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ArribaAbajo Don Quixote in 18th-Century England: A Study in Reader Response

John Skinner

University of Turku, Finland

El artículo trata de la forma en que fue recibido el Quijote en la Inglaterra del siglo XVIII, tanto como ejemplo de institucionalización literaria como de acogida por parte del público lector. El primer fenómeno se deduce a través de las traducciones y ediciones que del Quijote se hicieron en la época, así como del estudio de Frank Kermode: The Classic, Literary images of Permanence and Change. La forma de entender la obra por parte del público se ejemplifica, a su vez, a través de las interpretaciones del carácter de Don Quijote hechas a lo largo del siglo XVIII, según la distinción de Wolfgang Iser entre la Rezeptionstheorie y la Wirkungstheorie. En conclusión el modelo del texto literario propuesto por Iser se aplica para ilustrar las actitudes y limitaciones de los lectores del siglo XVIII.

Modern critical interest in Don Quixote has tended to concentrate on structural matters, finding in the novel a prototype of the self-conscious narrator, a playful subversion of the authority of the text or a profusion of metafictional wizardry.49 Eighteenth-century readers, however, focused more readily on the actual character of Don Quixote. In modern critical terminology this represents a shift in interest from mimesis to diegesis; or, in Barthesian terms, a contrast between a realistic view of character and a realistic view of narrative.50

And yet there is another essential difference between the Don Quixote of the eighteenth century and Don Quixote, our contemporary, with regard to the reader's experience of the work. Today, the novel is often a fond but distant childhood memory for the majority of readers or a familiar but inexhaustible quarry for critic and theorist: for a few others caught uncomfortably between these extremes, of course, it may be the acknowledged masterpiece of which one remains embarrassingly ignorant. In an earlier age, however, when novels   —46→   were literary upstarts and reputable fiction scarce, such distinctions were unknown, and the book was simply read and enjoyed -apparently by everyone. References to the novel abound among 18th-century writers, whilst the literary progeny of Don Quixote, himself, present a bewildering variety.

But if most direct imitations of the novel are familiar enough to the Cervantes scholar, the many interpretations themselves have a certain sameness, and it is not my intention to provide exhaustive lists of either. I shall rather use the 18th-century reception of the novel both as an example of literary institutionalisation and as a case study in reader response. I shall consider the first phenomenon in the light of contemporary translations and editions of Don Quixote, before relating the question to Frank Kermode's study of the literary classic.51 Much of this stimulating book is concerned with Virgil, Dante and the «imperial theme», but Kermode also traces the decline of such absolute classics and the emergence of the «new model» -a text that is simply still being read several generations after it was written. Don Quixote, which conforms more closely to the latter type, is then briefly related to Kermode's concepts of renovation, transition, and variety of response. To illustrate reader response more explicitly, I shall rely on 18th-century interpretations of Don Quixote's character and use Wolfgang Iser's distinction between a theory of the aesthetics of reception (Rezeptionstheorie) and a theory of aesthetic response (Wirkungstheorie).52 I shall then follow Iser's functionalist model of the literary text, and, finally, his concepts of repertoire, strategies, and realizations, in order to illustrate the particular biases and limitations of 18th-century readers.

- I -

The popularity of Don Quixote in the 18th-century and its immediate literary influence is confirmed by the proliferation of translations. There is no scope in the present essay for close collation of these, but the attitudes and comments of the translators themselves reflect the novel's steady rise in literary prestige.


Few English writers before Scott would have understood Cervantes in the original and even Smollett's knowledge of Spanish has been questioned. Lady Wortley Montagu was certainly a rare exception with her amusing comment on reading Don Quixote: «Though I am a piddler in the Spanish language, I had rather take pains to understand him in the original than sleep over a stupid translation».53

