Economic Locality and Estrangement in Defoe’s Roxana

This is the text as prepared of a talk I gave at “Transporting Bodies,” a conference put on by the Eighteenth-Century Studies Group and the Nineteenth-Century Forum at the University of Michigan.

I want to talk to you guys today about an idea I’ve been calling economic locality. This is a concept that is pretty firmly rooted in my dissertation project, so I’ll have to explain a little bit to make the stakes clear. We’ll get to the novel by the end, trust me.

My dissertation is about eighteenth century economic life in Great Britain — specifically private debt. In particular, I work on the ways such economic phenomena were often misrepresented in the literature of the period, and the cultural-political significance of these misrepresentations. This project has required me to construct, mostly from economic and social history, what I believe to be a fairly robust model of economic life in eighteenth-century communities, be they agrarian villages, manufacturing towns, or urban neighborhoods. One important issue that I have recognized in this work, and that I think will seem important to an audience of people interested in travel studies, is the significant role of what we would now call economic considerations in shaping the boundaries and internal organization of communities — which I call communal form.

While the modern idea of “the economy” and the discourse of political economy in any mature form were still decades off, eighteenth-century Britons thought about the relationships of individuals to each other, their communities, and the state in concepts and vocabulary borrowed from a discourse that the historian Julian Hoppitt has described as a kind of pop economic theory: that is, the discourse concerned with the thorny ethical problems posed by credit and debt. In today’s talk, I will explain the relationship I see between communal form and economic life, and trace the symptoms of that troublesome link to a novel that is a travel narrative of sorts, The Fortunate Mistress, better known as Roxana. In so doing, I want to highlight one key dimension of what eighteenth-century Britons would have understood about what it meant to be from somewhere — to be known, as they would have put it — and therefore, negatively, what it meant to be a stranger.

(The chapter that this talk basically summarizes is called “Strangers.”)

That key dimension is the rich and affective sense of mutual obligation, communal judgment, and economic entanglement that being known carried with it, a rich communal mesh of relationships that could be nurturing in some circumstances and gothically oppressive in others. As I read it, Roxana is a narrative meditation on the possibilities of breaking free of this form of entanglement, a novel about estrangement, with a refugee for a protagonist. Defoe’s Calvinist commitment to individualized moral judgment — for this brief version of the argument, please allow me to simply posit that he had such a commitment; he did — leads him into situations that raise the possibility of forms of collective moral judgment that 18c credit discourse actually entailed. But he evades the resolution of these situations by running away from them into travel literature. In other words, the novel introduces elements of travel narrative into a moral argument in order to make aspects of that moral argument plausible.

Let’s get started.

Cash payment was a rarity in the eighteenth century. For complicated reasons that I won’t get into, there was simply too little specie for it to play any kind of central role in people’s lives. One quick and dirty statistic that gets at the scarcity of metallic money is the ratio of trade credit to specie in inventories of London tradesmen in the period: Peter Earle finds 15 pounds of outstanding trade credit for every pound in coin in the inventories he looked at — and London and the home counties likely had much more cash payment than elsewhere in Great Britain.

Banknotes, introduced in the 1690s, were similarly rare. For the first few decades, these were written out by hand, and were bespoke — depositors to the Bank of England could have notes made in any denomination up to their balance. Standard, printed notes arrived in 1725, in denominations from £20 to £10,000. These notes were not in wide use: recall that £20 was more than the annual income of a laboring-class household until the end of the eighteenth century.

Smaller notes were added as occasion required, as when the first £1 and £2 notes were issued in response to a bank run in 1797. This led to annualized rates of inflation that the Bank of England estimates rose as high as 40 percent — which must have been all the more shocking following more than a century with little to no inflation.

I could do twenty minutes just on these statistics, but we have more to cover: the takeaway you need to get is that credit was ubiquitous. Cash payment, however, was necessary for a handful of particular  transactions, among them rents, tithes, and taxes. As such, people would hoard coins in anticipation of meeting this small number of large expenses for which coins were necessary, and channel almost all other economic activity through elaborate interlocking networks of credit relationships. I’ll put on the screen a chiasmic slogan to use as a mnemonic: Credit was not an instrument for negotiating a cash economy. Rather, it was just the inverse: cash was an instrument for negotiating a credit economy.

Credit affected communal form in a few principal ways. First off, many forms of obligation could be expressed in credit terms, and not always in the ways we might initially expect. Employers and employees, for example, typically had complicated and equivocal economic relationships in which credit flowed in both directions. It was not unusual for employers, even after the nominal onset of “wage labor,” to pay their workers primarily in kind and in credit, often credit with area tradesmen — think of it as a more complex, multi-party version of the abusive “company store” model. An agricultural employer, say, typically a tenant farmer, couldn’t afford to give his employees their wages in silver: any coins he had would very much be needed for rent.

