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Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress

Daniel Defoe

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    This, the final novel published by Daniel Defoe, in 1724, is the second of two "whore-er" stories, coming two years after his much more famous Moll Flanders. When I began it, I wondered if they would be similar or opposite, and in many ways they were the latter. Moll was coerced into sex at a very early age. She was a "nobody,"—certainly not a lady, had nothing positive working for her except the determination to live. She was a criminal, and truly was "wicked," but finally ended her years in relative peace. Incidentally, Defoe was fond of long titles, and the original one for this was The Fortunate Mistress: Or, A History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mademoiselle de Beleau, Afterwards Called the Countess de Wintselsheim, in Germany, Being the Person known by the Name of the Lady Roxana, in the Time of King Charles II.
    Roxana, and that was only one of the names she acquired, and this one after she was well established, was born a lady, from a well-off family who fled France because of religious persecution. She married a charming and well-off son of a prominent Brewer in London who turned out to be nothing but a fool, and a lazy one at that, who lost all their money, then ran away leaving his wife and five children to starve. The only one who remained by her side during her whole life was her maid, Amy. Now, Amy had a rather wicked streak, exacerbated by a certain event which I will discuss in a bit, but anyways, she and a couple well-meaning old ladies find a way to "dispose" of her children and pretend that their mother had been thrown out by the landlord. But as it turns out, the landlord takes pity on her, in fact, he falls in love with her. He buys her food, returns all her confiscated belongings and treats her in a way her husband did not. Amy warns her that he was expecting something in return, which he does, but he wants to marry her, or at least, to live as man and wife. His own wife had deserted him, as had Roxana's husband deserted her, only she believed he was dead. In any case, the landlord was also a wealthy jeweler, and he considered her his wife.
    In this day and age, of course, one would have thought nothing of it. There would have been no guilt, and Roxana would not considered herself cut off from "God." But she did, and it was this self-hatred that drew her deeper into what she hated about herself, that is, she became a profession mistress, and became very, very wealthy from it. Her landlord did not consider his generosity as payment for her favors at all, but she did. In fact, the two loved each other. And to add to her self-inflicted pain, she basically forced Amy to also sleep with him, resulting in the bearing of a child. This set Amy on a path to perhaps greater wickedness than her mistress. And by the way, when a man wasn't around, Roxana and Amy slept together, and I wasn't quite sure what to make of that, if it was sexual, or just common, which I believe it was common for adults of the same sex to share a bed, often for plain convenience. Remember, this was written a long time ago!
    Before I continue with the story, let me say a bit about Defoe. Gosh, I think I might have liked him. He was an activist, a rebel, a prolific writer on all sorts of things, and even a spy. He got into trouble frequently for standing up for his beliefs, and speaking out for them, too. Although in those days, there were no copyright laws, and he wrote under many different pseudonyms, especially his rebellious pamphlets. He was always in debt, spent time in prison and in the pillory, and died, probably alone and hiding from debt collectors. He was married to Mary Tuffley for 47 years. He was religious—a Presbyterian—for which he also suffered persecution, and his writings sometimes concern religious morals, repentance and redemption. And—get this—I, at least, see him as an early supporter of feminism. He wrote two novels in a woman's voice. OK, so they were both whores. But the thing is, women who did not have a husband to support them, or were not born into money, were more often than not, forced into prostitution or starve to death. Here is his Wikipedia article, and it is interesting. They state that the difference between Moll Flanders and Roxana is that Roxana never repented as did Moll. Well, There were a lot of differences and I'm not sure I see it their way. To my taste, Roxana was the more likable, but I suspect Defoe liked them both in different ways. Here is the Wikipedia page for Roxana, and the Project Gutenberg page is linked above. It appears that they have added new Defoe materials, because I have only two other books downloaded by him, and now they have 81 listings. Here is his general page. Here is my Index Page which contains all his reviews I have written so far. And last, here is what the Good Readers at Goodreads had to say about it. Some of the comments are stupid, but others right on the mark. Incidentally, I, too, loved this novel. It is a long read but would have been longer had I been able to put it down, other than charging the battery on my reader. It held me engrossed and fascinated all the way through, and I even wonder, if Defoe were able to meet Roxana in person, if he would change his opinion of her. I say that because, he does not necessarily have an opinion of her, perhaps, and leaves that up to the reader.
    "Samantha wickedshizuku Tolleson" says, "I was amused by Lady Roxana's antics, and feel that this was mere child's play compared to modern morality." I totally agree. I grew up in the 60s, the era of sexual liberation and "make love not war," so the sexual part was no big deal to me, although the lust for wealth was an issue, and the fact that she kept having babies and seemed to have lost track of them.
    There is one other point to make. Defoe ended the book abruptly, and subsequent authors provided endings. The one chosen for this edition is considered the most compatible, but I have some issues with it. OK, so I get it. The point is she did not repent, although she did sincerely want to end her life of debauchery. But she did not repent in the religious sense, which to me is a moot point. She was able to look back upon her life with shame and took steps to change it, but unfortunately was not able to be truthful to the man she loved, or the daughter that desperately sought her. Was it wickedness or fear that was her final blow? I think, for myself, since I am such an open and honest person, the most dislikable characteristic of Roxana was her ease at lying, though, when she begins her new life, there are two people close to her that are brutally honest, and she should have taken their example.
    Because the book is long and eventful, and there are way too many points I would like to make, but that would turn this review into an essay, I will just briefly summarize Roxana's life, and add a few quotes. The Wikipedia page linked above also provides a good summary. But better yet, just read the novel yourself! One more comment: Defoe did not believe in chapters, so the book is ONE LONG STORY with no breaks or divisions, which drives me nuts.
    Let me begin with a quote from the beginning of the story, when Roxana (whose real name is Susan) is still unmarried and carefree, comfortable and popular. (And has a high opinion of herself!)

