Roxana: The Unfortunate Mistress and the Discourse of Marriage “…
I thought a woman was a free agent, as well as a man, and was born free, and cou’d she manage herself suitably, might enjoy that liberty to as much otherwise as the men do; that the laws of matrimony were indeed, otherwise, and mankind at this time, acted quite upon other principles; and those such, that a woman gave herslef entirely away from herself, in marriage, and capitulated only to be, at best, but an upper-servant, and from the time she took the man, she was no better or worse than the servant among the Israelities who had his ears bor’d, that is, nail’d to the door-post… (p. 187). In a patriarchal age when it was a husband’s role as governor of his family and household, one woman refuses to except the role given to her by society. In Daniel Defoe’s novel Roxana, Roxana finds herself in the same unhappy and inevitable situation as most women of her time. Continually instructed that their spiritual and social worth resided above all else in their practice of and reputation for chastity, unmarried virgins and wives were to maintain silence in the public sphere and to give unquestionable obedience to both their father and their husband.
It was her responsibility to cook, clean, and administer medicine to her family. However, though not was free-willed as their men, widows were granted many more freedoms than those of wives and virgins. They were allowed more control of making their own decisions and managing their affairs, than married women, whose husbands were allowed sole control of their estate. Throughout the story of Roxana, the union of marriage is continuously coming into play.
Though courted by many, Roxana continues to avoid the act of marriage and the wifely role, which she habitually equates to servitude, slavery and imprisonment. She justifies her aversion to marriage on the basis of her unhappy and misfortunate union with her first husband, the brewer. Born to a fairly wealthy family, Roxana, as she is later called, is given a dowry of ? 2,000 and married off to a brewer at the age of fifteen. With her first husband she lives a moderate, comfortable lifestyle, yet she is still unhappy. She finds him to be a handsome, jolly man with very little intelligence.
Roxana herself advises other young women not to marry a fool if she would like to live a happy comfortable life with her husband. Due to the mismanagement of the estate left to her by her deceased father by her brother, Roxana is left with only her husband’s estate to support the family. However, her husband’s lack of business and money management skills slowly leads to the loss of almost all of his assets as well. Having gone bankrupt, the brewer abandons his wife and five children without warning or way to support themselves.
Having no means to support her children, and having sold all items of value, Roxana leaves her children in the care of her husband’s relatives and, aided by her faithful servant Amy, becomes the mistress of her landlord, who is also a wealthy jewel merchant. The merchant soon shows an interest in the comfort and well being of Roxana. He adorns her with many gifts and a home to lodge without charge. Soon the two grow every close. One night, after dinner, Roxana begs the merchant to stay the night and lye with her.
The merchant then suggests that they marry, even though English law does not permit remarriage. He then draws up a contract of marriage, as if Roxana were a merchant as well, selling goods, that would informally bind them. Roxana is initially hesitant of the idea, seeing it as adultery; however, the fear of the horrible poverty that had plagued her only a few years before was more powerful than that of any devine punishment. Defending himself, the merchant states that he “wish’d there had been a Law made, to empower a Woman to marry, if her Husband was not heard of in so long a time”.
Though she cannot bring herself to call him “husband”, Roxana then accepts the proposal out of feelings of obligation to the merchant for the kindness he has shown her. In this, we see Roxana being driven to “whoredom” by cruel necessity rather than lecherous desires, and the beginning of her fascination with finances. After two years of “marriage”, the wealthy jewel merchant takes Roxana to Paris where he is to trade in jewels. In Paris, Roxana and the jew merchant live a lavished lifestyle As time progresses we are able to see Roxana’s fascination with money grow.
She begins to tally the value of her’s and her husband’s possessions so much, that she is able to recite the value of almost any object in her house along with her husband’s finances. When the merchant is murdered on his way to trade some jewels, he is murdered. Under his direct orders Roxana pretends that the murderers stole a jewel-case which in fact was left in her care and orders Amy to sell everything in the house in London and join her in Paris, thus defrauding the widow and bringing her fortune up to ? 10,000.
When the Prince to whom the jeweler had intended to sell his jewels comes to pay his respects, Roxana soon becomes his mistress, living with him for eight years, many of which are spent in almost total retreat in or near Paris, and two of which are spent touring Italy. During this affair Roxana bears the Prince three sons (one of whom dies in Italy when two months old). The prince appears to have great affection toward Roxana, but is unable to fully commit to her due to the fact that he is already married and has several other mistresses, though she is the favorite.
This does not seem to trouble Roxana, as she is being taken care of financially and under no obligation to share her wealth with her lover. Thus she is in no threat of returning to an impoverished lifestyle. She states that “My greatest difficulty is securing my wealth, and to keep what I had got”. She also reminds herself that she cannot remain his mistress forever therefore it was her responsibility to make sure she was taken care of. The affair ends when the Princes’ wife dies urging her husband to be faithful to his next wife even though he has not been to her, inducing him to repent his degeneracy and give up his mistress.
With the ending of this relationship Roxana then decides to return to London and she seeks the assistance of a Dutch merchant in moving her considerable financial assets. The Dutch merchant introduces her to a Jewish appraiser, who recognizes them as stolen an tries to have Roxana arrested. The honest Dutch merchant assists in helping Roxana to escape the grasp of the Jew and transfers her fortune to Amsterdam. When she goes there to collect it, he proposes marriage. Roxana persistently refuses marriage because she will not give up her freedom.
