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.
In France, the Prince de...
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