   I was (speaking of myself at about fourteen years of age) tall, and very well made; sharp as a hawk in matters of common knowledge; quick and smart in discourse; apt to be satirical; full of repartee; and a little too forward in conversation, or, as we call it in English, bold, though perfectly modest in my behaviour. Being French born, I danced, as some say, naturally, loved it extremely, and sang well also, and so well that, as you will hear, it was afterwards some advantage to me. With all these things, I wanted neither wit, beauty, or money. In this manner I set out into the world, having all the advantages that any young woman could desire, to recommend me to others, and form a prospect of happy living to myself.

    And here's how she later describes her husband! Oh, my!!

   After I have told you that he was a handsome man and a good sportsman, I have indeed said all; and unhappy was I, like other young people of our sex, I chose him for being a handsome, jolly fellow, as I have said; for he was otherwise a weak, empty-headed, untaught creature, as any woman could ever desire to be coupled with. And here I must take the liberty, whatever I have to reproach myself with in my after conduct, to turn to my fellow-creatures, the young ladies of this country, and speak to them by way of precaution. If you have any regard to your future happiness, any view of living comfortably with a husband, any hope of preserving your fortunes, or restoring them after any disaster, never, ladies, marry a fool; any husband rather than a fool. With some other husbands you may be unhappy, but with a fool you will be miserable; with another husband you may, I say, be unhappy, but with a fool you must; nay, if he would, he cannot make you easy; everything he does is so awkward, everything he says is so empty, a woman of any sense cannot but be surfeited and sick of him twenty times a day. What is more shocking than for a woman to bring a handsome, comely fellow of a husband into company, and then be obliged to blush for him every time she hears him speak? to hear other gentlemen talk sense, and he able to say nothing? and so look like a fool, or, which is worse, hear him talk nonsense, and be laughed at for a fool.

