Published anonymously, and not attributed to Defoe until 1775, the novel Roxana was a popular hit in the eighteenth century although many readers find it hard going today.
Roxana was Defoe’s last, darkest, and most commercial novel about a woman who trades her virtue for survival and, once she is secure financially, continues to sacrifice her virtue for greater and greater riches writes John Mullan in the introduction to the Oxford World Classic edition of Roxana.
Money, or lack of it, is the root of Roxana’s and many female literary characters until the present day.
The book 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.
Fictional biographies, an oxymoron if ever there was one, were all the rage in 18th century literature and Defoe’s story of Roxana was a particularly salacious one filled with moral ambiguity, sex and murder; a sure fired recipe for success even in today’s literature market.
The plot has many twists and turns but begins when after eight years of marriage, our heroine’s spendthrift husband leaves her penniless with five children to look after. Receiving no help from her relatives, she abandons her children to the care of an old woman; a sure sign a woman is about to become morally and socially persona no grata but Roxana justifies abandoning her children on the grounds that they were starving, confessing, ‘the Misery of my own Circumstances hardened my Heart against my own Flesh and Blood.” Of course, her husband has already abandoned them but there is no moral approbation for him.
Anyway the fictional pair settle down together but Roxana fails to produce a child for her new lover so she sends her maid to do the job for her, which she does. Roxana takes the child as her own to save her maid’s reputation and two years later, Roxana has a daughter of her own but she who dies within six months. A year later, she pleases her lover with a son. So far, Roxana’s actions are a curious mixture of adhering to and breaking the social, religious, and cultural norms of the day but with the death of her common-law husband, the landlord, she becomes a true libertarian devoid of morality and sexual restraint.
In the next part of the book Roxana becomes a greedy hedonist and the mistress of a French prince with whom she has a son. She could have stopped her whoring when the landlord died, she had enough money to live as a quiet widow but she did not. She likes money and sex and seems to have little or no feeling for the children she produces along the way. Finally, she marries a Dutch merchant who has been her long time lover and friend and has another son.
Roxana’s new and respectable life is threatened by the reappearance of her oldest daughter, Susan, who wants to claim her place in the upper classes besides her mother but Roxana is saved from exposure when Amy, her long serving maid and confidant, murders the bothersome child.
When her husband dies soon after Susan’s murder Roxana enters the final phase of her fall from matronly virtue to a common harlot famed for her Turkish dancing. She returns to England with her bloom has well and truly gone but she still believes she has sexual power over men. Gradually she sinks to working as a common prostitute receiving a multitude of different clients to maintain her lifestyle.
Interestingly, the ending of Roxana is shrouded in dispute. In Defoe's original version Roxana does not die, 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, with the book being published anonymously, as was often the case with fictitious histories in those days, it went through several editions with various endings, in all of which Roxana dies repenting of her sins.
The novel’s influence in feminists’ eyes comes from the fact that it 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". It further draws attention to the incompatibility between sexual freedom and the responsibilities of motherhood in a world without contraception.
Some say the character of Roxana is a proto-feminist like Defoe's other great female character, Moll Flanders, because she works at prostitution for her own ends as a way of gaining her independence from men. Indeed Defoe would have been aware of women all over London doing the same but probably with less success than his female characters neither of which succumb to the pox.
Roxana is a mashed up Restoration Comedy character. She carries both the hope and optimism of the young that things will turn out well for her financially and in love but she is also burdened by the corruption of those who went before her with her greed, moral corruption, and self-delusion; perhaps the same mixed feelings Defoe would have experienced himself from his work as a political satirist.
The happy ending of these Restoration plays is supposed to be a restoration of order from the chaos and confusion fostered by the older generation’s dishonesty and greed. This is perhaps why Defoe’s conclusion to the novel does not seek to punish Roxana with death as so many of its more puritanical publishers did when they re-wrote the ending.
I think he knows there is no escape from the corruption of power and money and he wants to reprieve Roxana from his own Calvinist judgement in the same way he hopes for forgiveness for his own deceptions in the world of politics and for his own personal ambition and avarice. Roxana repents and lives like Defoe himself. The presence of morality does not ensure the good succeed and the wicked are punished. (See my Facebook page to find out more.)
Defoe, Daniel. Roxana, ed. John Mullan. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.