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Marguerite Edwards

ENL 4122.001, M-W 11:00 a.m.

April 12, 2006


“For Richer, For Poorer” – Richer is Better

The relationship between money, marriage, and love along with the ability to manage one’s own affairs is one of the major themes of Daniel Defoe’s Roxana the Fortunate Mistress.  The adventures of Roxana demonstrate that it is not enough for a woman to either marry well or attach herself to a variety of wealthy men, but that she must possess a working knowledge of money and develop the necessary skills to manage her own affairs. Defoe’s use of the first person confessional narrative allows the author to voice the social criticism that it is money and not love that is the key to a woman’s survival. He uses Roxana’s life experiences to underscore the inequities of the marriage laws and to highlight the importance of developing the ability to handle one’s finances and not rely on fate, husbands, or lovers. 

The autobiographical style of the novel gives this work of fiction the effect of appearing to be a true account of a woman’s struggle for economic survival and her subsequent fall from grace.  Roxana speaks directly to the female reader when she states that “if you have any regard to your future happiness; any view of living comfortably with a husband; any hope of preserving your fortunes or restoring them after disaster; never ladies marry a fool” (Defoe 8).  The confessional tone of the narrator allows the reader to travel with Roxana as she begins to develop into a woman who values personal autonomy over love and the social respectability of being a wife. Roxana’s quest for personal autonomy begins with the demise of her first marriage and the subsequent development of her money management skills.

It is through Roxana’s account of her disastrous first marriage to the Brewer that Defoe highlights the relationship between marriage decisions and a woman’s survival. Against the advice of her father, Roxana married for love, a man she now characterizes as a fool.  She confides to the reader that “I chose him for being a handsome jolly Fellow, as I have said; for he was otherwise a weak, empty-headed, untaught creature” (7). Roxana shares the details of her husband’s mismanagement of the family business and personal finances with the reader.  She states that “he had no Knowledge of his Accounts” (9) and eventually bankrupts the family. Defoe draws attention to the powerless role of women in marriage when Roxana states “I thought I saw my Ruin hastening on, without any possible Way to prevent it” (11). After squandering the family fortune, the Brewer deserts his wife and children.  Roxana and her five children are left penniless without legal recourse and resigned to a life of poverty or death by starvation.  Roxana’s statement that “The House, that was before handsomely furnish’d with Pictures and Ornaments, Cabinets, Peir-Glasses, and everything suitable, was now stripp’d , and naked, most of the Goods having been seiz’d by the Landlord for Rent, or sold to buy Necessaries; in a word, all was Misery and Distress” (17) emphasizes the precarious position of women in marriage – the dangers of economic subordination. The desertion of the husband serves to highlight the fact that money is power and without money or a man with money, a woman will find herself left in dire circumstances with very few virtuous remedies to improve her situation.

The voice of Roxana allows Defoe to offer a social commentary to the reading public regarding the plight of abandoned women and their families through Roxana’s tale of the Brewer’s desertion. Alone and destitute, the heroine is left with no virtuous options for earning a living.  Roxana is now “a single Woman not bred to Work, and at a Loss where to get Employment, to get the Bread of five Children” (15).  She is forced by her economic circumstances to reinvent herself into a whore as “Poverty is the strongest Incentive; a temptation, against which no Virtue is powerful enough to stand out” (27) in order to survive. Her family has been left alone to face a world where relatives can not always be relied upon to provide assistance in times of need. Roxana tells the reader that “I receiv’d not one Farthing of Assistance from any-body, was hardly ask’d to sit down at the two Sisters’ Houses, nor offer’d to Ear or Drink at two more near Relations” (15). Roxana’s maid, Amy, devises a scheme to leave the children in the care of the Brewer’s sister, a woman who does not want the responsibility of caring for her errant brother’s children.  Although saddened by the loss of her children, Roxana does not allow it to interfere with her own efforts of self-preservation. It now becomes clear that the key to Roxana’s survival is the acquisition of wealth, which she accomplishes through a series of illicit affairs. 