    As mentioned above, Roxana marries a charming fool who she quickly grows to hate, after bearing five children. Then he runs off leaving her and them to starve, as his sisters will not help her at all. Anyways, she gets together with her landlord whose name we never find out, but who truly adores her as a wife. She has no idea at first how wealthy he is, but she soon realizes she does not have to worry about starvation again. He must go to Paris on business, for he is a jeweler, and she says she will come along, which delights him. They are very happy, and decide to remain there.
    But one day he says he must go to Versailles on business which might bring him home late at night. She is anxious, and becomes terrified, as she has a vision of him bleeding to death as he speaks. She doesn't tell him, but begs him not to go just then. But he says he will be fine, and just in case, he turns over some very valuable items which he carries with him all the time, plus the key to his escritoire, where he keeps his money, saying if he should not return, it is hers.
    Below: The Jeweller is About to Leave For Versailles. And gives me his gold watch and a rich diamond which he had in a ring, and always wore on his finger.

The Jeweller is About to Leave For Versailles.

    And he does not return. He is killed by angry robbers, expecting those certain items which he always kept with him, but had left with Roxana. She is devastated, but also shrewd, lying about the items he had given her, saying they were stolen and she is now poor. The person he was supposed to meet at Versailles was a German Prince, who pays his respects to Roxana and offers his condolences, and money, too, especially since she now plays the poor widow. In any case, they like each other and begin a long affair, in which she bears him two children. One dies, but she mentions that the other becomes a fine military man, though she had feared he would carry the stigma of a bastard child. The two also travel to Italy. Incidentally, Amy never leaves the scene, and while she is not always with Roxana, she is involved in some aspect in her life. And she has a long-term affair with the Prince's gentleman.
    While they are in Italy, the Prince gives her a Turkish slave, who teaches her the language, customs, and how to dance, giving her a beautiful dancing costume, which plays a major role after she returns to England. After two years they return to Paris, and the Prince's wife dies. He loved Roxana, but he also loved his wife, and now feels remorse and shame at having treated her as he did. He breaks off the relationship and turns to religious devotion.
    Meanwhile, Roxana decides to return to England, but she has all this wealth, both in money and valuables. She had been given the name of an honorable Dutch merchant, so she seeks him out to advise her how to get her wealth safely back to England. He sends a Jew to purchase her items, but he recognizes her landlord's jewelry, and accuses her of killing him and stealing them. She tries to explain that she is the widow, but the problem is that she had previously claimed the jewels had been stolen. In any case, the Dutch merchant feels terrible for getting her involved with this Jew, so he finds a way to sneak her to Holland, where she is to meet one of his trusted business associates. She and Amy sail together but the ship almost wrecks. Amy is ready to repent, but Roxana, not quite, and in the end, neither of them do.
    But they do make it back to England alive. Unfortunately, The Netherlands was their destination, which was where all of Roxana's wealth was tied up, so she sails alone, with Amy still being terrified. And who should arrive but the Dutchman. Roxana tells him she will give him anything he asks but she hopes there is one certain thing he will not ask for. Of course, we all think it is sex, but in fact, it is marriage. Well, it happens that his wife has died, and now Roxana believes her husband is dead, (but he really isn't, yet), so they do have sex, but no matter what he does, he cannot convince her to marry him. She says, "At length, having got room to speak, I told him that, as I had said before, I could deny him but one thing in the world; I was very sorry he should propose that thing only that I could not grant."
    This is one of those places where Roxana can be interpreted in many different ways, and perhaps Defoe did not even realize it. Does she prefer whoring and collecting oodles of wealth? Well, yes, in fact, but at the same time she has this inner fear of facing starvation, as she did after her husband left. The laws back then automatically transferred a woman's wealth to her husband at marriage to do as he pleased with it. But the Dutchman promised to make it legal that her wealth is her own. And she never admits that she was married.
    Or is she just a liberated woman? In fact, that part I TOTALLY agreed with, and saw myself in harmony with her. My independence has, for a very long time, been one of my prized possessions—the freedom to come and go as I please and not have to take into consideration the feelings or plans of anyone else. Selfish, you ask? No, just brutally honest and in touch with my own unique and ingrained character. In these days, it is more acceptable, though there are still those who think it is just an excuse for women who never got a man. HAHA!! NOT TRUE. Oh, my goodness. I have had a bumper sticker stuck to my refrigerator for decades that reads "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." That is me, and a part of Roxana, too.
    But when she decides much later to reform her life, the Dutchman shows up again. But before that, she has worn herself down. Her goal was to screw the king, but that didn't happen. However, she ended up with a wealthy Lord somebody—Defoe left their names blank—a dirty old man who finally just made her sick. And then she was done being a slut, and moved in with a Quaker gentlewoman, who becomes a wonderful friend. And that's where the Dutchman shows up. And to find out what happens, you will have to read the book. Keep in mind, once again, that the ending in this edition is only one possibility, as it is not by Defoe, and others also wrote endings, so click on the title at the top or bottom of this page to read this particular edition. I will end by quoting part of Roxana's conversation with the Dutchman, and her wonderful expression of the need to be a liberated and independent woman. Keep in mind, this is the early 1700s and written by a man. Yes, indeed, I believe I would have liked Daniel Defoe!

