Tag Archives: Daniel Defoe

Book 18: Roxana by Daniel Defoe

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.

Happy Reading!


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Book 17: Moll Flanders

Book 17 of the 1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die list is Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe. I found this book on my work shelves, and I think I picked it up for free one time when someone else set a pile of no longer wanted books outside her office door. I had intended to read it, and I think I even started it, but alas I didn’t finish it. So, I picked it up this time around with better intentions.

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders was written after Robinson Crusoe (reviewed here). The 1001 Books editors describe Moll Flanders with this:  “Narrated in the first person, the novel relates the autobiography of Moll Flanders. Moll leads an eventful life which includes travel with gypsies, five marriages, incest, prostitution, and twelve years as one of London’s most notorious and successful thieves” (42).

Specifically, Moll Flanders is the pseudonym of a woman born to a convicted criminal. Moll’s mother found herself pregnant and in Newgate prison in London. She used her pregnancy to get a stay of execution, a practice called “pleading her belly.” Moll’s mother is transported to America, and Moll is raised by a foster mom. Later, Moll becomes a servant to a household with two sons who love her. The older son convinces her to sleep with him and to avoid the consequences by marrying the younger son. She is later widowed and leaves that family, along with her children from that marriage, to try to attract another husband, one with enough fortune to provide her security. (The last time I tried to read this book, I stopped here. I resented any woman who would leave her children for whatever reason, and I decided I didn’t care what happened to her next.)

Her next husband goes bankrupt and flees leaving her on her own again. The next husband takes her to Virginia to meet his family. After she and he have two children, she realizes that his mother is also her biological mother, which means she married and procreated with her half-brother. She leaves him and their children and goes to Bath to seek a new husband. She finds a man their who she cons into developing a relationship. Because he is married to a woman confined for insanity, Moll becomes his mistress. They appear to be in love and have a child, but after an illness, this man repents his new life and returns to his wife.

At 42, Moll is still without a man which she sees as essential to caring for her. So, she finds another married man, a banker, and cons him into giving her his money while waiting on his divorce. She is still looking for a man with more money, who she thinks she has found in a Roman Catholic in Lancashire. She marries him, but then finds out that he was conning her in hopes of a great dowry. They are both disappointed in their lack of funds. He lets her out of the marriage, but Moll is pregnant again. Moll gives birth to a child here and the midwife digresses into a lecture on how much birthing costs related to social class, just one instance of Defoe’s Whig views being expressed in this novel.

She returns to the banker in hopes of getting his fortune. The banker becomes available after the suicide of his wife, so Moll leaves the child with someone else and rushed off to marry him. Together they have two more children, but the banker dies broke and destitute after five years.

Moll believes herself to be desperate now, so she turns to a life of thievery to get the financial security she needs. She steals from everyone, including a family whose house is burning to the ground and her lover. She is eventually caught and sent to Newgate. Here she is reunited with her husband from Lancashire, who has also been jailed from robbery. Together, they convince a minister to send them to the colonies to avoid execution. When they arrive, she learns that her mother has passed away leaving her a plantation, which is being carried for by her son (with her half-brother).

She and her husband find a farm in Maryland, and she connects with her son in Virginia. He will steward the plantation left by his grandmother, and in turn, she will make him her heir. She tells her husband about her relationship with her half-brother / husband, and her Lancashire husband doesn’t care and doesn’t blame her. The story ends with Moll, at age 69, returning to London with her husband to live “in sincere penitence for the wicked lives we have lived”.

The editors of the 1001 Books include Moll Flanders because it “stands as one of the most important precursors to the modern novel” (42). The passage ends with this description: “Defoe paints an unforgettable picture of the seamy underside of England. A masterful gold digger, conniver, and survivor, Moll exploits her formidable talents to evade poverty. The novel’s power lies in the force and attraction of Moll’s character which catches the reader’s imagination and sympathy. But it also lies in the delightfully subversive moral of the tale which seems not to be that wickedness will be punished, but rather that once can live a profligate life and not only get away with it, but in fact prosper from it too” (42).

And people have prospered from telling Moll’s story with various play and movie adaptations. Evidently, one of the movie adaptations, The Story of Moll Flanders, stars Robin Wright Penn and Morgan Freeman, both of whom I like. I have added this version to my Netflix list, but it was not available to Watch Instantly. I will try to watch it soon and let you know if it is any good.

