Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress
Title page from the first edition
Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (full title: 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) is a 1724 novel by Daniel Defoe.
Born in France, from which her parents fled because of religious persecution, Roxana grew to adolescence in England. At the age of fifteen, she married a handsome but conceited man. After eight years of marriage, during which time her husband went through all of their money, Roxana is left penniless with five children. She appeals for aid to her husband’s relatives, all of whom refuse her except one old aunt, who is in no position to help her materially. Amy, Roxana’s maid, refuses to leave her mistress although she receives no wages for her work. Another poor old woman whom Roxana had aided during her former prosperity adds her efforts to those of the old aunt and Amy. These good people manage to extract money from the relatives of the children’s father, and all five of the little ones are given over to the care of the poor old woman.
Roxana is penniless and at the point of despair when Mr. ——, her landlord, after expressing his admiration for her, praises her fortitude under all of her difficulties and offers to set her up in housekeeping. He returns all the furniture he had confiscated, gives her food and money, and generally conducts himself with such kindness and candor that Amy urges Roxana to become the gentleman’s mistress should he ask it. Roxana, however, clings to her virtuous independence. Fearing that the gentleman’s kindness will go unrewarded, Amy, because she loves her mistress, offers to lie with the landlord in Roxana’s place. This offer, however, Roxana refuses to consider. The two women talk much about the merits of the landlord, his motive in befriending Roxana, and the moral implications of his attentions.
When the landlord comes to take residence as a boarder in Roxana’s house, he proposes, since his wife has deserted him, that he and Roxana live as husband and wife. To show his good faith, he offers to share his wealth with her, bequeathing her five hundred pounds in his will and promising seven thousand pounds if he leaves her. There is a festive celebration that evening and a little joking about Amy’s offer to lie with the gentleman. Finally Roxana, her conscience still bothering her, yields to his protestations of love and has sex with him.
After a year and a half has passed and Roxana has not conceived a child, Amy chides her mistress for her barrenness. Feeling that Mr. —— is not her true husband, Roxana sends Amy to him to beget a child. Amy does bear a child, which Roxana takes as her own to save the maid embarrassment. Two years later, Roxana has a daughter, who dies within six months. A year later, she pleases her lover with a son.
Mr. —— takes Roxana with him to Paris on business. There they live in great style until he is robbed and murdered for the jewels he carries on his person. Roxana manages to retain the gentleman’s wealth and secure it against the possible claims of his wife, who is still living.
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. Later, however, she marries a wealthy man and combines her fortune with his, only to have it swept away from her when her husband discovers that she has misled him about her earlier children. He dies, leaving a will that excludes her from inheriting anything more than a pittance (including the wealth that she brought into the marriage), ultimately causing her to be thrown in prison for a debt, where she dies.
The novel examines the possibility of eighteenth century women owning their own estate despite a patriarchal society, as with Roxanna's celebrated claim that "the Marriage Contract is...nothing but giving up Liberty, Estate, Authority, and every-thing, to the Man". 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, Susan, who come back to expose her, years later, near the novel's close, helping to precipitate her flight abroad, subsequent loss of wealth, and (ambiguous) repentance.
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, (though Defoe also works to undercut the radicalism of her position); while the book also explores the clash of values between the Restoration court and the middle-class.
Published anonymously, and not attributed to Defoe till 1775, Roxana was nonetheless a popular hit in the eighteenth century, frequently reprinted in altered versions to suit the taste of the day: thus the 1775 edition, which called itself The New Roxana, had been sentimentalised to meet the tastes of the day. Only gradually from the 19thC onwards did the novel begin to be treated as serious literature : Ethel Wilson has been one of the 20thC authors subsequently influenced by its matter-of-factness and freedom from cant.
- M. M. Boardman, Narrative Innovation and Incoherence (1992) p. 48
- M. M. Boardman, Narrative Innovation and Incoherence (1992) p. 57
- John Mullan ed., Roxana (2008) p. 329-30 and p. x-xi
- M. M. Boardman, Narrative Innovation and Incoherence (1992) p. 49-50
- A. H. King, Daniel Defoe's Erotic Economics (2009) p. 212
- John Mullan ed., Roxana (2008) p. 337-9
- D. Stouck, Ethel Wilson (2011) p.184
- David Wallace Spielman. 2012. "The Value of Money in Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Roxana". Modern Language Review, 107(1): 65-87.
- Susanne Scholz. 2012. "English Women in Oriental Dress: Playing the Turk in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters and Daniel Defoe's Roxana". Early Modern Encounters with the Islamic East: Performing Cultures. Eds. Sabine Schülting, Savine Lucia Müller, and Ralf Herte. Farnam, England: Ashgate. 85-98.
- Robin Runia. 2011. "Rewriting Roxana: Eighteenth-Century Narrative Form and Sympathy". Otherness: Essays and Studies, 2(1).
- Christina L. Healey. 2009. "'A Perfect Retreat Indeed': Speculation, Surveillance, and Space in Defoe's Roxana". Eighteenth-Century Fiction. 21(4): 493-512.
- Gerald J. Butler. "Defoe and the End of Epic Adventure: The Example of Roxana". Adventure: An Eighteenth-Century Idiom: Essays on the Daring and the Bold as a Pre-Modern Medium. Eds. Serge Soupel, Kevin L. Cope, Alexander Pettit, and Laura Thomason Wood. New York, NY: AMS. 91-109.
- John Mullan. 2008. "Introduction". Roxana. Ed. John Mullan. Oxford: Oxford University Press. vii-xxvii.
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