If there is one writer who strikes fear into my heart when I read his name on a reading list, it is Daniel Defoe. I had hoped that a novel with such dark and interesting themes – about a woman who loses her virtue, and then becomes a mistress for several rich and powerful men – would grip me in a way that Defoe’s novels never have before. I was very disappointed.
Roxana by Daniel Defoe, the last novel written by the author of Robinson Crusoe, follows the life of a woman who takes on the pseudonym of ‘Roxana’ after she is left in destitution by her husband. She is left with her loyal maid Amy, as they try to survive on what little they have left. When her landlord offers Roxana security through living as husband and wife, she eventually accepts his advances and succumbs to him sexually. From there begins a pattern which is only interrupted by the occasional birth of a child, as Roxana moves from man to man, up and down the social ladder with every step.
It is a narrative which should capture your imagination. A woman using her sexuality to gain some measure of independance in a time when women were frightfully restrained should feel liberating, if a little problematic. However, Roxana is dull. The words never lift off the page, the characters never become flesh. Each man that Roxana beds is unremarkable, and forgettable, which would be a great piece of social commentary if Roxana was vibrant and ever present in comparison. Sadly, she is not. In addition to this, there is a surprising lack of agency on the part of Roxana. She uses her sexuality, but only as a last recourse, and often only after the pressure of the men who support her. This lack of agency gets to the heart of why the novel so inaccessible – Defoe is unable, at least here, to convey convincing female voice. While the novel centres on two female characters, Roxana and Amy, Defoe fails to capture their voices in a way to make them relatable, or even understandable.
Roxana is described as a ‘proto-feminist’ novel by many critics, because throughout Roxana uses her body and sexuality as a means of controlling her own fate. Whether this is interpreted as a woman manipulating patriarchy to gain some measure of independence, or her simply succumbing to the positioning of women as a sexual object could be the subject of many an essay on feminism in Eighteenth Century Literature, and makes for interesting debate. This, however does not make Roxana a novel to read to engage with the classics on a purely personal level.
Daniel Defoe may well be considered one of the great English writers, and Robinson Crusoe is indeed an engaging read. But if you ever find yourself reaching for Roxana for anything other than scholarly pursuits, I implore you to put it down. There is no pleasure to be found here.
3/10 – Roxana is not a novel easily engaged with and provides an unconvincing female voice.