Roxana or The Fortunate Mistress was published in 1724. It 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.
Roxana's husband squanders his property and abandons his wife and five children. She enters upon a career of a mistress, first to the landlord in whose house she and her husband were renting, and then to a series of wealthy aristocrats and businessmen in three countries, England, France and Holland. She acquires her name of "Roxana," traditionally given to stage actresses, after she had returned to London from Europe, and become a famous courtesan.
She is accompanied in her adventures by a faithful maid, Amy, a very lively, attractive and intelligent woman. After many adventures with many men and women, most of whom amazingly, are good decent people who do not take advantage of a beautiful abandoned woman in distress (hence the title of the story—"The Fortunate Mistress"), she finally marries a Dutch merchant who has been her long time lover and friend and even the father to one of her sons. However, in a rather a hurried end to the story, the husband discovers the deceitful and immoral life his wife has led and dies shortly after leaving a her a small sum of money.
Interestingly, the ending of Roxana is shrouded in dispute. In Defoe's original version the protagonist does notdie, 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, the book, because it was published anonymously (as was often the case with fictitious histories in those days) and then went through several questionable editions, later interpolators gave the story various endings, all of which has the protagonist die repenting her life full of sins. In fact, no less an authoritative encyclopedia than the Oxford Companion to English Literature says that at the end of the book Roxana dies repentant. In Defoe's 1724 version, she does not.
This controversy has led to interesting discussions among scholars regarding the moral purpose of the story of Roxana.
Born in France, from which her parents fled because of religious persecution, Roxana grew to adolescence in England. At the age of fifteen, she married a handsome but conceited man. After eight years of marriage, during which time her husband went through all of their money, Roxana is left penniless with five children. She appeals for aid to her husband’s relatives, all of whom refuse her except one old aunt, who is in no position to help her materially. Amy, Roxana’s maid, refuses to leave her mistress although she receives no wages for her work. Another poor old woman whom Roxana had aided during her former prosperity adds her efforts to those of the old aunt and Amy. These good people manage to extract money from the relatives of the children’s father, and all five of the little ones are given over to the care of the poor old woman.
Roxana is penniless and at the point of despair when Mr. ——, her landlord, after expressing his admiration for her, praises her fortitude under all of her difficulties and offers to set her up in housekeeping. He returns all the furniture he had confiscated, gives her food and money, and generally conducts himself with such kindness and candor that Amy urges Roxana to become the gentleman’s mistress should he ask it. Roxana, however, clings to her virtuous independence. Fearing that the gentleman’s kindness will go unrewarded, Amy, because she loves her mistress, offers to lie with the landlord in Roxana’s place. This offer, however, Roxana refuses to consider. The two women talk much about the merits of the landlord, his motive in befriending Roxana, and the moral implications of his attentions.
When the landlord comes to take residence as a boarder in Roxana’s house, he proposes, since his wife has deserted him, that he and Roxana live as husband and wife. To show his good faith, he offers to share his wealth with her, bequeathing her five hundred pounds in his will and promising seven thousand pounds if he leaves her. There is a festive celebration that evening and a little joking about Amy’s offer to lie with the gentleman. Finally Roxana, her conscience still bothering her, yields to his protestations of love and has sex with him.
After a year and a half has passed and Roxana has not conceived a child, Amy chides her mistress for her barrenness. Feeling that Mr. —— is not her true husband, Roxana sends Amy to him to beget a child. Amy does bear a child, which Roxana takes as her own to save the maid embarrassment. Two years later, Roxana has a daughter, who dies within six months. A year later, she pleases her lover with a son.
Mr. —— takes Roxana with him to Paris on business. There they live in great style until he is robbed and murdered for the jewels he carries on his person. Roxana manages to retain the gentleman’s wealth and secure it against the possible claims of his wife, who is still living.
Roxana was born of French parents and came to England with them because her non-Roman Catholic family members were persecuted in France. Her father was well-to-do, trading in alcoholic beverages.
From childhood, Roxana was a handsome young girl, taller than average, with a strong body and legs; her physique made her a very good dancer. Moreover, as a consequence of coming to England as an infant, she was able to speak English without accent. She was a happy, gregarious teenager, with a flair for conversation and a penchant for irony.
Roxana's father provided well for her, bequeathing to her over 3,000 livres (well over $100,000 dollars in contemporary money), on which a family could live practically a whole lifetime unless the money was squandered.
But Roxana's good-for-nothing husband does squander it. At fifteen, she marries him because he was uncommonly handsome. But, alas, the man was only interested in hunting, drinking and whoring. The son of a fairly well-to-do brewer, Roxana's husband does not help at all in the family business; instead, he is prone to spending recklessly what his parsimonious father had accumulated. The indulgent father spoils his only son and does not prepare him at all in the family business. After the brewer's death, the inevitable happens. He spends every penny left to him, and Roxana's money too. Having neither the inclination for business nor any head for it, he fails with every business adventure he launches. Then one day, having literally lost every penny, he simply disappears from Roxana's life all together, leaving her in utter poverty.
Roxana is both destitute and furious at her ne’er-do-well husband. Calling him a "fool," Roxana launches into a tirade on foolish husbands that is at once true and extremely funny. If you have any intention of being happy, Roxana says to women in general, do not marry a fool. With other husbands you may be unhappy, but with a fool you are bound to be! And not just unhappy, but totally miserable! Imagine, says Roxana, walking into a room with your handsome husband, feeling proud that everybody is noticing his good looks until he opens his mouth. He does not, cannot speak a word of sense, and does not stop speaking! Oh, how embarrassing that is, how utterly humiliating!
Small wonder then that Roxana is hardly saddened by his disappearance. At first she almost does not notice his absence, expecting him to turn up like a bad penny any day. But then when weeks go by, she becomes concerned, not about his safety, but about herself and her five children. The fool has left them absolutely penniless.
For quite a while Roxana and her five children along with a maid servant, Amy, live in utter penury. They could not pay rent or feed the children. The landlord threatens them with eviction, and, in fact, ransacks their house, cleaning them out of whatever few possession are worth anything.
Soon it becomes obvious that Roxana cannot bring up the children. Amy, her intelligent and highly pragmatic servant, persuades her to elicit the help of her husband's sisters. Not surprisingly, they refuse. Then Amy thinks of an ingenious plan.
She will take the five children to the two sisters' house when the sisters are not at home. Amy will meet with one of the maids, telling her that she is having a difficult time managing the children; could please leave a couple of them for a few minutes while she goes to get the others from down the street? She will promise to be gone for just a few minutes. The maid will agree.
The plan works to perfection. The sisters return to their house only to find them laden with five children between them. They hit the ceiling and insist on sending them away to the local parish. Fortunately for the children, one of the sisters' husbands is willing to take them in, much to the chagrin and irritation of the sisters.
Something must be said about Amy here. She was not only intelligent and spritely and handsome to boot, but her loyalty to her mistress is phenomenal. For one thing, even though Roxana has no money to pay her wages, she absolutely refused to leave her and her five little children. Secondly, she is a brilliant strategist, maneuvering her mistress' and her lives avoiding and dodging the mine fields of poverty, and all this in good cheer. Mistress and maid live together, sharing each other's poverty, keeping up each other's spirits.
Meanwhile, their economic situation keeps getting worse. At this point, on the verge of utter destruction, both Roxana and Amy start noticing a discernible change in the landlord's attitude toward Roxana. He is gentler, kinder and has not only stopped insisting on rent but also started bringing them food and other types of subsistence. The intelligent and...