On Monday I finished teaching Daniel Defoe‘s Roxana, his 1724 novel about a woman who exchanges sex for money. (As my students pointed out, it’s difficult to call her a prostitute, since she never sells her body directly; she’s always a kept mistress.)

Defoe was, of course, one of the great early English novelists. In some ways, his works, including Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders were seminal in creating the novel as a genre. His life is also interesting. A Whig, Defoe was able to write politically motivated prose works while maintaining his government position regardless of whether the administration in power was Whig or Tory. In many ways, he was very much a modern man.

I have admit that my memory of reading Roxana turned out to be more pleasurable than the actual practice of reading it. I first read the novel in the first graduate seminar I took in 1992 at Texas A&M University, one on the eighteenth-century novel. I loved the class, and my memory was that I really enjoyed the novel.

I should have thought twice about this memory when I recalled that I also have fond memories of reading Samuel Richardson‘s Sir Charles Grandison, a novel that I’ve published on but that also doesn’t get easier to read with subsequent efforts. (But my memory of it is still very positive; I just don’t want to read it over and over again.)

My students clearly found Roxana difficult to read, and I could feel some of them dropping like flies as we went along. In part, I think the problem was simply that the novel’s style is more dense than I remember — at least for junior English majors who aren’t already in love with the eighteenth century. They also found it repetitive and rather plotless.

So, I spent my time in class trying to help them appreciate what Defoe was trying to achieve. As would probably be expected, we spent a lot of time thinking about issues of class, economics, and gender in the novel. I also tried to emphasize scholarly opinions on the early novel and realism, since early eighteenth-century realism is really what I thought was giving my students the most trouble.

We started this conversation with some quotes from Ian Watt’s 1957 study, The Rise of the Novel. He famously writes that the “novel’s realism does not reside in the kind of life it presents, but in the way it presents it” (11). His key concept of the early novel’s realism is that of “formal realism:”

Formal realism [is] the premise, or primary convention, that the novel is a full and authentic report of human existence, and is therefore under an obligation to satisfy its reader with such details of the story as the individuality of the actors concerned, the particulars of the times and places of their actions, details which are presented through a more largely referential use of language than is common in other literary forms. (32)

We therefore looked a bit at how Roxana conveys this “full and authentic report” of Roxana’s life and talked about how little that report includes anything like psychological realism, one of the key elements of the modern novel.

I also wanted my students to read this novel in the context of the Enlightenment. So, I also provided them with this quote by Watt: Enlightenment texts

did much to bring about the modern assumption whereby the pursuit of truth is conceived of as a wholly individual matter, logically independent of the tradition of past thought, and indeed as more likely to be arrived at by a departure from it.

The novel is the form of literature which most fully reflects this individualist and innovating reorientation. … [L]iterary traditionalism was first and most fully challenged by the novel, whose primary criterion was truth to individual experience—individual experience which is always unique and therefore new. The novel is thus the logical literary vehicle of a culture which, in the last few centuries, has set an unprecedented value on originality, on the novel; and it is therefore well named. (13)

We then talked about whether Roxana embodied Enlightenment ideals and whether this meant that the novel was pro- or anti-Enlightenment. After that discussion, we moved to a few quotes from J. Paul Hunter’s Before Novels to get a different perspective on realism. Our emphasis here was on the way in which the novel focused on issues of privacy without actually being racy.

We followed Roxana with Eliza Haywood‘s Fantomina, which provided us with a really good contrast. While both texts are about women who take up “prostitution,” they are very different narratives. We therefore worked through Fantomina by asking some of the same questions, such as whether she is an Enlightenment heroine and what this means about Haywood’s take on the Enlightenment as a cultural phenomenon.

I love teaching Fantomina and could imagine teaching Roxana again with more of an eye toward prepping them for the comparisons between the two texts. But we’ll see. I’m not teaching the junior eighteenth century class next year, so maybe I’ll be interested in completely different issues by the time I get it again.

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