sense to approach literature with a Tinder mentality: the more writers become available to us, and the more canons in which to situate them, the more we should just like who we like.

I gravitated to Heather Jackson’s writing because I felt like I got what she’s about; I stayed interested because of course I don’t. “I guess the line of questioning that you were starting out before would suggest that I do like byways,” she said during our interview, which got off to an awkward start, because I’d presumed to know what she’s about. “I do like the slightly arcane, the off track, the unappreciated. The neglected.” I asked if her work generally reflected this. “Um, no. I worked for years on Coleridge,” she said, laughing, “whose works extend to 50 volumes now.”

She didn’t choose Coleridge — she had been offered the work, and she found it worthwhile, but “I’m not in the least like Coleridge,” she says, “at least I hope I’m not. He was philosophically gifted, verbally he was very fluent, he loved to talk — I do not actually love to talk. He was a Christian, he was a devout believer all his life, and I’m not. He was rather misogynistic, by my lights. There are all kinds of ways in which we are different from one another.”

I asked if she felt she’d developed a relationship with him. “I felt I wouldn’t want to meet him,” she replied. “Whereas Samuel Johnson, who I use quite often in the book, is someone I’ve always sort of revered, I love the way he writes. Of course I like the Biography. He’s just so — pragmatic. He’s just a delight to read, he’s quite unpredictable: he was a believer as well, but he’s also profoundly skeptical, so whatever proposition you put to him, he would take it apart, and contradict it, and put it together again in a slightly different form. He’s just a genius. He’s a wonderful, wonderful writer.”

And he was good to the women in his life, I said. “He was very good about women, that’s right. He was really quite enlightened about women. And other minority groups.” Some readers think of Johnson as misogynistic (Boris Johnson, writing in the Telegraph, once called him “a free-market, monarchy-loving advocate of the necessity of human inequality.”) But we each get to build our own versions of the people we love.

I am recommending Charlotte Lennox to you because she’s interesting. In the end, I think she represents exciting values: industriousness, independence, boldness, and the right kind of defiance — against “respectability,” against elitists who never had to get their hands dirty. The Female Quixote is a good read — I think someone funny could adapt it for a modern audience — but I don’t hold my breath that she’ll find a major following. I just hope she finds a few more good readers.