Friday, August 17, 2012

500. Roxana, The Unfortunate Mistress – Daniel Defoe

History: Published in 1724, the novel examines the possibility of eighteenth century women owning their own estate despite a patriarchal society. The novel further draws attention to the incompatibility between sexual freedom and freedom from motherhood. Roxana becomes pregnant many times due to her sexual exploits, and it is one of her children who come back to expose her, years later, by the closing scenes in the novel. The character of Roxana can be described as a proto-feminist because she carries out her actions of prostitution for her own ends of freedom, but before a feminist ideology was fully formed.[
The novel concerns the story of an unnamed "fallen woman", the second time Defoe created such a character (the first was a similar female character in Moll Flanders). In Roxana, a woman who takes on various pseudonyms, including "Roxana," describes her fall from wealth thanks to abandonment by a "fool" of a husband and movement into prostitution upon his abandonment. Roxana moves up and down through the social spectrum several times, by contracting an ersatz marriage to a jeweler, secretly courting a prince, being offered marriage by a Dutch merchant, and is finally able to afford her own freedom by accumulating wealth from these men.
Plot: Roxana or The Fortunate Mistress was published in 1724. It is supposed to be a biography of one Madamoselle Beleau, the lovely daughter of French Protestant refugees, brought up in England and married to a good-for-nothing son of an English brewer.
Roxana's husband squanders his property and abandons his wife and five children. She enters upon a career of a mistress, first to the landlord in whose house she and her husband were renting, and then to a series of wealthy aristocrats and businessmen in three countries, England, France and Holland. She acquires her name of "Roxana," traditionally given to stage actresses, after she had returned to London from Europe, and become a famous courtesan.
She is accompanied in her adventures by a faithful maid, Amy, a very lively, attractive and intelligent woman. After many adventures with many men and women, most of whom amazingly, are good decent people who do not take advantage of a beautiful abandoned woman in distress (hence the title of the story—"The Fortunate Mistress"), she finally marries a Dutch merchant who has been her long time lover and friend and even the father to one of her sons. However, in a rather a hurried end to the story, the husband discovers the deceitful and immoral life his wife has led and dies shortly after leaving a her a small sum of money.
Interestingly, the ending of Roxana is shrouded in dispute. In Defoe's original version the protagonist does notdie, but repents for the life she has lived, and that too—according to Roxana herself—only because she comes to an unhappy end after the death of her husband. However, the book, because it was published anonymously (as was often the case with fictitious histories in those days) and then went through several questionable editions, later interpolators gave the story various endings, all of which has the protagonist die repenting her life full of sins. In fact, no less an authoritative encyclopedia than the Oxford Companion to English Literature says that at the end of the book Roxana dies repentant. In Defoe's 1724 version, she does not.
This controversy has led to interesting discussions among scholars regarding the moral purpose of the story of Roxana.
Review: Lady Roxana is one of 4 novels written by Daniel Defoe. The story is about the life of lady Roxana, narrated by herself. The plot is quite simple. Roxana is a beautiful woman who becomes an upper-class prostitute to save herself from poverty. She travels a lot and gives birth to 12 children. Still, the book can exercise a special power over the reader - at least, that's what happened to me. Actually, one of the reasons why I really love it is not in the subject but in Defoe's attitude regarding his protagonist. He is a man: an Eighteenth Century man. He writes about a woman involved in prostitution, murder, and her inability to have motherly feelings. Still, he never judges Roxana as a character. He just comments and judge actions in general and all the other characters - but there is always a sort of protection toward Roxana.
When I read the book for the first time it was after getting passionate for another of Defoe's novels, Moll Flanders. Again, the story of a woman who uses her body to save herself from poverty. However, it's important to point out that Moll, unlike Roxana, chooses a "legal and moral way", that is to say marriage. Roxana is harder to read, maybe because of the major themes, and probably because of the fact that the writing isn't as fluent and "easy going" as in the previous novel. Still,Roxana attracts me more.
As a modern reader and, most of all, as a woman, I guess at times the book pretty much seems, to me, to be of a special kind. Obviously, prostitution is not to be encouraged (both men and women would agree with that) but it's the way Defoe deals with his character that makes the book "special". A man whose description of a woman is based on a "being positive all the time". She is as beautiful as an angel. She is pure - it's others who make her guilty!. She is intelligent and able to improve her abilities (Roxana becomes very good in administrating her fortune, ability which is particularly important considering the century and the central role given to economics). Furthermore, the idea of men that emerges from the book is totally negative (if not totally, then 90%).
The decision of writing a book for women as if he was a woman himself sounds even more interesting to me considering the fact that at the end of the previous century Defoe wrote a sort of "feminist pamphlet", "An Academy for Women" in which he expresses many of the ideas that, long time after, feminist writers will. For example, the necessity for women to have a proper education and become independent from everybody (including husband and father!).
I guess the only argument Defoe didn't deal with in a credible "feminine" way is motherhood. Actually, Roxana has 12 children but she seems to be totally incapable of feeling real affection for them. She just gives birth to them and, soon after that, stops mentioning them. The only one she talks a lot about is also the one who will be killed: Susan. I confess this sounds particularly curious to me because of the fact that Defoe himself had several children and is often described as a good caring father.
Opening Line: “I was born, as my friends told me, at the city of Poitiers, in the province or county of Poitou, in France, from whence I was brought to England by my parents, who fled for their religion about the year 1683, when the Protestants were banished from France by the cruelty of their persecutors.”
Closing Line: “And having, as she believed, made her peace with God, she died with mere grief on the 2nd of July 1742, in the sixty-fifth year of her age, and was decently buried by me in the churchyard belonging to the Lutherans, in the city of Amsterdam.”
Quotes: "At about fifteen years of age my father gave me, as he called it in French, 25,000 livres, that is to say, two thousand pounds portion, and married me to an eminent brewer in the City. Pardon me if I conceal his name, for though he was the foundation of my ruin, I cannot take so severe a revenge upon him…”
Rating: Entertaining.

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