   I told him I had, perhaps, different notions of matrimony from what the received custom had given us of it; that I thought a woman was a free agent as well as a man, and was born free, and, could she manage herself suitably, might enjoy that liberty to as much purpose as the men do; that the laws of matrimony were indeed otherwise, and mankind at this time acted quite upon other principles, and those such that a woman gave herself entirely away from herself, in marriage, and capitulated, only to be, at best, but an upper servant, and from the time she took the man she was no better or worse than the servant among the Israelites, who had his ears bored—that is, nailed to the door-post—who by that act gave himself up to be a servant during life; that the very nature of the marriage contract was, in short, nothing but giving up liberty, estate, authority, and everything to the man, and the woman was indeed a mere woman ever after—that is to say, a slave.
   He replied, that though in some respects it was as I had said, yet I ought to consider that, as an equivalent to this, the man had all the care of things devolved upon him; that the weight of business lay upon his shoulders, and as he had the trust, so he had the toil of life upon him; his was the labour, his the anxiety of living; that the woman had nothing to do but to eat the fat and drink the sweet; to sit still and look around her, be waited on and made much of, be served and loved and made easy, especially if the husband acted as became him; and that, in general, the labour of the man was appointed to make the woman live quiet and unconcerned in the world; that they had the name of subjection without the thing; and if in inferior families they had the drudgery of the house and care of the provisions upon them, yet they had indeed much the easier part; for, in general, the women had only the care of managing—that is, spending what their husbands get; and that a woman had the name of subjection, indeed, but that they generally commanded, not the men only, but all they had; managed all for themselves; and where the man did his duty, the woman's life was all ease and tranquility, and that she had nothing to do but to be easy, and to make all that were about her both easy and merry.
   I returned, that while a woman was single, she was a masculine in her politic capacity; that she had then the full command of what she had, and the full direction of what she did; that she was a man in her separate capacity, to all intents and purposes that a man could be so to himself; that she was controlled by none, because accountable to none, and was in subjection to none.
   I added, that whoever the woman was that had an estate, and would give it up to be the slave of a great man, that woman was a fool, and must be fit for nothing but a beggar; that it was my opinion a woman was as fit to govern and enjoy her own estate without a man as a man was without a woman; and that, if she had a mind to gratify herself as to sexes, she might entertain a man as a man does a mistress; that while she was thus single she was her own, and if she gave away that power she merited to be as miserable as it was possible that any creature could be.

    And so you have it! Again, highly recommended reading, and while you're at it, explore some of Defoe's other works. Most people know him for Robinson Crusoe, and Moll Flanders, but he wrote so much more. I am going to browse through the Project Gutenberg listings and update my Defoe folder of saved eBooks.

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