Sunday, September 23, 2018

Blinded by Her Vanity

or The Fortunate Mistress 


“Thus blinded by my own vanity, I threw away the only opportunity I then had to have effectually settled my fortunes, and secured them for this world; and I am a memorial to all that shall read my story, a standing monument of the madness and distraction which pride and infatuations from hell run us into, how ill our passions guide us, and how dangerously we act when we follow the dictates of an ambitious mind.”  ― Daniel Defoe, Roxana

Daniel Defoe published all of the great works of fiction that he is remembered for today in a span of a half decade between 1719 and 1724. Prior to this he was a noted journalist. This period began with the famous Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and ended with his final novel, Roxana or The Fortunate Mistress, 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, having 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 not die, 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.

Even more interesting, and important for the future of fiction, is Defoe's focus upon the interior drama of Roxana's moral decay, the psychological turmoil of a woman who willfully chooses the glamorous life of a courtesan over the duller, but honorable, life of a married woman. The result of her decision leads to a downward spiral from which she is unable to escape. Thus Defoe's last novel is his one and only tragedy.


Brian Joseph said...

I have only read The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe> in terms of plot this one is obviously different. On the other hand this sounds like it concerns itself with the issues of salvation or at least the lack of it. The salvation part reminds me of Robinson Crusoe.

It is striking that Dafoe's high quality output only spanned a period of five years.

James said...

I was surprised too by Defoe's spurt of fiction near the end of his life.