Until then, Happy Reading!

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Book 15: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Maybe you’ve seen Cast Away (2000)? Not one of my favorites (mostly because Wilson freaked me out), but it was a huge money maker, so someone liked it. It is, of course, based on The Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Mariner, Written By Himself by Daniel Defoe, published in 1719. The novel, consider the first British novel by many, has been recycled in several stories besides Cast Away, including the Swiss Family Robinson and Foe. It is Book 15 of the 1001 Books Challenge.

I have read it before, as a young teenager when I decided that to win the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, I needed to be familiar with all of the “classics” and read a large number of books from the traditional literary canon before I began to write. (Who knew what I was thinking, right?) I still have the copy that I picked up at a yard sale that year (encouraged and funded by my Grandmother who wanted nothing more than to go to college and become a teacher but had no funds and no scholarships offered to poor women in her day). I’m not sure that I have read it since until I picked it up again for this challenge.

1001 Books gives an interesting description of the book: “The novel presents us with a fundamental scenario. The prolonged and intense solitude of Robinson, shipwrecked on a desert island, strips him of the tools that have allowed him to live, and confronts him with the essential problems of his existence. In the vast silence even words begin to desert him. He tries to keep a diary in order to stay in touch with his civilized self, but the small supply of watered-down ink that he salvages from the shipwreck gradually starts to fail and the words that he writes eventually disappear, leaving Robinson’s diary as blank as his horizon” (40). That is not the book I read as that young teenager. I read a slow, boring, long-winded, word full book in which the hero doesn’t have grand adventures (liked the Swiss family) and contemplates his life way too much.

The profoundness of his silence, of language and words, to socialization and isolation were not clear to me then and did not appeal to me as they do now. Now, that story is much more compelling. It seems much more urgent. And it is with gratitude that I read Robinson’s tale of overcoming the potential madness of his situation with words knowing that Defoe really gave us narrative, writing with self-consciousness, and that is what I can take from this reread.

The book is the story of Robinson Crusoe’s 28 years on an island near Venezuela and his encounters with American Indians, slaves, and Mutineers. Many scholars have suggested that the story is based on the real-life Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish castaway for four years (somewhere in the pacific). Crusoe, as a young man going against the wishes of his parents, sets sail in 1651 to find adventure and make his way in the world. His first journey ends shipwrecked, and the second ends with Crusoe being captured and enslaved by Moors. Rescued and dropped in Brazil, he runs a plantation. Years later he decides to go on a slave expedition to Africa, and he is again shipwrecked. There, off the coast of Venezuela, Robinson Crusoe saves what he can salvage from the ship before it sinks and builds himself a shelter near a cave. He hunts, farms, makes tools, and domesticates animals. He reads the Bible, finds god, and builds a cross.

Years pass and RC discovers American Indian cannibals on the island and contemplates the nature of their sin (is it a sin if they do not know that it is?). Crusoe helps a prisoner escape and names him Friday for the day of the week he is found. (I guess Wilson is a better sidekick than the native Friday that RC has as a friend since Wilson is not obligated to turn itself into a slave to RC–and a christian–for having saved his life.) At this point, RC encounters other cannibals, others who are shipwrecked, and mutineers. RC works with the captain to retake his ship, and as they strand the mutineers on the island, RC tries to teach them what he has learned. Crusoe returns to England to learn that having believed him dead, his father willed him nothing. He heads out to claim the wealth from his estate in Brazil and brings it back to England overland to avoid the sea. He and Friday travel together and fight off wolves as a final adventure. And, that is where the original story ended.

Before I begin any book post, I do a quick google search to see what’s out there. This time, I learned something new. I found an article by Catherine Walker Bergstrom, which writes: “What is not common knowledge is that the original work was a trilogy and that in the subsequent novels Mr. Crusoe returns to the island years later and reflects upon his adventures from a political perspective” (par. 2). I had no idea. I have not read the other two books. I may add them to my TBR list but probably not. There are too many fun books read without suffering unnecessarily. The first was worth it. I don’t know that I could justify the other two.

If you have read them, let me know what you think. Do I add them to my To Be Read list? Thanks, & Happy Reading.

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