The Defoe Society Panel @ ASECS 2012

I attended the panel sponsored by The Defoe Society at this year’s annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in San Antonio, Texas, and was pleased to find that all the panelists this year were addressing Defoe’s 1724 novel The Fortunate Mistress (more commonly known as Roxana).

Laura All’s (Virginia U) paper ‘Trade Names: Shifting Economics and Changing Identities in The Fortunate Mistress’ started in by drawing on Ashley Marshall’s paper questioning the attribution of this novel to Defoe, vigorously steer us away from interpretations of the novel that depended upon assumptions of Defoe’s concerns evidenced in other works, although carefully acknowledging that there plenty of reasons to believe that Moll Flanders and Roxana were by the same author – even if this is not Defoe. The idea of thinking about ‘trade names’ connected, in a new way for this novel, the discourses of economics and identity. Trade names in the predominantly male world of trade, function to make identity legible, or creditable: in Roxana, the figures of the Landlord, Brewer, Jeweller, Merchant – even the Prince – all sustain a legible relationship between who they are and their economic status. For women, however, their name, like their economic status, is highly mediated via the legibility of the patronym. Laura All’s discussion of Susan’s (Roxana’s real name) lack of patronym and her subsequent manipulation of her identity (especially that of ‘Roxana’) reveals a fundamental instability in legibility. By taking Defoe-as-author out of the picture, the paper enabled Laura to connect the novel to the wider and insistent debates about the movability of property and status fluidity in early eighteenth-century England and to women’s precarious position in relation to those debates. That Susan/Roxana is forced to come face-to-face with her self at the end of the novel is evidence of the precarious dangers posed by such female self-fashioning: as Laura concludes, “prying self away from self is an infernal process.”

Batya Unger-Sargon’s paper (U of California, Berkeley) ‘Any vs. Susan; Or, How Not to Read Roxana’ addressed the way in which previous criticism of this novel have had to deal with Roxana’s two “foils” – her daughter Susan and her maid Amy – separately and incommensurate methodological approaches. Susan is described as attempting to piece together the “broken fragments” of her mother’s story. When she comes face-to-face with her mother, her obsession with the few circumstantial details of her mother’s dress and the dance, rather than the actual women reveals, for Unger-Sargon, how Defoe is offering a critique of empiricism. In a striking turn of phrase, she argues it is an example of “fiction’s death drive.” Such a threat to “narrative pleasure” is also revealed by Amy. Unger-Sargon argues that Amy’s absorption into the fantasy of the romance narrative of Roxana’s life is in tension with, and even undermines, Roxana’s narrative which attempts to deal with facts. Both Susan and Amy, then, function to break the contract between reader and fiction. Only later am I reminded of J. M. Coetzee’s essay on Defoe where he contrasts the taken-for-granted contract in nineteenth-century realist fiction with the self-consciousness of Defoe’s writings.[1]

Sarah Rasher’s paper (U of Connecticut), ‘“She had never been a bride in her life”: the marriage of Amy and Roxana in Defoe’s Roxana’ started from what seemed an unlikely premise: that Amy and Roxana “act very much like a married couple” and closely follows Defoe’s debates on marriage. While there some generalisations about our own personal experiences of marriage, the strongest line of argument proceeded from Sarah’s point that, in a novel with so many poor marriages (Roxana’s “fool” of a husband; the landlord’s; the Prince’s; the Dutch merchants previous marriages), Amy and Roxana connect at many points with Defoe’s ideas on ideal marriages in Conjugal Lewdness. Amy, in this reading, is Roxana’s wife and becomes more so as the novel progresses. Sarah acknowledges that the aspect of ‘marriage’ as a divinely sanctioned state is crucial in Defoe’s thought and that in this respect Amy and Roxana do not fit this paradigm. I’m not sure this can be overlooked. But the paper offered some intriguing ideas. At an early point in the novel Roxana implores ladies to marry anyone rather than a “fool” – given this, Sarah concludes, Amy and Roxana are “ironically more like a legally sanctioned marriage.”

Whether fortunate or by design, the fact that we had a panel devoted entirely to Roxana, or, The Fortunate Mistress enabled a set of papers that spoke to each other in intriguing ways and provoked a lively Q&A that took us right up to the end of our time. A varied assortment of issues were raised: class, the choice of context (what happens if we use The Family Instructor, instead of Conjugal Lewdness?); and the uses of anonymity. One of the most interesting lines concerned the relationship between economics and affection and all panellists agreed that this was deeply marked by gender – an especially significant feature was how frequently female bonds of affection crumbled in the face of economic success. The debate on how we interpret these works was also subject to some discussion and the extent to which we can assign or detect a Defeovian hand to this novel’s ethical stance (and, indeed, whether we can even propose a stable ethical stance). It’s striking that this novel in particular still provokes and frustrates in equal measure: as the novel draws to a close, the uncanny figure of Susan, the ambiguity surrounding Amy’s actions and Roxana’s sudden fall unnerve the critic looking for closure or moral stability. G. A Starr, a while ago, drew on the tradition of casuistry to explain Defoe’s novels’ ability debate several different positions simultaneously: all three papers offered different twists to that interpretative position. In all, a thoughtful session that drew everyone in to the complexity of Roxana and yet also threw us out to issues of methodology and approach. It seemed entirely appropriate that this novel should be simultaneously alluring and yet strangely resistant.


[1] J. M. Coetzee, Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999 (Vintage, 1999).

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2 thoughts on “The Defoe Society Panel @ ASECS 2012

  1. Stephen, did you read Dave Mazella’s blog on ASECS, esp. his frustrations with the standard 3- or 4-paper format? I’m thinking that it might be time to bring seminar formats to ASECS, so that we could have more focused discussions like this one. Maybe the Defoe Society could try one out. LS

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    1. I did (see The Long Eighteenth) and quite agree. The advantage of this particuar panel with its focus on Roxana was clear in the lively discussion which was both wide-ranging yet ultimately focused. I’d like to see more seminars, readings, or ‘Teaching each [insert name of a text]’.

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