Category Archives: Roxana

A party in Pall Mall: location, location, location

While teaching Defoe’s Roxana to my students, I was sent an intriguing book entitled A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature by Suzette Field. Now I’m not qualified to talk about all the works discussed here: from the Book of Daniel through Proust to Hollinghurst there is surprising variety of balls, routs, revels, masques, orgies, feasts, banquets, proms, weddings, birthdays and even a wake (Finnegan’s, of course). But I am able to comment on what Field calls ‘A Little Ball at Roxana’s House’. In common with all the parties, each entry has sections entitled ‘The Hostess’, ‘The Invitation’, ‘The Venue’, ‘The Guest List’, The Food and Drink’, ‘The Dress Code’, ‘The Entertainment’, ‘The Outcome’, and ‘The Legacy’. It all works rather neatly for Roxana’s ball at which she appears in her Oriental masquerade (also, Field has obviously done her research: she even notes ‘there is no definitive evidence that Defoe wrote Roxana’). However, my eye was caught by Field’s description of the party’s location in Roxana’s ‘handsome apartments in Pall Mall’.[1]

Pall Mall, Rocque, 1746, via Old Bailey Online, courtesy Motco Enterprises Limited Ref: www.motco.com
Pall Mall, Rocque, 1746, via Old Bailey Online, courtesy Motco Enterprises Limited Ref: http://www.motco.com

Described by Edward Hatten as a ‘fine spacious’ street, Pall Mall’s grandeur reflected the lives of its wealthy, if transient, population of visiting dignitaries and pleasure-seekers.[2] John Macky described Pall Mall as ‘the ordinary residence of all Strangers’ because of its proximity to the ‘Palace, the Park, the Parliament-House, the Theatres, and the Chocolate and Coffee-Houses, where the best company frequents.’ In fact Macky painted the life in the Pall Mall area as one continual party, at least for men:

We rise at Nine, and those that frequent great Mens Levees find Entertainment at them until Eleven … about Twelve the Beau Monde assembles in several Coffee or Chocolate-Houses … If it is fine Weather we take a turn in the Park until about Two, when we go into Dinner, and if it be dirty you are entertained at Picket or Basset at White’s, or you may talk Politicks at Smyrna or St. James’s.

After dinner there was the theatre (Haymarket theatre was at the end of Pall Mall); and after that,

the best Company generally go to Tom’s and Will’s Coffee-Houses, near adjoining, where there is playing at Picket and the best of Conversation until Midnight. Here you will see Blue and Green Ribbons and Stars, sitting familiarly … Or if you like rather the Company of Ladies, there are Assemblies at most People of Qualities Houses.[3]

Clearly, Macky was fascinated by the pleasures of the area and the status of its denizens.

It’s a key context to Defoe’s Roxana, whose apartment in fashionable Pall Mall reflects her wish to appear as a ‘soi-disant wealthy widow’, as Field nicely puts it. Yet as she rightly points out, in one regard Roxana’s choice of location is not entirely well calculated: despite Macky’s excitement at the wealth on display in Pall Mall, the residents of the West end of London are also those who ‘tended to live beyond their means’. As Roxana declares, she finds herself harassed by ‘Fortune-Hunters and Bites … to make a Prey of me and my Money … Lovers, Beaus, and Fops of Quality’ (1724, p.210). Field picks up on Roxana’s fascination with status, noting, in the section entitled ‘The Invitation’, that ‘[n]evertheless she is not averse to a bit of social advancement’. Now this is either an ironic understatement more suitable to an Austen novel, or a fudging of Defoe’s intent to underline Roxana’s crucial weakness: ‘I aim’d at other things, and was possess’d with so vain an Opinion of my own Beauty, that nothing less than the KING himself was in my Eye’ (1724, p.210).

However, the voice in Field’s book is frequently that of the understated party hostess that does not obtrude upon or overly manage her guests. For example, in common with all the entries in the book, the next section is called ‘The Venue’. Here Field quotes Roxana’s description that her apartment was in a house ‘out of which was a private Door into the King’s Garden’ (1724, p.200). Defoe places Roxana’s comment some time before her comment on catching the King’s eye, separated as they are by the discussion of Roxana’s financial dealings with Sir Robert Clayton. Presumably Defoe intended for us to remember the significant topography of her apartment when he has Roxana admit her vanity. Coming immediately after her comment on social advancement, Field manages to infer just as much as Defoe intended about Roxana’s social vanity and her choice of location. In ‘The Outcome’, she comments, in another understatement, that ‘Roxana has succeeded in catching the royal eye’, footonoting that ‘It is perhaps no coincidence that Roxana resides on Pall Mall, as did the King’s most famous mistress, Nell Gwynne.’ Location, location, location: Defoe’s interleaving of sexuality, historical allusion and moral topography is clear in Roxana’s party.


[1] Suzette Field, A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature (London, Picador: 2012), pp.33-38.

[2] Edward Hatton, A New View of London. London, 1708, p.61.

[3] John Macky, A Journey Through England. London, 1714, pp. 107-109. Macky later breathlessly lists the members of the aristocracy living on Pall Mall and the streets around, p. 128.

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Suzanne Beleau, a.k.a. Roxana.

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 hereThe 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)

Joshua Reynolds, Mrs Abingdon as Roxalana, Courtesy of jaded-mandarin.tumblr.com

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.