Should we call Roxana ‘Suzanne Beleau’? This admittedly fanciful question turned into an interesting thought experiment while I have been teaching Defoe’s novel to my students. So, here’s my thinking.
It is worth emphasizing that the novel now known and published as ‘Roxana’ did not originally have that as its main title when it was first published in 1724. It was, as you can see here, The Fortunate Mistress (image from Lilly Library, Indiana University).
The novel’s main title was not Roxana until the 1742 edition which, like all the subsequent editions in the eighteenth century, was significantly altered and amended (John Mullan usefully summarises the history of the various versions of Roxana throughout the eighteenth century in the 1996 Oxford edition). The original title, as a number of commentators have pointed out, might have been either reacting to or piggy-backing upon a novel published the previous year entitled Idalia; Or, The Unfortunate Mistress by another successful contemporary novelist, Eliza Haywood. It’s perhaps significant that Haywood chose to name her heroine and Defoe did not – was Defoe signalling that the theme of identity was going to be crucial in way that it wasn’t in Haywood’s novel? Certainly, the other two names mentioned on the title page of The Fortunate Mistress – ‘Mademoiselle Beleau’ and ‘Countess de Wintelsheim’ – underline that this is going to be a ‘History’ of ‘Vast Variety’ and that our heroine’s ‘Fortunes’ are centrally concerned with an exciting and perhaps morally dubious kind of shape-shifting and self-fashioning.
All the subsequent versions after the 1724 edition, then, make one scene in the novel central: that of the ball held by our heroine (note I do not call her by that name yet):
At the finishing the Dance, the Company clapp’d and almost shouted; and one of the Gentlemen cry’d out, Roxana! Roxana! by —, with an Oath; upon which foolish Accident I had the Name of Roxana presently fix’d upon me all over the Court End of Town, as effectually as if I had been Christen’d Roxana. (1724, p.215)
So it is only at this point that our heroine becomes named as ‘Roxana’. It is at this point in the novel that she becomes mistress to a man with whom she is obliged to live ‘retir’d’ and conceal from us his name. It’s clearly an allusion to being mistress to Charles II (and an allusion to another famous name – that of Nell Gwynne; and like ‘Roxana’, she also lived in apartments at Pall Mall). Clearly, then, all the subsequent editions chose this moment as the emblem of our heroine’s career as a prostitute, representing the apogee of her reign as a mistress and courtesan of high status. However, it is also undoubtedly significant that this career high is achieved in conjunction with her masquerade in Oriental costume. It is as if when she is most artificial that she is named; that when she is in masquerade she is most herself – at least what other people understand to be herself. And it is an irony not lost on ‘Roxana’ (let’s call her that now) when she characterizes the naming as a ‘foolish Accident’. The irony deepens and darkens when the artificiality becomes a revelation:
it began to be publick, that Roxana was, in short, a meer Roxana, neither better or worse; and not that Woman of Honour and Virtue that was at first supps’d. (1724, p.223)
She now finds herself trapped in an identity not of her own choosing, one thrust upon her. It’s an irony that draws upon the contemporary notion that masquerades could actual reveal.
Defoe demonstrates an impressive control of the novel’s narrative arc when he later introduces her daughter, abandoned after the failure of her first marriage early in the novel. Her recognition of her mother depends upon her recognition of the Oriental costume ‘Roxana’ had worn at the ball, again linking disguise with revelation.
But importantly for my point, the daughter’s name is ‘Susan’ – as ‘Roxana’ remarks, ‘she was my own Name’ (1724, p.252). Defoe only reveals this in the latter third of the novel; he pointedly does not even give our heroine a name at the beginning of the novel. He also makes her family migrants, Protestant refugees fleeing France in the late seventeenth century, so that right at the opening of the novel Defoe loosens the ground beneath our heroine’s feet condemning (or freeing?) her to a life of constantly mutating identity. However, we know she was born in Poictiers, France. Given her French background, we might think of the name mentioned in the title page ‘Mademoiselle Beleau’ to have been her birth-name, although one could also say that ‘Susan’ isn’t a particularly French-sounding name. But I was reminded of a comment Defoe has Crusoe offer about his own name: ‘I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called – nay we call ourselves and write our name – Crusoe’ (1719, p.1). So Susan could have been a mutation in the same way. Perhaps, I thought to myself, her name could be Suzanne Beleau?
Now I know she isn’t a real person, so it’s fanciful to argue what her real name is. But as a pedagogical experiment I suggested to my students that we call her either Susan or Suzanne. There were some mixed reactions to this thought experiment in the class, and perhaps it was too contrived (although given how contrived ‘Roxana’s’ identity is, this might be appropriate). It did indeed feel strange to refer to her as Susan or Suzanne instead of ‘Roxana’, as we did in one of the classes. However, shuttling back and forth through the novel using the name Susan / Suzanne brought to light the novel’s insistent concerns of secrecy, naming and self-fashioning in a way that I’ve not been able to emphasise before. It helped open up that gap between the identities our heroine fashions for herself, to underline Susan / Suzanne’s anxieties about the daughter’s discovery of her real mother, to in effect reveal quite how far Susan / Suzanne had come from herself by the end of the novel.