Daniel Defoe, Roxana

Well, we'll see how this works out. I chose Daniel Defoe's Roxana as the earliest of three novels in this fall's 1660-1900 survey course in British literature that I'm teaching, not having actually read the novel in ... let's just call it "several years" and be done with it.

And of course on reading it, I remembered all those things that annoyed me when I was reading it the last few times, rather than the things I enjoyed so much that have always stayed relatively fresh in my mind.

In brief, Roxana is a first-person narration about the life of a woman pushed early into trading sexual favours for money: she becomes her landlord's mistress to avoid eviction, nearly two years after her foolish husband has disappeared. Over the next few decades, Roxana sees an awful lot of the flesh of some very powerful men, becomes seriously wealthy, and explores a few different positions in European class structure. It's a fascinating case study in psychological development, under the influence of Christian morality, poverty, and the silence of God. Defoe's personal interest in debt and mercantilism makes it also a detailed account of eighteenth-century economics, and the role of Roxana's servant Amy is fascinating in terms both of narrative/psychological structure and of servant-master relations in the period.

All of this is to the good.

It's written as a single chapter, though. And eighteenth-century publishing practices being what they are, the book's been heavily leavened with capital letters, italics, very long paragraphs. Too, there are next to no quotation marks, and several sequential speeches by different characters may appear in a single paragraph, unflagged except with "she said" and the like. Defoe's obsession with finances means there are several points where you're left trying to figure out the conversion rates between currency from several European countries, as well as the process for transferring funds between countries when there where no rapid communication methods or overly stable currencies.

Can I get the students to appreciate this novel? I hope so, and I've already posted some reading tips even though the term's a week away from beginning. But it'll be a challenge, I think, so I hope it doesn't push people away from the course. There were a lot of great novels written in the eighteenth century, and I've accidentally chosen one of the less accessible ones. Ah well. Though also, yikes. It's a great book to look back on, but it can be unpleasant to read at the time.


Joey Malone said…
I am currently taking an 18th century writers class and the writers are Defoe and Haywood. This is kind of an intro to these writers for me and this novel is one of the readings. I enjoyed it. And I think your class will too.
richard said…
In fact they did enjoy it, Joey! I should have come back and said so, so maybe I'll edit the original post to update it. Today we start Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, so we'll see if my expectations - that they'll enjoy this one - are dashed or confirmed.
Joey Malone said…
That's another good one, although I am less familiar with that one. But I do hold a very high opinion of Jane Austen.

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