Shelton's racy and sometimes erratic 17th-century version (with «improvements» and completed «in the space of forty days» as he assures us in his preface) saw six new editions between 1700 and 1740.54 Its only serious rival was a new rendering by Motteux, published in 1700 and in many ways the representative version of the Restoration and 18th-century.55 Motteux acknowledged help, now seldom remembered, from a number of «cultivated gentlemen» who tended to answer for individual passages or episodes; in addition, however, he admits receiving the assistance of such established authors as Wycherley, Garth, Tom Brown, and Congreve. The translator's influential preface also suggested conventionally that the novel was written to satirise knight-errantry although it added perceptively that: «Every man has something of Don Quixote in his humour, some darling Dulcinea of his thoughts, that sets him very often upon mad adventures». Motteux was also the first to apply the word «moving» to any parts of the novel, although he unfortunately omits to tell us which passages he had in mind. More details of Cervantes' background were now available, and the translator also included a life of the author. The distinguished collaborators, the authoritative interpretation and the biographical essay on the author all suggest an increasing literary prestige. The translation had gone through eight editions by the middle of the century.56


The mid 18th-century versions of Jarvis (1742) and Smollett (1755), separated by barely a decade, naturally invite comparison with each other, and although Jarvis has been more kindly judged by posterity, it is Smollett's rendering that provoked the most interesting reactions, with controversy in his own day and attempted exposure in ours.57

On Smollet's knowledge of Spanish it is impossible to be categorical. In a letter to Alexander Carlyle he speaks of «the Spanish language, which I have studied for some time»58 and elsewhere he mentions his knowledge of the language as a possible qualification for a diplomatic post.59 Smollett's plans for a new version appeared in the Public Advertiser (March 16, 1754) and provoked hostile comment from William Wyndham in his anonymous «Remarks on the Proposals lately published for a New Translation of Don Quixote» (1755), where he criticizes Smollett harshly for his ignorance of the language, people, and customs of Spain.60 It is difficult to be assertive about Smollett's originality or competence, not to mention his actual share in the final product, when even the modern line-by-line collation of his and Jarvis' translations was not entirely conclusive. But the enormous increase in the novel's prestige is again emphasized as it becomes a subject of acrimonious literary debate. The seal of literary institutionalisation, however, was not provided by a translator, but rather by the Reverend John Bowle. The extraordinary fact of the first annotated edition of Don Quixote (in the original language, to boot) emerging from a Wiltshire parsonage has   —49→   tended to cloud critical judgment of the edition itself.61 Bowle had solemnly assured Dr. Percy, the antiquarian: «From the commencement of my intimacy with the text of Don Quixote, I was induced to consider the great author as a classic, and to treat him as such»,62 meaning apparently that the novel was both in need of, and eminently worthy of, detailed and learned commentary.

Bowle's most vociferous critic was Joseph Baretti, and an a undignified literary feud between the two men reached a climax in 1786, with the publication of Baretti's Tolondrón. The meeting of the two men in a Holborn tavern, with Bowle correcting proof-sheets of his edition «whilst the bottle was in circulation» (Tolondrón, p. 8) may be apocryphal, but Baretti's remarks on Bowle as editor are not inapposite. Commenting on an extensive note on the Spanish word mena, he asks «What need to know, whether the fish, called mena casts her spawn in March or September, which are her powers of fecundity, and at what season it proves good or bad to eat, when I only want to know whether mena means a fish or a stew-pan».63 Bearing in mind that Bowle's other major contributions to human knowledge were four articles published in Archeologica on the ancient pronunciation of the French language, musical instruments in Le Roman de la Rose, parish registers and playing cards, respectively, it is tempting to envisage him as another who, like Smollett's doctor in Peregrine Pickle, «held the eel of science by the tail».

Baretti was incidentally struggling with his own rendering of the novel and complains in a letter to Lord Charlemont of mental exhaustion with «twelve pages of Don Quixote, if not fourteen to translate every day».64 The translation never materialised65 and the two remaining 18th-century versions by George Kelly (1769) and   —50→   Charles Henry Wilmot (c.1774) rely so heavily on their predecessors that they need not detain us here. A. P. Burton, however, in his article on biographical knowledge of Cervantes in the 17th and 18th centuries,66 has emphasized their sentimental tone, which he finds in accordance with contemporary trends in the novel. Kelly reprinted verbatim Motteux's life of Cervantes, merely adding to the last sentence (« Accomplished Writer, a perfect Gentleman, and a Truly good Man») the nine words, «possessed at the same time of the finest feelings». Wilmot apparently believed quite seriously that Don Quixote's «fine taste for poetry, and his fine sensations of love, must infallibly recommend him to general notice and favour» (translator's preface), thus projecting him as some bloodless hero of 18th-century sentimental romance.