She offers to sleep with him to repay him for his kindness, but states that marriage is the one thing she cannot give him. Roxana argues, “I thought a Woman was a free Agent, as well as a Man”, that “the very Nature of the Marriage-Contract was, in short, nothing but giving up Liberty, Estate, Authority, and every-thing, to the Man”, rendering the woman no different than “a slave… while a Woman was single, she was a Masculine in her politick capacity… was controul’d by none, because accountable to none, and was in subjection to none. She then tells the merchant that she believes a woman is just as capable of governing her own affairs, without the assistance of a man, as a man was without a woman; and that, she should be able to entertain a man just as a man entertains a mistress. Shocked by her position on the matter, the merchant was only able to answer by stating that this was the method by which the world worked, and that the love between a man and his wife would prevent the wife from being a slave.
However, Roxana counters his argument, stating that the pretense of affection is the problem; it takes from a woman everything that identifies her as an individual. In a marriage she must passively share the interests, goals, and views of her husband, whether or not it brings about happiness or prosperity. The merchant does his best to quell Roxana’s fears of marriage, but to no avail. He tells her that he has no intent of seeking her fortune: that he had a fortune to match her own, and that his only reason for seeking to marry her was out of pure affection.
When Roxana continues to refuse his offer of marriage, the merchant believes that he can change her mind by sleeping with her. Being the virtuous woman that he believed her to be, she would instantly feel the need to agree to marry him after sharing in an intimate act reserved by God for a husband and wife. However, to his surprise Roxana still refused him after their intimate encounter: firstly because she will not give up financial independence, secondly because she is still ambitious for a higher station in society.
The Dutch merchant, strong in his belief that a man and a woman should be joined together under God, returns to Paris. Carrying the Dutchman’s child, and greatly resenting her decision to choose money over her love for the merchant, Roxana returns to London and takes lodging in Pall Mall, a street well-known for housing royal mistresses such as Nell Gwyn. Roxana seems resentful of her treatment of the merchant and her decision to place her estate above all else, however, she later makes the remark the she “would have given half I had in the world for him back gain. ” Just as she commonly does with all of her material belongings, Roxana goes so far as to put a price on her feelings for the merchant. While staying in Pall mall, Roxana hosts lavished masquerade balls for high society and dances in her revealing open-breasted Turkish dress, thus gaining the designation Roxana, a name which signifies an Oriental Queen. Over the next three years she carries on an affair with a high ranking aristocrat, suggested to be the King. At the end of this affair Roxana totals her wealth at ? 5,000. She then spends eight years as mistress to an old Lord, at the end of which time she boasts of having over ? 50,000. At the end of the affair, Roxana returns to London and lives as a Quaker. One day Roxana sees the Dutch merchant out riding; he soon appears at her lodgings and their relationship resumes. Amy, her servant, travels to Paris and sends news that Roxana’s first, estranged husband, the brewer, has died of wounds received at the Battle of Mons and that her Prince wants to marry her and make her a Countess.
The Dutch merchant again proposes marriage but Roxana is seduced by dreams of aristocratic elevation until Amy returns with the news that an illness has caused the Prince to repent for his wickedness once again. Seeing the Dutch Merchant’s loyalty and admirable continence, especially when he proves the power of money by buying a baronetcy, Roxana agrees to marry him and allow him to “make an honest woman of [her]. ” She even agrees to allow him to combine her estate with his own.
This facade of Roxana’s repentance soon becomes obvious when she comments on the loss of her title by not being able to marry the prince, but having regained it with the merchant: “I heard both with a great deal of satisfaction, for my pride remained, though it had been balked, and I thought with myself that this proposal would make me some amends for the loss of the title that had so tickled my imagination another way,” that is, until she discovers that the prince seeks to marry her. “… I was not a little tickled with the satisfaction of being still a countess, though I could not be a Princess. Roxana is constantly seeking to improve her social status in society, even when it is not necessary. Though she has more of a personal affection for the Dutch merchant, she is still reluctant to release the idea of being given more power and status by marrying the Prince. Only by the prince retracting his offer of marriage does Roxana fully accept the idea of marrying the merchant. After they are married, the Dutch merchant shows Roxana the contents of several large boxes he receives from his goldsmith, containing his financial papers. In it were goldsmith’s bills, stock, jewels, currency and bank notes.
Roxana, shocked at the site, saw that the merchant’s estate matched her own, if it did not exceed it, and that her initial concerns of being taken advantage of financially were completely unfounded. The story of Roxana introduces many different ideas as to what the nature of the relationship between a man and a woman should be, and each individual’s role in the relationship. The patriarchal society in which the characters live, and the English church through-which they’re moral values stem from, assert that it is by God’s order that a man and woman should marry, and that it is the wife’s duty to support her husband’s endeavors.
However, it is Roxana’s pre-feminist thinking that calls these marital values into question. Roxana’s biggest downfall is that she begins to put money and social status before personal happiness and companionship. She alleges that a man who seeks to marry a wealthy woman only seeks to gain control of her, both financially and through bondage. Only by experiencing this same situation first hand does Roxana come to realize that there could possibly be something more to marriage than money.