Monday, 30 June 2014

Women, Money and Debt in the 18th Century Novel, Part 2: ROXANA, Section 1

Roxana: The Culture of Trade – ‘Expert in it as any She-Merchant’

Section 1

Whenever you read the novels of the 18th century, you can’t help but be struck by extremes of optimism in terms of trade and finance in the characters shown, as well as marked personal avarice.  However, also shown is the sense of great desperation felt by the poverty stricken masses left out of the century’s economic boom cycles.  Sir Lewis Namier, historian, makes clear the feel of the age for most readers:

Every country and every age has dominant terms, which seem to obsess men’s thoughts.  Those of eighteenth century England were property contract, trade and profits.[1]

Roxana was published in 1724, and holds within it a captured sense of the emergent culture of individualism and linked financial acquisitiveness that became so ingrained and characteristic as the century progressed (and look at us now; very little has changed).  It addresses both the desperate decisions made by the poor alongside the dizzying greed of those who have risen.  As Roxana herself says, her reasons for accumulating wealth began due to the desperation of “Poverty, my Snare”[2], and then after she is rich became “an excess of Avarice and […] vanity” (p.202).

To generalise, Georgian England was responding to changes the century before that were prompting the growth of the market economy, which “successfully went forth and multiplied”[3].  From about 1700 till the mid century, individuals were still grasping at the new opportunities, and Daniel Defoe, in choosing to portray these economic changes, was uninterested in hiding the predatory nature capitalism had already assumed (which is so normalised these days we take it for granted…).  Bram Dijkstra points out that it isn’t until 19th century fiction that the naked greed and disregard for others that often accompanies getting rich was hidden behind new ideologies.  For example, women were again enclosed within “myths of sacrifice”, only allowed to be ‘saved’ from wrongdoing if they were (and remained) a victim of exploitation by another.[4]  He makes the (startling) point that Roxana’s individuality as a heroine and her mirroring of a “moment in history”, is that she turns the situation of exploitation around and charges for it.  She takes control (agency, in psychological terms) back from circumstance and from the patriarchy around her.[5]

In this 2 part examination of Roxana, I’m hoping to lay out how her entire fate is driven by her attitude to her finances – that they define and shape her sense of self.  Even moreso than Moll Flanders (what a woman, seriously!), Roxana is a book about acquisition.  About dealing with the world via the medium of money and goods attained.  (How male is she painted?!)  I’ll examine the various incidents and relationships in her life, showing the development of her attitudes to money – its not so much linear as its exponential: she greatly increases command of her finances and concomitant sense of personal power and control over her life and its circumstances.  For instance, she is attracted to her first husband (who turns out to be a useless character), partly because of his virtuosity as a dancer (p.7).  Yet later in the book she learns the real worth of social accomplishments such as these (what they can procure you, not  how they can fool you) – she dances for a King, and gains her name, status and vast financial reward as his mistress (p.176).  John Richetti comments that:

Her obvious irony is that social determinants produce a self that cannot manage to survive.  The story of [her] survival and prosperity lies in the acquisition, through economic necessity, of a natural [law, economic] perspective on social forms.[6]

From the very start of the novel, Roxana defines herself and her family in economic terms.  From the 2nd paragraph, she informs us of the fortunate state of her parents’ wealth in changing countries, from France to England.  She is already well aware of social forms.  She comments that her father’s goods were “selling very much to Advantage here, my Father was in very good Circumstance in his coming over” (p.5).  Her first concern, at every incident she relates is to tell the reader exactly how she is placed to deal with the situation in practical monetary terms. Her position, very early on in the narrative after her first marriage, is one of extreme material and emotional hardship.  It leaves her believing that she has only one thing left with which to barter to provide her with the means to sustenance: herself.  Her desperate need for material things only reinforces her belief in the importance of these material things. 