But whatever the guises in which Don Quixote himself appears, the implications for the novel are clear: with five conscientious -even painstaking- translations, a voluminous critical edition, pamphlets and feuds, the book was now regarded with utter seriousness, if not reverence. Don Quixote in England had come a long way from the chapbook abridgements, travesties and scurrilous commentary it had attracted in the 17th-century.67 It is, in fact, an illustrious example of the institutionalisation of the book.

Such «modifications of the basic model (renovations, translations and the like)» are one concern of Frank Kermode's study of the classic.68 Here, Don Quixote corresponds to Horace's simpler definition of the type, «est vetus atque probus centum qui perficit annos.» The novel had lasted a hundred years by the reign of Queen Anne and if it had not yet, like Virgil, required «centuries of apologetic and exegetical effort», it had nevertheless undergone various «strategies of accommodation».69 Kermode's renovations, «attempts to establish the relevance of a document», or its «universality», are well exemplified by such comments as those of Motteux («Every man has something of Don Quixote in his humour»)70 or of Dr. Johnson, himself, («very few   —51→   readers, amidst their mirth o pity, can deny that they have admitted visions of the same kind»).71 Another characteristic of the classic, Kermode's translations in the sense of «transitions from a past to a present system of beliefs, language, generic expectations» are precisely the data of reader response and are therefore considered in detail in the following section. Kermode's third concept, variety of response, is what is often sadly lacking in 18th-century interpretations of the novel, although this phenomenon would immediately become apparent if earlier and later realizations of Don Quixote's character were considered. But 17th-century farce, together with 19th-century sublimity and 20th-century eclecticism are obviously beyond the scope of this study.72 Don Quixote, then, appears to illustrate admirably the renovations, transitions and variety of response associated with the life of a classic. Indeed, in an English Augustan age which paradoxically produced no major classic of its own, this novel might have assumed the position. But even the most partial scholar would hardly, in retrospect, claim such exalted status for a foreign work of mere prose fiction, and Don Quixote's particular appeal may partly rest on another subtle distinction of Kermode's: it is both «an old classic, which was expected to provide answers» and a new one which «poses a virtually infinite set of questions».73

- II -

The 18th-century translations of Don Quixote belong more properly to the sphere of historical criticism, a field closely identified with what Iser would call the aesthetics of reception. Iser's Act of Reading, however, is chiefly concerned with a theory of aesthetic response, a theory in which the role of the reader is fully commensurate with that of the author. Emphasizing the «interaction between structure and recipient» or «the artistic and aesthetic poles»,74 Iser actually locates the literary «work» at some point between text and reader:   —52→   «the focal point now is the interaction between the text and, on the one hand, the social and historical norms of its environment and, on the other, the potential disposition of the reader».75 At this point one should certainly enquire into the disposition of the 18th-century reader. A survey of the enormous number of contemporary references to the novel suggests that this nebulous literary construct initially found satire in the book and, subsequently, with that subtle change in literary taste so finely recorded by Stuart Tave, discovered a kind of «amiable humourist» in the novel's protagonist.76

The English metamorphoses of the hero -into female, spiritual, or infernal quixotes- belong to the pages of literary history (albeit often sadly relegated to the footnotes), but they are outnumbered, if not actually overshadowed, by the many recorded interpretations of Don Quixote's character; these are another and more instructive story. The immediate impression is that they unduly flatter Cervantes' hero: «the most Moral and Reasoning Madman in the World» (Pope),77 showing «perfect good Breeding and Civility... upon every occasion» (Corbyn Morris),78 a «strong and beautiful representation of human nature» (Sarah Fielding),79 or simply «the finest Gentleman we read of in romance» (Henry Brooke).80 The list could be prolonged considerably.

