ROXANAI was rich, beautiful, and agreeable, and not yet old
In March, 1724, was published the narrative in which Defoe came, perhaps even nearer than in Moll Flanders, to writing what we to-day call a novel, namely: The Fortunate Mistress; or, a History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mademoiselle de’ Belau; afterwards called the Countess of Wintelsheim, in Germany. Being the Person known by the name of the Lady Roxana, in the Time of King Charles II. No second edition appeared till after Defoe’s death, which occurred in 1731. Then for some years, various editions of The Fortunate Mistress came out. Because Defoe had not indicated the end of his chief characters so clearly as he usually did in his stories, several of these later editions carried on the history of the heroine. Probably none of the continuations was by Defoe himself, though the one in the edition of 1745 has been attributed to him. For this reason, and because it has some literary merit, it is included in the present edition.
That this continuation was not by Defoe is attested in various ways. In the first place, it tells the history of Roxana down to her death in July, 1742, a date which Defoe would not have been likely to fix, for he died himself in April, 1731. Moreover, the statement that she was sixty-four when she died, does not agree with the statement at the beginning of Defoe’s narrative that she was ten years old in 1683. She must have been born in 1673, and consequently would have been sixty-nine in 1742. This discrepancy, however, ceases to be important when we consider the general confusion of dates in the part of the book certainly by Defoe. The title-page announces that his heroine was “known by the name of the Lady Roxana, in the Time of King Charles II.” She must have been known by this name when she was a child of eleven or twelve, then, for she was ten when her parents fled to England “about 1683,” and Charles II. died in February, 1685. Moreover, she was not married till she was fifteen; she lived eight years with her husband; and then she was mistress successively to the friendly jeweller, the Prince, and the Dutch merchant. Yet after this career, she returned to London in time to become a noted toast among Charles II.’s courtiers and to entertain at her house that monarch and the Duke of Monmouth.
A stronger argument for different authorship is the difference in style between the continuation of Roxana and the earlier narrative. In the continuation Defoe’s best-known mannerisms are lacking, as two instances will show. Critics have often called attention to the fact that fright, instead of frighten, was a favourite word of Defoe. Now frighten, and not fright, is the verb used in the continuation. Furthermore, I have pointed out in a previous introduction that Defoe was fond of making his characters smile, to show either kindliness or shrewd penetration. They do not smile in the continuation.
There are other differences between the original story of The Fortunate Mistress and the continuation of 1745. The former is better narrative than the latter; it moves quicker; it is more real. And yet there is a manifest attempt in the continuation to imitate the manner and the substance of the story proper. There is a dialogue, for example, between Roxana and the Quakeress, modelled on the dialogues which Defoe was so fond of. Again, there is a fairly successful attempt to copy Defoe’s circumstantiality; there is an amount of detail in the continuation which makes it more graphic than much of the fiction which has been given to the world. And finally, in understanding and reproducing the characters of Roxana and Amy, the anonymous author has done remarkably well. The character of Roxana’s daughter is less true to Defoe’s conception; the girl, as he drew her, was actuated more by natural affection in seeking her mother, and less by interest. The character of the Dutch merchant, likewise, has not changed for the better in the continuation. He has developed a vindictiveness which, in our former meetings with him, seemed foreign to his nature.
I have said that in The Fortunate Mistress Defoe has come nearer than usual to writing what we to-day call a novel; the reason is that he has had more success than usual in making his characters real. Though many of them are still wooden — lifeless types, rather than individuals — yet the Prince, the Quakeress, and the Dutch merchant occasionally wake to life; so rather more does the unfortunate daughter; and more yet, Amy and Roxana. With the exception of Moll Flanders, these last two are more vitalised than any personages Defoe invented. In this pair, furthermore, Defoe seems to have been interested in bringing out the contrast between characters. The servant, Amy, thrown with another mistress, might have been a totally different woman. The vulgarity of a servant she would have retained under any circumstances, as she did even when promoted from being the maid to being the companion of Roxana; but it was unreasoning devotion to her mistress, combined with weakness of character, which led Amy to be vicious.
