Roxana by Daniel Defoe.
Roxana, also known as The Fortunate Mistress, is a novel by Daniel Defoe; his final novel, first published anonymously in 1724. As with many 18th Century novels, it has quite a lengthy full title:
The Fortunate Mistress:
Vast Variety of Fortunes
Mademoiselle de Beleau,
The Countess de Wintselsheim,
Being the Person known by the Name of the Lᴀᴅʏ Rᴏxᴀɴᴀ, in the Time of King Charles II.
I do love these 18th Century titles!
Like Moll Flanders (1722), Roxana can be described as somewhat notorious. She (for the novel is written in the first person) begins by giving an account of her life:
I was Born, as my Friends told me, at the City of Pᴏɪᴄᴛɪᴇʀs, in the Province, or County of Pᴏɪᴄᴛᴏᴜ, in France, from whence I was bought to England by my Parents, who fled for their Religion about the Year 1683, when the Protestants were Banish'd from France by the Cruelty of their Persecutors.
This period she refers to follows the Edict of Nantes (1598) when religious liberty was given to French Protestants (Huguenots), something that was revoked in 1685, and for some twenty or more years before the Huguenots were systematically persecuted: many escaped to England. Interestingly, in the year of the publication of Roxana the Huguenots were again persecuted (this period, from 1724 - 1726 was known as the Persecution of Huguenots under Louis XV).
And so at a young age Roxana was brought to England where she grew up and learned the English language and ways very well, and, as she notes, "wanted neither Wit, Beauty, or Money". However, at the age of fifteen her parents make a bad match for her and she lives for eight years with who she refers to as "this Thing call'd a Husband". He ruins her financially then leaves her:
It was about the latter-end of August, and so was light yet at five a-Clock, and it was about that Time that I had heard him and his two Men go out and shut the Yard-Gates after them. He said nothing to me more than as usual when he us'd to go out upon his Sport; neither did I rise, or say anything to him that was material, but went to-sleep again after he was gone, for two Hours, or thereabouts.
It must be a little surprizing to the Reader to tell him at once, that after this I never saw my Husband more; but to go farther, I not only never saw him more, but I never heard from him, nor of him, neither any or either of his two Servants, or of the Horses, either what became of them, where, or which Way they went, or what they did, or intended to do, no more than if the Ground had open'd and swallow'd them all up, and no-body had known it; except hereafter.
She is left with her five children, her lady's maid Amy, and without money or possibility of help, her father having already died and her husband's family largely turn their back on her with the exception of an elderly aunt of her husbands: the children are thus turned over to her care and Roxana and Amy are left to work out just how they will survive, and whether Roxana should accept or resist the advances of her wealthy landlord, and the moral implications of such a decision.
Roxana is great fun to read, but it does have more serious undertones. Our heroine must find own way in an intensely patriarchal society, and make decisions for what is best for her rather than what is right by society or best for an individual man. For this reason, for Roxana's desire for independence coupled with her lack of social standing, Virginia Woolf argues in favour of her as a early feminist icon. In The Common Reader First Series (1925; Chapter 9: 'Defoe') she writes,
The advocates of women’s rights would hardly care, perhaps, to claim Moll Flanders and Roxana among their patron saints; and yet it is clear that Defoe not only intended them to speak some very modern doctrines upon the subject, but placed them in circumstances where their peculiar hardships are displayed in such a way as to elicit our sympathy. Courage, said Moll Flanders, was what women needed, and the power to “stand their ground”; and at once gave practical demonstration of the benefits that would result. Roxana, a lady of the same profession, argues more subtly against the slavery of marriage. She “had started a new thing in the world” the merchant told her; “it was a way of arguing contrary to the general practise”. But Defoe is the last writer to be guilty of bald preaching. Roxana keeps our attention because she is blessedly unconscious that she is in any good sense an example to her sex and is thus at liberty to own that part of her argument is “of an elevated strain which was really not in my thoughts at first, at all”. The knowledge of her own frailties and the honest questioning of her own motives, which that knowledge begets, have the happy result of keeping her fresh and human when the martyrs and pioneers of so many problem novels have shrunken and shrivelled to the pegs and props of their respective creeds.
I must say, as ever, I agree with Woolf! The style of early 18th Century works are a little hard to get used to, but once I got past that I thoroughly enjoyed Roxana.