There are, fortunately, other less vaguely complacent comments, and if the reader is to be allowed any role at all in the realisation of a literary work, then 18th-century readings of Don Quixote's character show an interesting confluence of cultural codes. These include the English conviction -in literature and beyond- of their own eccentricity, vestiges of the psychology of the humors and the opinions of foreign visitors together with Dr. Cheyne's celebrated study of the «maladie anglaise». All three of these areas must briefly be considered.

A curious cultural phenomenon of the 18th-century is the fascination of the English with their own eccentricity, if indeed this form of self-consciousness is not a permanent feature of the English   —53→   character.81 Sterne paraphrased Dryden's remarks in the Essay of Dramatick Poesy on the English character as a source of comedy: «this copious storehouse of original materials, is the natural cause that our comedies are so much better than those of France, or any others that either have been, or can be wrote upon the continent».82 He also remembered Dryden in his presentation of Uncle Toby, whose humour «was of that particular species which does honour to our atmosphere»,83 whilst Yorick's famous explanation to the French Count at Versailles of the difference between the French and English characters is another variation on the theme.84 Mackenzie, Sterne's closest follower in the sentimental vogue, wrote simply that «England produces many humourists».85

Fielding offered two explanations for the frequent occurrence of eccentricity: in successive numbers of the Cogent Garden Journal he suggested that it was due either to «that pure and perfect state of liberty which we enjoy in a degree greatly superior to every foreign nation» (no. 55), or, less charitably, to the «great number of people who are daily raised by trade to the rank of gentry: without having had any education at all» (no. 56).

The cult of the original passed into the novel. Parson Adams, generated to some extent by Fielding's own experimentation with the Quixotic character as a tool of satire, is also the most striking metamorphosis of Don Quixote in English literature. The «perfect simplicity», «goodness of heart», and «worthy inclinations» ascribed to Adams in the preface to Joseph Andrews would fit the 18th-century Don Quixote perfectly. Like his predecessor, Adams came to be loved purely for himself; after Fielding, the interpretation of both figures   —54→   was idealistic and such critical acceptance has incidentally survived in at least one modern comparison.86

Knight and priest begin a long tradition of «originals»: Parson Adams was followed by Major Bath and Dr. Harrison in Amelia: Smollett created his gallery of naval types, including Lieutenant Bowling and Commodore Trunnion, besides Lismahago and Bramble; Goldsmith added Dr. Primrose and the Man in Black. Sterne produced uncle Toby and the 19th century continued the tradition with Thackeray's Colonel Newcome, Scott's Jonathan Oldbuck, and Dickens' Captain Cuttle. Outside an 18th-century perspective it is hard to relate some of the more benign «originals» to the Don Quixote realized by a more eclectic 20th-century reader: a heroic figure, perhaps, even a literary archetype, but equally a comic absurdity, social menace and incipient psychopath. It is easier, in fact, to see Don Quixote as a comic incarnation of religious fanaticism or the conquistador mentality of Golden Age Spain.

Now the originals were also humorists and the psychology of humor associated with Jonson cast a long shadow over the English novel, through Smollett and even to Dickens. In his «Induction» to Every Man Out of his Humour, Jonson speaks of the «one peculiar quality» that «Doth so possess a man, that it cloth draw / All his effects, his spirits, and his powers, / In their confluctions, all to run one way», and over a hundred years later Fielding, in his Covent Garden Journal (no. 55), was referring to this definition as «another pretty adequate notion of humour». It seemed an adequate description of Don Quixote's knight errantry, too. In fact, Corbyn Morris actually added to his Essay toward Fixing the True Standards of Wit (1744) «an analysis of the characters of an Humourist, Sir John Falstaff, Sir Roger de Coverley, and Don Quixote».

In terms of temperament, English humorists inclined to melancholy, whereas the Spanish knight's disposition is explicitly portrayed as choleric.87 Admittedly, the mournful comment to Sancho, «I was born... to live dying» (II, 59), and a minor character's   —55→   comment on «the gloomiest and most melancholy expression that sadness could assume» (II, 60), amply justify the title of Knight of the Sad Countenance, but the growing melancholy is merely the antidote to an alarming state of choler. For the 18th-century reader, however, melancholy appears to predominate: Yorick, off to visit Maria in the Sentimental Journey, feels like «the Knight of the Woeful Countenance, in quest of melancholy adventures»,88 and the Don Quixote actualized by the reader suggests some mournful forebear to the Man in Black.

