The laundry room in my building has paid off yet again! Living in a (mostly) university student building, there are several times of year when my neighbors are coming and going, and a lot of them don’t want to move with their books (which, for the life of me, I don’t understand). Well, that’s where I come in to give these poor, abandoned books a home. And that’s how I came across my last read, Roxana, by Daniel Defoe.
I have read some of Defoe’s work in the past; I used one of his economic treaties in my thesis, and I read Robinson Crusoe for a utopian-fiction English lit class. Roxana, by contrast, is I think one of the most salacious pieces of historical literature I have ever read. Roxana tells the life story of Suzanne (? Sp?), from her teens when she marries her first husband, so her mid-50s when she appears to settle into marriage with her second husband. In the in-between, however, Suzanne supports herself and her intrepid maid, Amy, by being a mistress to series of wealthy and powerful men.
Defoe, as an author, has a lot of quirks, to say the least. In both Roxana and Crusoe (at least in the versions I have), the work is peppered with random capitalization and italics. This creates a certain rhythm to the work that you pick up after a few pages, but can at times be quite distracting. Defoe also populates Roxana with a lot of run-on sentences and paragraphs that can require some mental contortion-work to follow. Also, his dialogue is usually buried in paragraphs without a clear distinction of who is speaking – the reader has to really be on the ball to catch who is saying what. Most frustrating to the modern reader (well, to me, at least), is that in 300+ pages, there’s no chapter breaks. It’s hard to know when you can step away from the book and you’ve got to look for natural end-points/changes of topic in the narrative. Finally, Defoe was a forgetful and (sometimes) less than diligent author; he contradicts himself at several points. He mentions that after one of Suzanne/Roxana’s lovers leaves her, she never sees him again – but he does pop up several times later on in the book; Defoe also vacillates at several points on Suzanne’s age. My English-lit prof reminded us that Defoe was working with a hand-written manuscript, so going back to fact-check would have been harder on him than modern authors have it – I had to remind myself of that several times.
In terms of characters, Suzanne is a conundrum. She seems to want to do the best for those who depend on her, and yet she also seems to have a cruel streak that doesn’t quite conform to this characteristic. Amy, her lady’s maid, is more straight forward – she will do anything for Suzanne. The men that come and go from Suzanne’s life all have the same characteristic (with a couple of exception) – they are good men who only want the best for her. That becomes a little unbelievable at a certain point. As for the rest of individuals that she comes into contact with, I had to wonder how a woman with such shaky morals kept finding such good people – but that’s the truth in humanity’s existence, isn’t it? Good things happen to bad people all the time.
While the plot is relatively quick-moving, it relies on some of the tropes that I find in classical novels that drive me nuts. Long-lost acquaintances/children pop-up at just the right moment to advance the plot, a bad situation suddenly turns good at the last minute (and vice versa), and (in this case) the author hints at several side-stories to the main plot, but tells his reader that he can’t get distracted to tell them. Then why mention them?
On the whole, however, this book is incredibly dirty. Defoe doesn’t shy from letting his reader know when Suzanne takes a man into her bed, when Amy is inveigled into doing the same, or the business-side of mistress-ing. When you read the book keeping in mind the contemporary context (ie. the 18th century audience), you have to wonder how this book was received… Even with my modern sensibilities, I’ll admit I blushed a couple of times.
So, final verdict? This book isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s probably not even going to be for everyone who regularly reads classical works. In a lot of ways, it’s a little inaccessible, and I’m not even sure it’s worth struggle through it. If, however, you enjoy reading books that you had previously been assigned for an English lit class that you didn’t read at the time, or books that are rife with opportunities for literary analysis, then yes, I think you’d enjoy this book. But am I going to recommend it? No. Let’s just say, I think the price I paid to get the book was just right…