Bad girls

Barbara Villiers, mistress of Charles II
Bookhounders will know that I've got a bit of a soft spot for literary bad-girls having blogged on Moll Flanders, Manon Lescaut, Nana and Lady Audley's Secret. Not to mention La Dame aux Camelias, which I'd read pre-Bookhound (in the loft of a converted pig-sty in Provence).

Being on a Seventeenth / Eighteenth-century bad-girls roll after re-reading Manon Lescaut, I turned to one of my very favourite authors, Daniel Defoe, and his baddest of bad girls Roxana; or, The fortunate mistress. Actually the heroine would be most displeased that the novel is now generally known as Roxana, its original sub-title, as much of the novel is about the heroine's attempts to remove herself as far as possible from the nickname she's acquired, and to put her dubious past behind her.

Roxana is a very different kettle of fish from Moll Flanders. Moll is the archetypal tart with a heart. Forced into prostitution and crime by unfortunate circumstances, Moll comes smiling through. It's not that she forgets her past or tries to pretend that it hasn't happened, but rather she accepts it, but tries to change. In this she is helped by the man who will become her husband, also a bad boy (a highwayman!) made good. Whatever the morality of Moll's situation it's hard not to be engaged by her, and to want her to be redeemed. Roxana, however.....

As a modern woman, it's hard not to feel for Roxana's situation. In common with most women of her day and class, she marries young; but unfortunately the husband selected for her, although ostensibly a good catch turns out to be a business fool, and after going broke runs away leaving Roxana and her children facing penury. Saved by a tradesman, who genuinely cares for her, Roxana becomes his mistress, needing his money and security to secure herself, but being reluctant to marry him fearing that this will bring about her financial ruin again, and determined to be independent in a way that looks firmly forward to the twentieth-century woman.

Unlike Moll however, Roxana spends a lot of time beating herself up about not pursuing a more virtuous path (i.e. the marriage route). For much of the novel, I found this supremely irritating. Yes, by the standards of the day Roxana was undoubtedly a good-time girl; but most of her relationships with men appear to be long-term, and although she undoubtedly benefits from the relationships financially, this doesn't appear to be the only reason why Roxana sleeps with the guys she does. If she isn't exactly in love with them, she's not out to dupe them or misuse them either.

Towards the latter half of the novel however after the days of fun with a French Prince and (possibly) King Charles II and the Duke of Monmouth are over, Roxana becomes a much colder fish. An earlier romance appears on the scene, a man who genuinely loves her and, more importantly to Roxana, is willing to give her the independence she craves regardless of the laws of marriage. Roxana prevaricates, hoping to gain a better title from a more advantageous match, but once she has realised that this match may never happen marries her Dutch merchant.

But then the past comes back to haunt her, as one of her abandoned children becomes determined to find their mother, and risks revealing Roxana's shady past to her new husband....

Roxana gained her nickname by dressing in the "Turkish" fashion adored at the time
Part of me felt like shaking Roxana "You stupid girl, tell the man the truth, it's not that bad...." But part of me felt an enormous sympathy for a woman who risks losing everything by revealing the truth of a situation into which she was thrown; a situation in which a man has little to lose, and a woman potentially everything. Even more than Moll Flanders, Roxana shows the changes in the moral codes of society; and in its attitude to women. It also reveals the differing standards that would haunt women for many years to come, and of which there are still vestiges today.

This was Defoe's last novel, and it is without doubt his darkest. There is none of the warmth or humour of Moll. This is a seventeenth-century woman's life when it all goes wrong; and even when it goes right, it's not that wonderful.  Roxana may berate herself for her lewd behaviour, but even her friend the good Quaker woman is also left abandoned by an irresponsible husband. A woman's lot is not a happy one, so who can blame Roxana for aiming for a King.


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