18th C Literature / Books and Stuff / Eighteenth Century / History / Lit Crit / Women

Roxana; Or, the Mistress of many Editions

Picking up a copy of Daniel Defoe’s 1724 novel Roxana today, it is easy to take the unfolding narrative for granted. However, for just under two hundred years, readers in the 18th and 19th centuries were not reading the same story we do. Instead the Roxana novels from the 1740s onwards – due to continuations and revisions – differ from the 1724 edition both in ideology and narrative.

So what did the original novel look like and why did people want to change it?

Defoe’s Roxana (full title: The Fortunate Mistress: Or, A History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Madamoiselle de Beleau, Afterwards called in the Countess de Wintselsheim, in Germany, Being the Person known by the Name of the Lady Roxana, in the Time of King Charles. Now you see why its shortened!) is the version – more or less – that we read today.


A portrait of Dorothy, Lady Townshead by Charles Jervas (1717). This portrait was used as a cover for Roxana as the sitter is wearing fashionable oriental garb.

Plot Summary

A fifteen-year-old Roxana marries a handsome but stupid man who spends all their money within eight years, he then abandons his wife. With the help of her loyal servant, Amy, Roxana hands her five children into the care of her husband’s family (who put up a good fight to avoid the responsibility). Roxana is still penniless but catches the eye of her landlord who offers to let her continue living in the house and pays for all her needs. Amy tells Roxana she should become his mistress to thank him for his kindness but Roxana speaks on her love of independence. The landlord comes to live in the house and Roxana eventually becomes his lover. She seems unable to give him children so her maid Amy has sex with him and has a child which Roxana claims as her own to avoid embarrassment for Amy. Roxana then gives birth to a boy. They travel to Paris where they live in wealth until her lover is robbed and murdered. Roxana pretends to be his wife and secures his wealth for herself. She uses her various affairs from this point in to move up the social ladder. She has an affair with a French prince before becoming a celebrated hostess in England (this is where she becomes known as Roxana after performing a Turkish dance). She eventually – after pretending to be a Quaker –  marries a Dutch merchant (whom she has an affair with earlier in the novel) and prepares to move to Holland. This is threatened by the reappearance of her oldest daughter who wants Roxana to claim her. Roxana doesn’t want her past to come to light. Amy kills the daughter (probably/possibly). They (Roxana, Amy, and Roxana’s husband) safely move to Holland and live in happiness. In the last sentences, Roxana tells the reader she later repented of her actions and experienced bad fortune.

The book reads like a spiritualized criminal biography (Roxana sees herself amongst the damned according to Calvinist doctrine) and ends in a hasty repentance and a prosperous retirement. The ending seems fairly abrupt to modern readers, Roxana says,

Here, after some few Years of flourishing, and outwardly happy circumstance…I was brought so low again, that my repentance seem’d to be only the consequence of my misery, as my misery was of my crime.

Throughout, Roxana is an unreliable narrator and, for many readers, this admission of guilt and repentance is unconvincing and does little to alleviate the impression of sin and depravity cultivated by the novel thus far. The 1724 edition of Roxana refuses to punish ‘fallen women’ in traditional ways. Though Roxana’s fortunes go up and down, she spends most of the novel living in luxury and complaining about the men she has to please to remain there. Not only this but sinning heroine is permitted to marry a good man without him finding out about her past. She can retire and spend her later life in wealth and happiness marred only be a vague and dubious repentance and fall in fortunes

There are so many interesting topics we could explore through this novel, gender and power, the libertine court of Charles II, and orientalism being just three. However, in this post we are concentrating on the textual history of Defoe’s Roxana.

Originally published anonymously in 1724, there were many editions published throughout the eighteenth century after Defoe’s death. For what we are discussing, ideological changes made to the novels, there are three key editions; one in 1740, the next 1745, and finally the edition of 1775. From the changes made to later editions, we can extrapolate some of the problems an eighteenth century public had with the text.


An illustration from one of the editions of Roxana.


This edition was published by Elizabeth Applebee and titled, The Fortunate Mistress: Or, A History Of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes Of Mademoiselle de Beleau. The novel was serialised; readers experienced the novel as a succession of booklets. Unlike later serialised fiction (think Dickens), each issue was not meant to act as stand alone. The subscriber received six leaves at a time regardless of where the text broke off. This kind of publishing was a savvy commercial move as it maximised profit. It was also a very flexible form. If a particular work was very popular the publisher could sneak in a few extra pages here and there to extend the novel and gain maximum profit. Roxana is no different. At least seven different texts are worked into the 1740 version of Roxana. Most impressively, at least 60 pages of Eliza Haywood’s novel, The British Recluse (1722) were spliced onto Defoe’s ending after the last two paragraphs were removed (including the abrupt repentance). This pirated section is introduced as follows,

Though the history of Cleomira’s and Belinda’s misfortunes may be thought foreign to my affairs… it is absolutely necessary I should give it a place, because it is the Source or Spring, of many strange and uncommon scenes, which happen’d to me…

To recommence with Roxana’s tale the author simply wrote,

I therefore break off Belinda’s affair, at present to mention something very particular that happen’d to myself

Critics believe that this use of Haywood’s work was a relatively late decision on the part of the publisher, probably driven by good sales.

