Roxana, or The Fortunate Mistress, A History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mademoiselle de Beleau, Afterwards call’d the Countess of Wintelsheim, in German, by Daniel Defoe is Book 18 on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. I was completely unfamiliar with this Defoe work. I found it on GoogleBooks and downloaded it for free.
Roxana is Defoe’s last novel, and like Moll Flanders, features a morally ambiguous and unnamed woman. In this book, Roxana describes her decline from wealth after being abandoned by her husband. She turns to prostitution and moves up and down the social ladder by contracting marriage with a jeweler, courting a prince, and being the object of love of a Dutch merchant. Her experiences with these men allow her to accumulate enough wealth that she can live in freedom.
Her freedom, like Moll’s, though is problematic. Is she searching for sexual freedom, financial freedom, or freedom from motherhood (along her journey she has given birth to at least 12 children)? As I noted when reviewing Moll Flanders, the idea of freedom from motherhood is rather repugnant to me. Those that abandon their children (male or female) have little to redeem themselves, I believe. Now, financial freedom, sexual freedom, and even freedom from societal norms are all admirable goals. But what exactly is Roxana working toward?
However, it is not Roxana’s attitude or journey that is fascinating. It is Defoe’s. A review by Anna Fioravanti summarizes this: “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.” And while I don’t find that as astonishing as Fioravanti, it is kind of unique. So, instead of judging Roxana, I’ll just recommend you read it for yourself.