Roxana’s first affair after the desertion of the Brewer is with her landlord, who also happens to be a wealthy jeweler.  Once her children are out of the way, Roxana is free to accept the Jeweler’s offer to become his mistress. Roxana approaches this new phase of her life with a business like attitude rather than the romanticism of her youth. The Jeweler presents Roxana with a written contract that contains an “Obligation in the Penalty of 7000 l.” if he abandons her and a “Bond for 500 l.” to be conveyed to her upon his death (42). Through the course of their relationship she receives numerous gifts of money and household goods.  Roxana relates that in his will the Jeweler has left her a sum of money in trust along with all her “Household-Stuff, Plate” (50). When he is murdered, Roxana does not find herself destitute, rather she finds herself “possess’d of almost ten Thousand Pounds Sterling, in a very few Days after the Disaster” (55) which allows her to live quite comfortably. It would seem that the author is reinforcing the role of money and not love as the only sure avenue for a woman’s survival.

Defoe does not provide first names for the men in his history of Roxana’s life. Each man is known to the reader by the title of his profession: the Brewer, the Jeweler, the Prince, and the Dutch Merchant – all professions associated with money and power, thus reinforcing the importance of money and survival. Defoe reinforces the theme that money, not love is the key to a woman’s survival in society by the way in which Roxana keeps a running inventory of the goods and wealth that she has acquired as a result of her life as a mistress to powerful men.  Each of her lovers has made substantial contributions to her personal fortune and to the development of her money management skills.  After the Jeweler’s murder Roxana skillfully manages to cash previously “unaccepted Bills of Exchange, which was for 2500 l. with some other things, which together, amounted to 17,000 Livres” (57).  Her relationship with the Prince adds an additional “two Thousand Liveres a year” (60) to her growing fortune. The affair allows Roxana to develop her people management skills. She confides to the reader that “I manag’d him with such Art, that he generally anticipated my Demands” (66).  The Prince showers her with gifts of jewelry, clothes, home furnishings, and servants. When the relationship ends, Roxana emerges as a wealthy, financially savvy, independent woman. Each of the aforementioned affairs afforded Defoe the opportunity to illustrate how Roxana’s growth as a skillful manager of both money and people contributed to her survival in society.

The marriage debate between Roxana and her last lover, the Dutch Merchant, allows Defoe to critique the English institution of marriage.  It is the inequities contained in the marriage laws which serve to perpetuate the economic subordination of woman. Roxana’s statement, “But if I shou’d be a Wife, all I had then, was given up to the Husband, and I was thenceforth to be under his Authority only” (144) highlights the loss of a woman’s personal wealth and freedom upon marriage. Her relationship with the Dutch Merchant enables the reader to experience two different perspectives on marriage. The Dutch Merchant supports the traditional, idealistic view of marriage that “where Man did his duty, the Woman’s Life was all Ease and Tranquility” (148). He also provides a voice for the commonly held patriarchal view that woman are incapable of managing their own affairs simply because “their heads were not turn’d for it” (153). Roxana advises her lover that in her opinion “a Woman was fit to govern and enjoy her own Estate, without a Man” (149). Roxana’s view of a wife as being nothing more than an “Upper Servant” (148) reinforces the concept of marriage as a contract which contains few if any benefits for women. The voice of Roxana continues to remind the reader “that the very Nature of the Marriage-Contract was, in short, nothing but giving up Liberty, Estate, Authority, and everything, to the Man, and woman was indeed, a meer Woman ever after, that is to say a Slave” (148).  The Dutch Merchant’s response that “where there was mutual Love, there cou’d be no Bondage” (149) fails to alter Roxana’s views on the institution of marriage. Love had nothing to do with her family’s survival after the desertion of the Brewer. Roxana’s first marriage has left her with a keen understanding of the vulnerability of women who must deal with the inequities of English marriage laws. 

Defoe’s history of Roxana demonstrates how the survival of a woman is tied to the acquisition and management of money rather than the acquisition of a good husband. Roxana provides Defoe with the opportunity to encourage his readers to entertain the notion that perhaps it is simply not enough for a woman to marry well in order to have a safe and secure life, but rather it is the ability to manage one’s finances that is the key to security in a world where women are economically subordinate to men.   Roxana’s ability to manage and invest her money so that her wealth continues to grow, regardless of whether or not her relationships with men are a success, allows Defoe to draw attention to the crucial role that money management skills play in ensuring the survival of women in a patriarchal society. The adventures of Roxana underscore the key relationship between money and personal autonomy.  Roxana states that “by managing my Business thus myself, and having large Sums to do with, I became as expert in it, as any She-Merchant of them all; I had Credit in the Bank for a large Sum of Money, and Bills and Notes for much more”(131). It is money and the ability to manage money, not love or marriage, which has enabled Roxana to live her life on her own terms. Defoe’s Roxana serves as a reminder for the female reader of what is the ultimate guarantor of a woman’s survival – money.