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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 215-233
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Defoe's Protestant Whore
Popery we will not have; so far we are right , but what are we for? 1
I could not be of one Opinion, and then pretend myself to be of another, nor could I go to Confession, who knew nothing of the Manner of it, and should betray myself to the Priest, to be a Hugonot, and then might come into Trouble; . . . in short, tho' I was a Whore, yet I was a Protestant Whore, and could not act as if I was Popish, upon any Account whatsoever. 2
The eponymous heroine of Defoe's last novel, Roxana, titles herself "a Protestant Whore," and in doing so introduces into the fictional universe of the narrative an historical woman, Nell Gwyn, mistress of Charles II. "'Pray, good people, be civil; I am the Protestant whore,'" declared Gwyn in 1681, addressing the Oxford mobs agitating against the king's stubborn refusal to bar his brother from the throne. 3 The courtesan's witty self-defamation articulates both the humor and the self-preserving instinct for which Gwyn had become famous by the time of the Exclusion Crisis. Born the daughter of a bawdy house madam in 1650, Gwyn astonished the English public in her rise from orange girl to actress to royal mistress. She continued to fascinate her audience with the very public performances she maintained in her role as a courtesan and as an actress who remained committed to the stage for three years after her relationship with the king began in 1668, years that included the birth of Gwyn's first child. 4 After Charles II died in 1685, popular memory held on to only five words of his deathbed [End Page 215] speech: "Let not poor Nelly starve." The occasion of the courtesan's death two years later was marked by a funeral sermon given, at Gwyn's request, by no less a figure than Dr. Tenison of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
In what way does Nell Gwynserve as a key to the interpretive locks of Roxana? Defoe's fascination with the Restoration has been amply documented with reference to A Journal of thePlague Year, but Roxana critics are inclined to examine the specific Restoration allusions that appear in Defoe's last novel only as glosses to the culture of Hanoverian England; David Blewett, for example, claims that "Of course Defoe is satirizing the age in which he was living by drawing a moral comparison between the reign of George I and the reign of Charles II." 5 Roxana's engagement with the Restoration, I believe, goes much deeper than this comparative framework suggests and addresses thematic concerns that Defoe could not, for various reasons, work out in any immediate way in relation to the Hanoverian society in which he wrote. 6
In this essay I suggest that Roxana's Restoration setting was important for Defoe not simply because the period was associated with amatory fiction and chronique scandaleuse, but because it enabled him to forge powerful links between two apparently opposing discourses: that of the Protestant conversion narrative, and that of the courtesan work and identity eloquently articulated in the figure of Nell Gwyn. Defoe's use of the conventions of spiritual autobiography and, more generally, the imbrication of the realist novel in Protestant and capitalist systems have long been subjects of interest. For example, Ian Watt and Michael McKeon have both commented on the relation between Defoe's narrative poetics and the central tenets of Protestantism in Robinson Crusoe:
It is therefore likely that the Puritan conception of the dignity of labour helped to bring into being the novel's general premise that the individual's daily life is of sufficient importance and interest to be the proper subject of literature.
[Defoe's] central narrative energy . . . is generated . . . by the figure of the confident entrepreneur whose astonishing descent to the subjective roots of objective and empirical reality has been turned so productively to the stabilizing of that reality that it can be treated as though it...