Roxana, for her part, had to the full the independence, the initiative, which her woman was without, — or rather was without when acting for herself; for when acting in the interests of her mistress, Amy was a different creature. Like all of Defoe’s principal characters, Roxana is eminently practical, cold-blooded and selfish. After the first pang at parting with her five children, she seldom thinks of them except as encumbrances; she will provide for them as decently as she can without personal inconvenience, but even a slight sacrifice for the sake of one of them is too much for her. Towards all the men with whom she has dealings, and towards the friendly Quakeress of the Minories, too, she shows a calculating reticence which is most unfeminine. The continuator of our story endowed the heroine with wholly characteristic selfishness when he made her, on hearing of Amy’s death, feel less sorrow for the miserable fate of her friend, than for her own loss of an adviser.
And yet Roxana is capable of fine feeling, as is proved by those tears of joy for the happy change in her fortunes, which bring about that realistic love scene between her and the Prince in regard to the supposed paint on her cheeks. Again, when shipwreck threatens her and Amy, her emotion and repentance are due as much to the thought that she has degraded Amy to her own level as to thoughts of her more flagrant sins. That she is capable of feeling gratitude, she shows in her generosity to the Quakeress. And in her rage and remorse, on suspecting that her daughter has been murdered, and in her emotion several times on seeing her children, Roxana shows herself a true woman. In short, though for the most part monumentally selfish, she is yet saved from being impossible by several displays of noble emotion. One of the surprises, to a student of Defoe, is that this thick-skinned, mercantile writer, the vulgarest of all our great men of letters in the early eighteenth century, seems to have known a woman’s heart better than a man’s. At least he has succeeded in making two or three of his women characters more alive than any of his men. It is another surprise that in writing of women, Defoe often seems ahead of his age. In the argument between Roxana and her Dutch merchant about a woman’s independence, Roxana talks like a character in a “problem” play or novel of our own day. This, perhaps, is not to Defoe’s credit, but it is to his credit that he has said elsewhere: “A woman well-bred and well-taught, furnished with the… accomplishments of knowledge and behaviour, is a creature without comparison; her society is the emblem of sublime enjoyments;… and the man that has such a one to his portion, has nothing to do but to rejoice in her, and be thankful.” After reading these words, one cannot but regret that Defoe did not try to create heroines more virtuous than Moll Flanders and Roxana.
It is not only in drawing his characters that Defoe, in The Fortunate Mistress, comes nearer than usual to producing a novel. This narrative of his is less loosely constructed than any others except Robinson Crusoe and the Journal of the Plague Year, which it was easier to give structure to. In both of them — the story of a solitary on a desert island and the story of the visitation of a pestilence — the nature of the subject made the author’s course tolerably plain; in The Fortunate Mistress, the proper course was by no means so well marked. The more credit is due Defoe, therefore, that the book is so far from being entirely inorganised that, had he taken sufficient pains with the ending, it would have had as much structure as many good novels. There is no strongly defined plot, it is true; but in general, if a character is introduced, he is heard from again; a scene that impresses itself on the mind of the heroine is likely to be important in the sequel. The story seems to be working itself out to a logical conclusion, when unexpectedly it comes to an end. Defoe apparently grew tired of it for some reason, and wound it up abruptly, with only the meagre information as to the fate of Roxana and Amy that they “fell into a dreadful course of calamities.”
The history of this beautiful lady is to speak for itself; if it is not as beautiful as the lady herself is reported to be; if it is not as diverting as the reader can desire, and much more than he can reasonably expect; and if all the most diverting parts of it are not adapted to the instruction and improvement of the reader, the relator says it must be from the defect of his performance; dressing up the story in worse clothes than the lady whose words he speaks, prepared for the world.
He takes the liberty to say that this story differs from most of the modern performances of this kind, though some of them have met with a very good reception in the world. I say, it differs from them in this great and essential article, namely, that the foundation of this is laid in truth of fact; and so the work is not a story, but a history.