This is natural: when even the most basic things (food and shelter for yourself and your children) are going to be revoked due to your lack of ability to pay for them, it’s likely this position of acute powerlessness will not be forgotten.  It’ll be imprinted on the mind.  As Richetti comments, when Roxana is extremely wealthy (much later in the book), and is being plagued by another compulsion (that of hiding her past from her daughter Susan) – only the extremely rich can ignore the need for money and goods and deem them worthless or unimportant.  Ironically, by then, it’s Roxana who is demonstrating this attitude, due to her terrible remorse about Susan:

Her ultimate stunt as a unique individual is to gain the whole world and then declare it meaningless[…] that superficial alienation of stupendous wealth is a breathtaking if unbelievable act of egotism and privilege.[7]

Hmm.  He’s judgmental?!  To me that comment sounded not so much one of her ungratefulness culturally at her fortunate position as a person; but more one of ‘you succeeded in a Man’s world then rejected it; how dare you, Woman!’ – but that’s just how I read it…

It may seem ‘unbelievable’ that a woman almost entirely governed by her need for financial/material security would eventually see these things as valueless, but I’d say the most interesting thing about her as a character is that her feelings about what money does genuinely change – she learns.  She begins to think of her money as tainted (“my ill-got Wealth, the Product of prosperous Lust” [p.259]), and to consider whether her trade-offs have benefitted her as much as she had initially thought in her endless countings up:

Not all the Affluence of a plentiful Fortune; not a hundred Thousand Pounds Estate, […] not all the things we call Pleasure, cou’d give me any relish…(p.264)

She finally clashes with the other value systems that govern women: that of family and child-rearing responsibility.  They are precisely the values that had originally caused her to begin her career as a prostitute after desertion by her husband left her no other means to support her children.  This circularity can be illustrated in the text, through her involvements with men.

Critic Bram Dijkstra offers a schematic analysis of Roxana’s financial acumen by looking at her relationships with men, for example.  I have chosen to mirror Dikstra’s article structure for this section, as he shows useful developments in Roxana’s financial thinking.  However, there are many ways in which my opinions differ from his.  The most important of these is that he oversimplifies complex and competing ideologies; this is especially visible in his close analysis of the novel (we’ll get to that later).  He considerably underestimates the degree to which Roxana’s interest in the possibilities of capitalism is mixed up (especially later in the book) with emotional qualms, relationship qualms in particular.  The immense psychological cost she has to pay in the end outweighs her gains on the material level.  Other critics have noted the tensions between the ideologies driving Roxana, and how uneasily they sit within the narrative.  Richetti referred to the whole novel as “deeply problematical”[8].  Maximilian Novak has stated that Roxana’s narrative “reflects something close to despair”[9].  Roxana is torn between an altruistic sense of motherhood and her fervent need for material security personally – that these two dynamics clash and cause her to become a deeply fragmented and contradictory person is borne out by the narrative as it progresses.  Dijkstra chooses to ignore this tension, which leaves his arguments sounding clever but hollow.  I’ll show you my view as we progress.

Dijkstra makes a very good initial case for each liaison being a different stage of Roxana’s financial instruction.  The first feckless husband shows her behaviour to be avoided; though at this stage she is powerless in a business sense, both as a female and a wife: “I saw my Ruin hastening on, without any possible Way to prevent it” (p.11)[10].  Roxana’s husband ignored her good financial advice, of which all her suggested remedies for bad financial management are later endorsed by Defoe’s subsequent inclusion of them in The Compleat English Tradesman (1728)[11].

Her husband eventually deserts her, and as a middle class female trained for nothing, as Ian Bell points out, she is forced to make a choice leading her to vice.  This is because she sees herself as a “woman of quality, an image that does not vanish when her money does”[12].  She cannot reconcile her understanding of her status to her actual circumstances.  In the mercenary world, where attributes are assessed in terms of their usefulness or marketability, her genteel expectations and training fit her only for a life of deception and persistent fraud.  Her training has involved an upbringing where wealth and possessions have always been emphasized (recall the first page of her narrative, and her enumeration of her parents’ moveable treasure): she knows no other system of judgement for her life.  Security through goods is what she has always understood.  Stone makes clear that at this point in history, apart from marriage or becoming a servant or seamstress, prostitution is the only other profession open to women.  So its interesting to note Defoe’s respect and belief in women of business – a repect Dijkstra notes too.  James Thompson, however, notes that this support has its limitations.  Defoe’s enthusiasm goes only as far as married women managing their husband’s finances, or widows.  There are no career opportunities for single women: “a never married tradeswoman is a logical impossibility for Defoe”[13]. So, Roxana’s education saw she was fit for nothing but prostitution; but it is her quick brain that allows her to make such a resounding financial success of her ‘chosen’ career.

