Anna Fioravanti explains why Lady Roxanna by Daniel Defoe will always be a special book for her.
On ne nait pas femme: on le devient. Aucun destin biologique, psychique, economique ne definit la figure que revet au sein de la société la femelle humaine.
One is not born a woman: one becomes a woman. No biological, psychological or economic destiny can determine how the human female will appear in the society
Simone de Beauvoir. Le Deuxieme Sexe, 1949
“One is not born a woman: one becomes a woman”. With this short but particularly eloquent sentence Simone de Beauvoir focuses her attention on all the experiences, choices, happenings, that make a human being “good enough” to be called ” a woman”. If I had to re-write that sentence today, I would add something related to the ideas society (both men and women) have about somebody female. I wouldn’t do that because of a personal idea that we must always give strong importance to each others’ opinion; I would do it because, at least to me, being a woman also means having the ability to make others understand our importance and abilities.
Defoe writes about a woman involved in prostitution and murder but he never judges her
Lady Roxana is one of 4 novels written by Daniel Defoe. The story is about the life of lady Roxana, narrated by herself. The plot is quite simple. Roxana is a beautiful woman who becomes an upper-class prostitute to save herself from poverty. She travels a lot and gives birth to 12 children. Still, the book can exercise a special power over the reader – at least, that’s what happened to me. Actually, one of the reasons why I really love it is not in the subject but in Defoe’s attitude regarding his protagonist. He is a man: an Eighteenth Century man. He writes about a woman involved in prostitution, murder, and her inability to have motherly feelings. Still, he never judges Roxana as a character. He just comments and judge actions in general and all the other characters – but there is always a sort of protection toward Roxana.
When I read the book for the first time it was after getting passionate for another of Defoe’s novels, Moll Flanders. Again, the story of a woman who uses her body to save herself from poverty. However, it’s important to point out that Moll, unlike Roxana, chooses a “legal and moral way”, that is to say marriage. Roxana is harder to read, maybe because of the major themes, and probably because of the fact that the writing isn’t as fluent and “easy going” as in the previous novel. Still, Roxana attracts me more.
As a modern reader and, most of all, as a woman, I guess at times the book pretty much seems, to me, to be of a special kind. Obviously, prostitution is not to be encouraged (both men and women would agree with that) but it’s the way Defoe deals with his character that makes the book “special”. A man whose description of a woman is based on a “being positive all the time”. She is as beautiful as an angel. She is pure – it’s others who make her guilty!. She is intelligent and able to improve her abilities (Roxana becomes very good in administrating her fortune, ability which is particularly important considering the century and the central role given to economics). Furthermore, the idea of men that emerges from the book is totally negative (if not totally, then 90%). For example, about her first husband, we read:
At about fifteen years of age my father gave me, as he called it in French, 25,000 livres, that is to say, two thousand pounds portion, and married me to an eminent brewer in the City. Pardon me if I conceal his name, for though he was the foundation of my ruin, I cannot take so severe a revenge upon him
Also, I was willing he should draw out while he had something left, lest I should come to be stripped at home and be turned out of doors with my children, for I had now five children by him: the only work (perhaps) that fools are good for. [my emphasis]
The 10% of men “saved” is, most of all, based on the positive idea that emerges about one of Roxana’s lover (the only one she feels something close to love for), The Prince. Actually, we read:
“Now, madam,” says the Prince, “give me leave to lay aside my character, let us talk together with the freedom of equals. My quality sets me at a distance from you and makes you ceremonious, your beauty exalts you to more than an equality; I must then treat you as lovers do their mistresses, but I cannot speak the language; ’tis enough to tell you how agreeable you are to me, how I am surprised at your beauty, and resolve to make you happy and to be happy with you.” [my emphasis]
Furthermore, as I already mentioned, the book is presented to be as the narration of Roxana’s life done by herself. I found this particularly interesting first of all for some of the ideas expressed. For example, the one regarding marriage:
That the very nature of the marriage contract was, in short, nothing but giving up liberty, estate, authority, and everything to the man, and the woman was indeed a mere woman ever after, that is to say, a slave. [my emphasis]
Also, for the way the narrator addresses a specific kind of reader:
And here I must take the liberty, whatever I have to reproach myself with in my after conduct, to turn to my fellow creatures, the young ladies of this country, and speak to them by way of precaution. If you have any regard to your future happiness, any view of living comfortably with a husband, any hope of preserving your fortunes or restoring them after any disaster, never, ladies, marry a fool. Any husband rather than a fool. With some other husbands you may be unhappy, but with a fool you will be miserable; with another husband you may, I say, be unhappy, but with a fool you must; nay, if he would, he cannot make you easy, everything he does is so awkward, everything he says is so empty, a woman of any sense cannot but be surfeited and sick of him twenty times a day. What is more shocking than for a woman to bring a handsome, comely fellow of a husband into company and then be obliged to blush for him every time she hears him speak? to hear other gentlemen talk sense and he able to say nothing? And so look like a fool; or, which is worse, hear him talk nonsense and be laughed at for a fool.
The decision of writing a book for women as if he was a woman himself sounds even more interesting to me considering the fact that at the end of the previous century Defoe wrote a sort of “feminist pamphlet”, “An Academy for Women” in which he expresses many of the ideas that, long time after, feminist writers will. For example, the necessity for women to have a proper education and become independent from everybody (including husband and father!).
I guess the only argument Defoe didn’t deal with in a credible “feminine” way is motherhood. Actually, Roxana has 12 children but she seems to be totally incapable of feeling real affection for them. She just gives birth to them and, soon after that, stops mentioning them. The only one she talks a lot about is also the one who will be killed: Susan. I confess this sounds particularly curious to me because of the fact that Defoe himself had several children and is often described as a good caring father.
I don’t think “feminist” literature is only the books written by woman for women by describing how sad and hurtful their experiences with men were. I find it very important to see and understand women from a male point of view. After all some say that it’s by discussing and having critics that we can really improve ourselves. Those who just say “yes, everything you do and say is perfect” don’t really love you.