- “A perfect Retreat indeed”: Speculation, Surveillance, and Space in Defoe’s Roxana
Daniel Defoe’s novel Roxana (1724) begins with the title character’s birth, an event immediately followed by her family’s flight from France to England because of religious persecution. 1 The infant Roxana is carried to England along with a variety of valuable commodities: “French Brandy, Paper, and other Goods,” which allow her father to set himself up as a businessman in London (37). Once there, the successful immigrant family finds itself called upon to aid other refugees, their “Door continually throng’d with miserable Objects of the poor starving Creatures, who at that Time fled hither for Shelter, on Account of Conscience, or something else” (37).2 At the outset Defoe raises the subjects of flight and refuge, the theme of financial reward through wise investment and money management, and the spectre of unscrupulous opportunism. The novel’s beginning foregrounds the issue of the necessity of circulation and refuge for Roxana and her money.
The young Roxana’s association with saleable goods, a safe haven, and sound investments shapes a narrative that seeks to instruct readers not only in the perilous pleasures of sexual immorality, but also in the wisdom of good business practices that are based on the characters’ appropriation and management of the space around [End Page 493] them through surveillance and speculation. The word “speculation” holds multiple meanings that can be used in reference to Roxana’s actions and circumstances. “Speculation” evokes her willingness to undertake uncertain commercial ventures and her readiness to take calculated risks to improve her fortunes, particularly in her liaisons with well-to-do, powerful men. While being a mistress is in many ways perilous, it becomes the most mobile and fruitful profession for Roxana because it allows her to diversify her investments in a variety of men rather than committing all of her resources to a single man in marriage. Although this definition is now obsolete, “speculation” can also refer to “an observer or watcher; a spy” (OED) and thus is closely tied to “surveillance,” the manipulation and control of space through observation—control that Roxana must maintain in order to preserve her fortunes and freedom. A third definition of “speculation” as “a spectacle or sight; a spectacular entertainment or show” (OED) can also apply to Roxana as she performs in her splendid Turkish dress in London (214). This performance is simultaneously spectacle and speculation: Roxana risks her reputation and future credit when exposing herself in this “spectacular entertainment.”
By presenting a protagonist who is a self-declared “woman of business” (169) operating in domestic circles, Roxana also speculates upon the state of the nation in the early eighteenth century. The novel evokes the sense of anxiety and instability prevalent in Britain following the frenzied inflation of South Sea Company stock leading up to the 1720 crash. The novel spatially imagines a nation that is transformed from a wide-open “refuge,” where Roxana first sets out in the world with every advantage (39), to a steadily shrinking trap that leaves her, in the end, with no place left to flee. In an analysis of the ways that the “women of business” in Roxana negotiate space through speculation and surveillance, I will consider how their entrepreneurial activities affect the social spaces of the novel. These spaces become increasingly constricted and repressive as Roxana’s social circulation becomes more dangerously speculative; this constriction of space is due in part to the systems of surveillance that surround her. The treatment of space and business in Roxana can be read in light of the increasingly conservative economic atmosphere of the period, which had been deeply affected by the South Sea Bubble crisis of 1720.
As a courtesan, Roxana conducts her business by appropriating alternative spaces within systems of social surveillance. Her success [End Page 494] depends heavily upon the construction of counter-surveillance networks and on her canniness in negotiating mazelike urban streets, treacherous interior spaces, and the dangerous terrain of the wider world. For Roxana, success also depends on the ability to create and retain power over “appropriated space,” which George Drake describes as space that is...