Classic Read: Roxana

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Daniel Defoe

First published in 1724

This lesser known novel by the author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders is the "autobiography" of a professional mistress, set during the Restoration of the late 17th century. But it feels like Defoe's own time - the new world of capitalist London, in which traders are competing with aristocrats and a delicate social etiquette is coming under strain.

It was written in that brief window of early capitalism after the old ways had been torn asunder but before the sentimental idea of the bourgeois family had been imposed. Roxana doesn't faint or fade away like later heroines; she acts freely to meet her desires.

She speaks for herself, and does so in one long stream: there are no breaks, no chapters, and no pauses for breath. The novel gives the impression of being written as you read it. She says she will come back to things - "You shall hear presently...", "But of that hereafter...", but never does. These inconsistencies also reveal her on-the-hoof attempts to edit her story when she thinks it might make her sound better.

Defoe's relentless style produces a character who gives herself (and us) no time to reflect, which fits with her need to constantly accumulate wealth in a never-ending train of transactions. She is aware that her behaviour is socially unacceptable, but for Roxana the only real sin is to be inactive. Her first husband failed at business and lost all their money, leaving her penniless and forced into her career as a mistress. Years later she sees him again and her disgust at his laziness is palpable: "he was a mere motionless Animal, of no Consequence in the World."

However society may judge Roxana, she could never be accused of inactivity or poor business sense. She lives and breathes the vitality of early capitalism, even as she tries to embed herself among the decadent aristocracy.

Roxana lives in a world of things and transactions, not feelings or words. The prose is stripped down to simply let the events and objects be described - and Roxana loves nothing more than to describe her wealth. These inventories can take two pages or more, listing plate, clothing, furniture, jewellery, cash in various currencies, property and interest on savings and investments. The moment of truth in her relationship with a Dutch trader is not when they first sleep together, nor when they have a child; it is when they agree to look at each other's accounts.

There is something remarkably positive about Defoe's representation of Roxana as a woman. She is clever, learning languages at the drop of a hat and devouring world literature. Yet Defoe doesn't make a big fuss of this - why shouldn't a woman be capable? It is also clear that her money is safest in her own hands: first her feckless husband, then her brother loses their inheritance, and even the Dutch trader loses money in bad business during the time he is parted from Roxana.

All that holds her back is the limited options available to a woman to make and retain wealth. Her speeches against marriage are some of the most powerful bits of the novel. Here Defoe exposes a contradiction in bourgeois society. As Roxana puts it: "I did not understand what Coherence the Words Honour and Obey had with the Liberty of a Free Woman".