Finally, to the consternation of foreign visitors, English originality often took a morbid turn, and long before Voltaire's sardonic comment on the East wind and the «dark November days when the English hang themselves», spleen had become widely known as «la maladie anglaise». The phrase disturbed Dr. Cheyne, who took it up in the 1730's and used it as the title for his celebrated enquiry into the causes of melancholy.89 The disease was apparently prevalent among the «Inactivity and Sedentary Occupations of the better sort», a category that would admirably cover Don Quixote before his excursions.

Cheyne's advice to the sufferer was that time-honoured occupational therapy, a «hobby-horse». The difference between the latter and the traditional humor, often obsessive or anti-social, evolves most clearly with the growing cult of sensibility. Mackenzie for example, calls for «a certain respect for the follies of mankind... which people of feeling would do well to acquire»,90 and the classic distinction was that between my Uncle Toby's fortifications and the vicious beast of Walter Shandy's pedantry. Readers emphasized Don Quixote's «cultivated understanding» (Beattie), «excellent Sense, Learning and Judgment» (Corbyn Morris), whilst his knight-errantry, in the same mellowing process, came to be regarded less as an overriding obsession than as the «comic flaw» of a hobby-horse run wild.

Thus the actualization of the 18th-century Don Quixote -benevolent eccentric, thwarted melancholic, yet a man of exquisite feeling withal- emerges with some clarity and invites the critic to find a suitable paradigm for this process of interpretation.


It is perhaps Iser who is most helpful, with his functionalist model for the literary text, based on Austin's speech act theory.91 Austin's conventions for establishing a situation in the speech act become Iser's repertoire of the text; the accepted procedures and active participation of speaker and recipient now correspond to the author's strategies and the reader's realization of the text. Much of the repertoire of Cervantes' text was simply beyond the 18th-century reader, not normally versed in the voluminous novels of chivalry, far less in the socio-economic realities of counter-Reformation Spain. The author's strategies are similarly lost, particularly the ambivalence and perspectivism,92 even the contradictions of the text: there is for example, a curious mixture of sympathy and hostility towards the protagonist, and even a begrudging admiration for the novels of chivalry. It is not surprising, therefore, that the reader's realizations are so often restricted. Where text and reader do meet, however, the resultant literary work is largely confined to literary satire and original characters.

The misunderstanding of the role played by novels of chivalry in Don Quixote introduces a final concept of Iser's that is particularly helpful in discussing the 18th-century reader's response to the novel: Iser writes discerningly of some literary works being situated «on the edge of or just beyond a prevalent thought system», rather than in any fundamental opposition to it93; this is, for example, Tristram Shandy's position with regard to the traditional novel. The «extratextual reality» of Don Quixote refers to both novels of chivalry and traditional Spanish ballads; the latter are clearly unfamiliar to the 18th-century reader and the role of the former is generally misunderstood. The text's attitude to novels of chivalry is simply ambivalent. If the influence of these books on one character was arguably unfortunate, they were nonetheless read by such solid figures as the   —57→   innkeeper, his family and the harvest workers, without serious repercussions. Luscinda, Dorothea, and the Duke and Duchess are well-versed in them, many escape the fire on purely artistic merit, and the Canon of Toledo had even begun to write one himself.94 If the particular bias of 18th-century reader response can be summarised in a sentence, it lies in a tendency to regard Don Quixote as a mere counterblast to an obsolete genre rather than a «fiction on the edge of a literary system».95

The 18th-century reception of Don Quixote therefore provides a fruitful example of the institutionalisation of the text and an instructive case of reader response. Where the latter is concerned, indeed, it does not seem excessive to borrow the idiom of the affective stylistics and suggest that, far from exerting much influence on the period, Don Quixote itself was profoundly influenced by 18th century readers.