Dijkstra suggests that Roxana’s next liaison, with the landlord-jeweller (where she finds the necessity that turns her to trade), is an introduction to basic commerce.  He is an international merchant (not a drone tradesman as her first husband was), and thus represents a step up the financial ladder in terms of efficiency[14].  He makes an immediate mark on her consciousness by appearing and restoring, seamlessly and quickly, “the social order from which Roxana has fallen” – by paying the bills and tidying up the place with the help of gardeners, buying furniture, and procuring her a feast: “poor Amy and I had drunk nothing but Water for many weeks” (p.26).  By doing all these things for Roxana, he immediately places her under an obligation. 

A very important stage in Roxana’s growing psychological education occurs because of an incident in this liaison: that is, the deeply problematic event of Roxana “putting Amy to bed” with the landlord-jeweller, against her wishes.  Dijikstra has persuasively argued, and here I partially agree, that Roxana did this for pragmatic business reasons: “that my Maid should be a Whore too and not reproach me with it” (p.47).  So this is not merely a spiteful act, caused by Roxana’s wish to corrupt another because she has been corrupted, as critics like J.R. Hammond and John Richetti have suggested[15]; it is a sound emotional way to re-establish authority over Amy, a parity between them that was being lost by Amy’s increasing over familiarity and snideness, and would no doubt have worsened over time by Amy’s own sense of her sinlessness compared with her mistress.  Of course, nowadays, this whole scenario is brutal and criminal…take this as in its time, remember this story and the values it represents and depicts occur over 250 years ago.  To continue: Dijkstra points out that in The Compleat English Tradesman Defoe again and again emphasizes the need for strict control over servants and apprentices; and that therefore, for

Roxana to be an efficient businesswoman meant that she would have to be in firm control of her immediate environment, […] an efficient exploiter of others.[16]

There is no suggestion within the novel that this is anything other than an ‘immoral’ act.  But morals and business have rarely meshed successfully.[17]  Richetti asserts that not only has Roxana re-established discipline but she has triumphed over the “ideological positions [Amy and her landlord] represent”; as by Roxana’s bold and vile action, she causes both parties to “lose their respective claims on [her] as ideological masters”.[18]  The sense of the nakedly predatory nature of early capitalism is never made clearer than by the rape of Amy.  After that, balance is restored.

Hmm.  Whilst this explanation is slick and persuasive, it ignores a vital moment in the dehumanization of Roxana.  The cost to her as an individual, of this action, and the concomitant loss of identification with Amy is huge.  Amy is no longer her trusted ally, but her soiled stooge.  Roxana is only capable of cold cmfort over Amy’s misery over the rape, referred to only as ‘the bedding’:

[…]She was undone!  Undone!  And cry’d almost all Day; I did all I could to pacify her: A Whore! Says I, and am I not a Whore as well as you? […] Well, all did not pacify Amy, but she cry’d two or three days about it; but it wore off by degrees. (p.47)

Richetti notes that at this point Roxana “stands outside the consolations of any brand of Christianity”[19]; while G.A. Starr goes even further, suggesting that by this incident Defoe “means to consign Roxana to the devil”[20].  He argues that the bedding of Amy reveals “a hardness of heart” which suggests that “Defoe regarded his heroine as a damned soul”[21].

This nasty incident is certainly a foreshadowing of the almost schizophrenic behaviour Roxana gives in to towards the end of the book[22].  It shows openly, that she has made a decision between the relative merits of human relationships and her own need for material and psychological security and control.  To stop herself from being hurt – materially and emotionally – she must continue the process of psychological alienation and detachment she began when she took the decision to “whore for bread” (p.202).  She begins to render all human relationships “contractual”[23].  The landlord-jewller, knowing now where his interest really lays (he despises Amy after the bedding, as Roxana cleverly figured he would) draws up a contract of cohabitation for Roxana, complete with penalties for leaving: he “arranges his desire with social forms; he modifies social restrictions by counter arrangements of his own”.[24]  This method of relating to people is now a far cleaner and less emotionally wrought one for Roxana: she accepts the contract.

