Hi, friends. Today’s classic dates all the way back to the eighteenth century, but the themes addressed in it are still relevant in a way that’s a bit shocking but entertaining.
Roxana by Daniel Defoe
Roxana (1724) shares many similarities with Moll Flanders, a novel Daniel Defoe published just two years prior to this one, which I posted about a few months ago. Both novels present themselves as retroactive, autobiographical, forewarning accounts of the sinful pasts of subversive women. Roxana, like Moll, begins the novel with a succinct account of her birth and early life; in both novels, the mayhem ensues once the protagonist falls into poverty after being widowed.
Roxana aims to be the mistress of wealthy men and scorns the idea of getting married (again) because, according to her, mistresses are treated better than wives, and she wants to maintain her legal independence. She takes the reader on a roller coaster ride through decades of sexual deviancy and deceit; she continuously expresses her horrified remorse for the past, addressing the readers directly, warning them not to follow in her footsteps. With Moll Flanders and Roxana, it’s hilariously fascinating to read the more ludicrous scenes and remember they’re written from the perspective of a man in the 1700’s posing as a woman.
This novel’s storylines feel darker than those in Moll Flanders. Moll’s primary talent is thieving, and her narrow escapes are exciting, but Roxana seems even more jaded. Roxana is less light-hearted but still amusing. By some unlikely luck, she finds herself in a good position to forsake her adulterous ways near the end, but will her past come back to ruin her?
The full title of the novel is 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 (the character) could be considered a proto-feminist since this novel was published over sixty years prior to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (landmark work that asserts women could be as intellectual as men if educated). Roxana argues that the marriage contract forces a woman to divest her liberty, authority, estate, etc. to the husband. [In a general sense, Roxana is reminiscent of the Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales.]
As with Moll Flanders, Defoe was not credited as the author for several decades. When people read these novels, they likely believed that the “autobiographies” were real since they were published anonymously. Funny to imagine since everything has disclaimers now!
Thanks for reading! Have you read Roxana or Moll Flanders? Have I piqued your interest?