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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.

Extended Summary

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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...

(This entire section contains 1991 words.)

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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 ever practical Amy immediately concludes that the landlord has designs on Roxana, but Roxana is unconvinced. The "favors," however, keep coming until there is no doubt in the two women's minds about what the landlord wants.

A long dialogue follows between Roxana and Amy about what Roxana should do. The mistress, coming from the gentry, refuses to admit that the only thing left for her to do was to surrender herself to the landlord's desire. That would reduce her to a whore, she says. Amy is not interested in epithets. Does she want to survive? she asked rhetorically. What would she do in her place? Amy would give in, the latter says without hesitation. Comply, survive; deny, die. Roxana poses a counter question, what would she do if Roxana became the landlord's lover? She could not imagine the landlord extending his generosity to the maid, given his past behavior. Amy, typical of the selflessness she has shown her mistress so far, simply says that once she is certain about her mistress being provided for, she will simply go away and take care of herself.

As it turns out, Amy does not have to leave. When the landlord proposes love, Roxana, after some initial protestations, accepts and is immediately restored to economic health, including continuing Amy's employment in the household and receiving back pay.

An interesting aspect of this fictional work—as in most of Defoe's fiction—is Roxana's capacity to self-reflect on her actions, and the decisions she makes about her life. While Amy seems to be driven solely by life's currents, making practical choices, Roxana is more self-aware and more moral, at least in thought if not in action. As a result she does not fool herself into thinking she is doing the right thing morally, even though she is persuaded to do that which is more conducive to survival. It is also common in Defoe's fiction that the protagonist's efforts at survival often result in relative prosperity: Crusoe and Roxana are good examples. Thus economics plays an important part in all his stories. But Roxana's self-reflections alternate between ruing her character because she essentially sells her body to maintain her physical well-being.

Having agreed to become the landlord's mistress, Roxana seems to regard herself as little better than a prostitute, while maintaining an outwardly pleasant even coquettish behavior with her benefactor. She is slowly becoming cynical about moral values.

This cynicism is perhaps nowhere more emphasized than in the episode in which she persuades both the landlord and Amy that they should have sex. After about two months of the arrangement with the landlord, everything seems to be going well, when suddenly Amy observes that Roxana has not gotten pregnant. She comments that had she been in Roxana's place, she would have conceived long before. Now, it is important to note that when Amy and Roxana had discussed the possibility of the landlord's sexual interest in her, Amy had remarked, albeit rather playfully, that she found the landlord quite attractive and would have taken up with him.

What follows is an unusually erotic scene, not descriptively but through narrative. Defoe tells how she coerces, almost forces Amy, to sleep with the landlord. Roxana coaxes and cajoles Amy, literally undresses her despite her resistance, right in front of him, and when Amy is completely disrobed, accompanies her to his bed and watches them make love. Even Pamela and Clarissa, written almost twenty years later, are not this erotic. Roxana explains that she does this because she wants Amy to be her partner-in-crime so that she does not have to bear the guilt all alone.

But for this one remarkable incident, Roxana's relationship with the landlord is quite happy and they live prosperous lives. Roxana even has a baby, but gives it to a relative of the landlord. Her lack of motherly instinct towards all eight of her children is a rather odd characteristic.

The landlord, jeweler by profession needs to go to Paris and asks Roxana to accompany him. They go away leaving Amy in charge. After living happily for several years, the landlord/jeweler is murdered during a business trip. Roxana, who has had a strange premonition of this, is heartbroken. But she soon recovers and agrees to become a mistress to a French nobleman and has another child. Amy rejoins her mistress when the landlord was killed. She returns to England when the Frenchman leaves Roxana, but not before settling her with an enormous amount of wealth. Roxana, perhaps because of her experience with poverty after she was abandoned by her first husband, is extremely mercenary (though delightfully tactful about it) in her relationships with men. After the stint with the nobleman, she takes all her money, and with the help of a Dutch tradesman, who literally saves her from being killed in Paris, converts everything to promissory notes and goes to Holland en route to England.

The Dutch trader follows her to Holland and proposes marriage. Roxana refuses to be his wife but gladly accepts him as a lover. This is one of the more interesting parts of the story, not because Roxana is more interested in being a mistress than a wife—late-seventeenth century-comedies are full of invectives against marriage—but because Roxana argues so vehemently and with such impressive logic that the tradesman, after putting a valiant defense for marriage, is forced to concede that his lover's arguments are, in fact, completely sound. Defoe devotes almost two thousand words to this section in which each party's arguments and counter arguments are presented.

After refusing the Dutch merchant, Roxana returns to England and gets heavily involved in its fashionable, aristocratic and commercial society. She continues to “work” as a mistresses to wealthy aristocrats and amass money, periodically entangling herself in financial and romantic intrigues. Her social climbing seems to know no limits and she tries to ensnare the king himself.

All along she has been giving birth to children as a result of her many sexual liaisons—a total of eight offspring, the latest being a son of the Dutch tradesman. She abandons each child, simply making sure that they are financially looked after.

The story of Roxana ends with her finally coming face to face with the fact of her motherhood. One of her daughters from her only marriage tracks her down and she is forced to acknowledge her. This incident also causes considerable tension in the relationship between her and the one person who has been a constant companion throughout Roxana’s life, Amy, her maid servant.

The story ends abruptly by informing the reader that a terrible misfortune befalls both Roxana and Amy, a misfortune that they acknowledge to be thoroughly deserved, given the weak moral fiber of their lives. They repent for their sins at the end but even this repentance, Roxana says, happens only because of this misfortune that she does not even bother to describe.