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Emmanuelle Peraldo (ed.), Daniel Defoe - Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress

Paris, Ellipses, 2017. 255 p. ISBN-13: 978-2-340-02125-9. 23 €
Jeffrey HOPES
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Emmanuelle Peraldo (ed.), Daniel Defoe - Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress. Paris, Ellipses, 2017. 255 p. ISBN-13: 978-2-340-02125-9. 23 €

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1This bilingual collection of essays on Defoe’s Roxana: the Fortunate Mistress (1724) appears on the occasion of the inclusion of Defoe’s work on the programme of the Agrégation exam. It will prove both useful and stimulating to those studying for this exam but will also be read with profit by Defoe scholars and anyone interested in Defoe’s most enigmatic fictional work, one that is a source of endless critical debate. Emmanuelle Peraldo is to be congratulated on bringing together both renowned and established Defoe scholars and younger French researchers in the same volume. Taken together, these essays will enable their readers to appreciate the diversity and complexity of the critical issues surrounding Roxana, issues that are both linked to the text itself and to the various contexts in which it can be read. They also provide a gateway to further reading in Roxana criticism which has a long and distinguished history. Not the least of the collection’s virtues is the bibliographical referencing it provides. In this respect it would perhaps have been useful to have provided a general critical bibliography at the end of the volume.

2Each of the essays has its particular focus and I will briefly mention these before mentioning some general issues that all these contributors and all Defoe scholars have to face. Emmanuelle Peraldo’s introduction usefully situates Roxana in the chronology of Defoe’s works and points to some of the contexts in which it can be read. Maximillian Novak, the doyen of Defoe scholars, contributes a typically stimulating and richly informed analysis of the connections between the moral and economic dimensions of Roxana, one which the title of his essay does not fully reveal. Those familiar with Novak’s previous work, notably his monumental Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions (2001) will read with pleasure his inimitable mixture of textual analysis, incomparable knowledge of the literature (in the widest sense) of the period and lively critical engagement. It is above all the way he places Roxana in a much wider network of mutually interacting contemporary texts that enriches our reading of a work that can be, and has been in the past, too often read uniquely within the context of Defoe’s own production. The trade-morality paradox which is addressed by numerous writers of the period, including most famously Bernard Mandeville, is an excellent way into this most paradoxical of fictions. Novak’s approach is at times necessarily speculative and students should perhaps be advised to take some of his more provocative speculations as stimulations to imaginative critical thinking than interpretative certainties (if such a thing ever exists).

3Robert Clark’s essay on “Scandalous Contracts in Defoe’s Roxana” also ranges considerably wider than its title suggests. After providing a useful introduction to Defoe and his times, Clark explores a variety of ‘women’ issues before addressing the question of contracts (sexual, marriage and other) and finishing with reflections on the narratological status of the work. Despite his own reference to his analysis being “fundamentally abstract and a-social” (83) Clark provides a number of interesting social and critical contexts in which Roxana can be read, including Foucault’s work on the history of sexuality, psychoanalysis, the status of women in marriage and the work’s double time scheme. Clark sees Defoe as a critic of “the unacceptable face of capitalism” (78) and so clearly situates the narratorial point of view on the side of Roxana, a female character struggling to assert herself in a male-dominated world of business and patriarchy.

4Beaudoin Millet’s meticulous analysis of the generic definitions of Roxana to be found both in the work’s paratexts and in the text of the novel itself raises the whole problem of the definition of Defoe’s fictions as romances, novels, stories or fictions both then and now. He rightly points to the differences between modern generic definitions and those used at the time and situates Roxana at a time when these generic debates were very much alive and a vital component of Defoe’s work. It is in particular the nexus of story and history that is given most emphasis here, one that, as Millet makes clear, was also addressed by Defoe elsewhere, notably in the paratexts to Robinson Crusoe, including the Serious Reflections.

5Marlène Bernos returns to the condition of women as depicted in Roxana and in particular the question of prostitution of which she gives an excellent typology. In Bernos’s reading, Roxana prefers the freedom of the courtisane to the enslavement of marriage. This essay is almost too brief and I would have liked her to expand certain points, such as Roxana’s Amazonian status. Sophie Jorrand similarly emphasizes Roxana’s search for independence although of course one needs to bear in mind how few women, beyond rich widows, could ever hope to be financially self-sufficient outside marriage. Jorrand gives a carefully nuanced reading of Roxana’s celebrated denunciation of the enslavement of marriage in response to the Dutch merchant.

6Vanessa Alayrac-Fielding addresses the performative aspects of Roxana’s behaviour and notably her Turkish costume which is read as both disguise and revelation, mirroring the function of masquerades. The Turkish costume is also seen as a commodity participating in an increasing trade in exotic produce but symbolising the female slavery to which Roxana implicitly associates herself. A quite different interpretation of Roxana’s character and a different cultural context is provided by Rim Chelly in her essay on the supernatural and notably diabolic resonances of Roxana. In this reading, far from seeking our approval, Roxana’s pleas in favour of female independence signal her submission to the temptations of the devil. The argument is often convincing though by seeking at the end of her essay to make Roxana both diablesse and proto-feminist, Chelly is unnecessarily cautious.

7Emmanuelle Peraldo’s own contribution focuses on the spatial dimensions of Roxana, the places the heroine visits and the significance of her constant restlessness. Peraldo insists on the lack of any real characterisation of these places so that Roxana’s own identity is also blurred. It is when she is confined, notably with the French Prince, that Peraldo sees her as achieving a paradoxical form of liberty. To conclude the collection, Guyonne Leduc proposes what she modestly calls an “exemple de leçon d’agrégation” in which she notably studies the question of Roxana’s identity and her sense of self. Here, as in Peraldo’s essay, the multiplication of names paradoxically generates a sense of anonymity. If such is the case, one can wonder if there is such a thing as her “essential self” (235). Leduc gives a useful summary of critical interpretations of the scene in which Roxana forces Amy to sleep with her landlord.

8It is no surprise that the same general questions that critics have raised in readings of Roxana over the years run through all of these contributions. Roxana is a novel that has attracted much attention, like Moll Flanders, because its protagonist is a woman. But is she a “préféministe” as Emmanuelle Peraldo claims (219) or is she imprisoned by male power and economic necessity? Is she in any way a representative woman or is she by definition exceptional? How should we interpret the relationship between Roxana and Amy? Are they doubles? Is Amy a projection of Roxana’s true but shameful and secret desires? What does Roxana tell us about the sense of self? Is it a given or a problem? How can we read Roxana the character within the context of the economic exchanges in which she participates but of which she is herself one of the commodities? Here again, is she a free agent or a helpless object? How are we to read Roxana in moral terms? Are our own moral criteria at odds with those of its author and of the period he wrote in? What sort of a book is this? Can we read Roxana in the same terms as we would Tom Jones or Pamela as Ian Watt suggested in The Rise of the Novel? This collection of varied and stimulating essays addresses all of these questions and encourages us to pursue such reflections further.

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Jeffrey HOPES, « Emmanuelle Peraldo (ed.), Daniel Defoe - Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress », E-rea [En ligne], 15.2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2018, consulté le 15 août 2020. URL :

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Jeffrey HOPES

Université d’Orléans

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