This is where we’ll darkly leave it for today, with Roxana having become a pimp of sorts…she has many more lessons and adventures in store, we’ll catch up with her the next segment.  She is a BRILLIANTLY readable and flawed character.  I hope you enjoyed reading this – more people should read Defoe, he had a lot of interest to say about the period through his characters – and his period, my god, really not that different to ours in many ways…

[1] Sir Lewis Namier, quoted in Roy Porter’s English Society in the Eighteenth Century (London: Penguin, 1991), p.185.
[2] Daniel Defoe, Roxana or the Fortunate Mistress (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 this edn.), p.39.
[3] Porter, ibid.
[4] Bram Dijkstra, Defoe and Economics: The Fortunes of Roxana in the History of Interpretation (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1987), p.23.
[5] Dijkstra, p.24.
[6] John Richetti, Defoe’s Narratives: Situations and Structures (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p.199.
[7] John Richetti, The English Novel in History, 1700-1780 (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p.81
[8] Richetti, p.73.
[9] Maximilian E. Novak, Realism, Myth and History in Defoe’s Fiction (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), p.101.
[10] In the 18th century, as Lawrence Stone makes clear, whilst a woman’s position in marriage was made slightly better by the increase of the provision made in her dowry (as in, she made a major improvement to her husband’s finances – an improvement on the century before), there was absolutely nothing to stop the husband wasting the money or making bad investments.  Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (London: Penguin, 1990, this edn.), p.221-2.
[11] Dijkstra, p.18.
[12] Ian A. Bell, Defoe’s Fiction (London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1985), p.162.
[13] James Thompson, Models of Value: Eighteenth Century Political Economy and the Novel (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996), p.121.
[14] Dijkstra, p.31.
[15] J.R. Hammond, A Defoe Companion (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993), p.127; John J. Richetti, Daniel Defoe (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987), p.109-10.
[16] Dijkstra, p.28.
[17] This was seen later in the century with Edmund Burke insisting that poverty wages for labourers were fine, as to interfere with the free market was to interfere with the “laws of God”, and that, to be frank, “great trade is always attended with great abuses”.  Frank O’Gorman, The Long Eighteenth Century: British Political and Social History, 1688-1832 (London: Arnold, 1997), p.271.  How little changes – how much stays the same…
[18] Richetti, Defoe’s Narratives, pp.208-209.
[19] Richetti, The English Novel in History, p.73.
[20] G.A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography (New York: Gordian Press, 1971), p.165.
[21] Starr, p.169.
                                                 Daniel Defoe, author of 'Roxana'
[22] Psychologically, her need to reduce Amy to her own ‘whore’ status, so she cannot be judged by her anymore, as well as get control over her by inducing Amy’s own sense of powerful shame, has been commented on by psychologist Christophe Scheel:

“the childhood schema of Roxana is running the show here: her own sense of defectiveness as a person, taught to her by her parents love of things over people and the lack of affection she received, leads her to begin viewing people as objects she can only understand by either having them admire her material position, feeding a sense of control over her situation and therefore outward self – or else they are to be reduced from the status of Judge over her (as she felt Amy was: she saw her as a Bad Mirror) by an act of humiliation: the Bedding.  She took Amy’s power over herself away – and could even judge her herself, after that incident.  Roxana resented Amy (imagining Amy’s thoughts about her were as bad as hers about herself – projective identification, rather than mere projection), and so belittled her in a manner both physical and psychological.  It was shrewd, it was cold: it was the act of someone terrified of losing a sense of self identification.  Roxana is very flawed, horribly human.”

– Personal correspondence with Christophe Scheel, Retired Psychodynamics Psychotherapist and Retired Lecturer in Eighteenth Century English Literature.  Quite a guy!!
[23] John Mullan, in his Introduction to the edition of Roxana used here, p. xx.
[24] Richetti, Defoe’s Narratives, p.206.

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