Another addition to the novel takes the form of a set of letters in which Roxana delivers lengthy tracts of worldly advice to one of her sons (with whom she keeps in contanct). These sections of advice were taken from de Britaine’s seventeenth-century conduct manual Humane Prudence. Unlike the use of Haywood’s novel, these are not directly copied. Sections with an explicitly masculine tone are omitted or altered in order to highlight Roxana’s motherly qualities (which are not present in the 1724 edition). A section of the work which describes the burdensomeness of children, ‘The troubles of children are many and great; the comforts few and small…’, is missing. Ironically, this statement and attitude is one which could issue from Roxana as Defoe originally presented her. However, its omission fits with the maternal reformation of the heroine, an important agenda of the 1740 edition.

Sometimes these insertions were rather clumsy. Roxana’s fourth letter of advice to her son, ‘Concerning his giving and taking Counsel’, corresponds to de Britaine’s ‘Of Council and Counsellors’. The advice is primarily directed at a courtier who may advise a king. There is no attempt to modify it for the context of the novel, which is a mother giving worldly advice to a son engaged in commerce.

This edition was in the process of serialised publication when Richardson published his novel Pamela (1741). Readers and writers alike became preoccupied with the ‘Pamela figure’. The inclusion of 5 long letters from Roxana to her son makes the novel more Pamela-like in form as Richardson’s novel was in epistolary form. These letters, highlighting Roxana’s role as a mother demonstrate the attempted domestication of the heroine within the emerging ideology of marriage and maternity embodied to some extent by Richardson’s Pamela.

Texts such as this one, which incorporated parts of other works, exploited a loophole in developing laws around copyright which meant that partial reproduction was legal. In the Little Review in 1705 Defoe himself had condemned such plagiarism describing,

Pirate Printers of the Town, a sort of Pickpockets, worse than those that go to Gaol for it, [who] Reprint out of larger Pieces, and in Fragments and Corrupt Copies

Though Defoe himself had died before this publication, authors such as Richardson would struggle to defend the message and reputation of their creations in an age where intellectual copyright was but a vague concept.


The 1745 edition is key in terms of reception history as it was this version of Roxana, or one very similar, which was published throughout the 19th century until as late as 1903. This edition was published under the slightly less ridiculous title of, The Life and Adventures of Roxana, the Fortunate Mistress; or, Most Unhappy Wife.

Like the previous edition in 1740 its editors/publishers struggled with Defoe’s anti-marital, anti-maternal protagonist. Roxana explores ideas of female independence, through intelligent financial manoeuvring. In her character, Defoe juxtaposed motherhood with sexual freedom. Roxana is also a critic of the institution of marriage (though she does marry herself). She says, ‘The Marriage Contract is…nothing but giving up Liberty, Estate, Authority, and every-thing, to the Man’. You go girl!


However, this edition has a tragic and punitive ending. Roxana’s estranged daughter, Susan, follows her to Holland and persecutes her there. Roxana’s husband discovers her past and her failings as a mother, Amy dies due to venereal disease in a brothel. Roxana loses all her money and dies in a debtor’s prison. The daughter (NOT killed by Amy, as this edition clarifies) is protected by Roxana’s husband then married to a rich Dutch merchant. This continuation amounted to nearly a quarter of the total length of the book. This edition ends with Roxana’s death. Some claimed that the 1724 edition was incomplete and this book was the only true version, this view was widely held until critics towards the end of the 19th century questioned its validity.


The final edition we will look at is the 1775, The History of Mademoiselle de Beleau; Or, the New Roxana, the Fortunate Mistress: Afterwards Countess of Wintselsheim. This edition was the first to be attributed to Defoe and was prefaced by a letter supposedly by Defoe. In this, he explains that he exaggerated the story for the sake of the moral:

…though she frequently in her reflections, calls herself a prostitute; yet, […] in the true sense of the words she was as chaste, with respect to the person whom she lived with, as the most virtuous wide could be to a husband

Again we see a Roxana remoulded. This time to appeal to the sentimental tastes of its readership. Though, ‘Defoe’ admits that Roxana was not married to all the men she lived with, he claims that she was a chaste as a wife. Throughout, this edition attempts to justify or diminish the sexual freedom displayed by the protagonist and overall her actions are made much less criminal. This edition had a sentimental continuation with a happy, conservative ending. Roxana rediscovers the joys of being a wife and mother and is reunited with the children she abandoned at the beginning of the book. In conclusion she says,

Five women in one family, each to get a good husband, is a happiness seldom to be found and what is more rare, myself, my two daughters, Amy, and the Quaker, each thinking she has the best.

Enough to make anyone feel nauseous!


Ultimately, it appears that Roxana (1724) was altered for both commercial and ethical/moral reasons. The various editions reflect, and were perhaps formative of, changing tastes throughout the century. The resistance to formal closure which is characteristic of the habits of expansion, revision, and continuations in eighteenth century publishing, often brought about an ideological closure that was not part of what is accepted as Defoe’s original text. Continuations of Roxana usually overwrote what was subversive in the story and her author was not alive to contest his novel’s reception.


Roxana and Amy after Roxana’s daughter was ‘taken care of’?


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