But not only wage labor: many different social relationships had credit elements. Heads of household lent to and borrowed from their servants; neighbors lent and borrowed among themselves; local gentry cultivated obligation by settling the outstanding debts of poor households; and so on.

The terms under which individuals could borrow were determined by the state of their credit, but the credit discourse of the time was very different than ours today. Credit today is at bottom a prediction of future ability to repay debt based on past performance. Early modern credit was nothing at all like this. Instead, it was a much more comprehensive judgment about reputation, moral uprightness, religious orthodoxy and communal belonging — it was about approval. Determinations of credit were made through ad hoc practices of witnessing — essentially gossip. This meant, in practice, that households in possession of the good favor of their neighbors could maintain debt loads that now seem totally implausible; the best estimates from the social historians suggest that typical laboring class households earned, on average, about fourteen pounds per annum and spent about eighteen. But households with declining reputations could find their credit curtailed at the speed of rumor — and it was in these circumstances that insolvency, which could result in imprisonment, was most likely to take place.

Acquaintances would meet regularly to reckon their mutual obligations — sometimes with the aid of written records, but often not — and gossip about their mutual acquaintances, a practice known as “business.” These meetings were sociable occasions, either in alehouses or in private homes, granting an opportunity for entertaining. Local tradesmen — grocers, mercers, butchers, chandlers, tailors, etc. — were key hubs in credit discourse, as the individuals who had credit relationships with the largest numbers of their neighbors. Meeting regularly to square accounts and talk business, tradesmen would discuss their clients. In this way, they would negotiate and fix the relative status of various households.

This brings us to the second way that credit relationships determined communal form. According to Margot Finn, one was at home where one could purchase on “book debt,” that is to say, by opening a tab and recording one’s purchases in the accounts of the shopkeeper, to be paid, typically, within six months, but terms were usually very flexible. This did not mean one could only buy on credit near to where one lived; the distances involved fluctuated more or less on the basis of density. Jon Stobart, Andrew Hann and Victoria Morgan tell us of a Warrington mercer named Edward Twambrooks, who served an extensive rural clientelle; he recorded book debts from people in twenty-two nearby villages. In the larger nearby towns of Manchester and Liverpool, these rural customers might not have been known, and might not have been able to make this arrangement. Being known referred less to a sense of familiarity with a person and knowledge of where they lived than it did to an understanding of how that person fit into the local network of credit and patronage relationships.

Individuals who found themselves excluded from these networks — strangers or those of declining reputations — could find it challenging to buy or sell. Strangers pay cash. This was reflected in the terms of payment in establishments, such as inns, that catered primarily to travellers. These terms were very different than in businesses catering to locals. The suspicious brusqueness of innkeepers in insisting on prompt cash payment — and their clients’ annoyance with their rudeness — was a contemporary cliché; I imagine them once bitten, twice shy.

With this understanding in hand, we are now prepared to return to Roxana, in particular to a scene early in the novel that has not received, to my knowledge, any critical attention. The novel tells of the amorous adventures of a Huguenot refugee. Abandoned early on by a profligate husband, she parlays her beauty and wit into a succesful career as a courtesan and international adventuress. But the novel arrives at a troubling conclusion when she returns to England under one of her many assumed identities and seeks to aid, anonymously, her children. It all goes wrong when her daughter Susan suspects that her benefactor must be her long-lost mother. Afraid that her scandalous past will be revealed and disrupt her new life, she ends up complicit in the murder of her daughter.

The scene I want to discuss arrives at an early turning point. Abandoned by her husband, Roxana has hit bottom, financially; her father is dead, her brother jailed for debt, and her in-laws begin to close their doors on her as she spends the last of her savings. Her husband’s shocking departure is hard for her to explain, and it is unclear to whom she can turn. She is eventually forced to lodge her children with her relations, a shocking and very public admission of her lack of even basic self-sufficiency. This is a kind of suicidal gesture in a credit economy. Even this level of support is only possible because of the intercession of her sister-in-law’s husband. Above and beyond charitable motivations, he is rightly concerned that should Roxana’s children be entrusted to Parish support, it would be a grave blow to the reputation (and therefore credit) of the family as a whole. In any case, Defoe makes it abundantly clear that Roxana’s in-laws are doing the least they possibly could for her, giving ample indications that she need not look to them for any further support.

At this stage, the nature of her relationship with her landlord changes, and the first love affair in her new career as a courtesan begins. While earlier, the landlord had been more of a malevolent external force than a real character, mentioned only in his periodic demands for rent she cannot pay, he now comes to her aid, with an eye to seducing her. But we need to look closely: caught up in the main action of Roxana and her maid Amy’s casuist debates over what circumstances might make it appropriate to sleep with him, it would be easy for a reader to gloss over the social dimension of what he has offered her in exchange. His offer is made in what we are now in position to recognize as a very curious retail transaction, in a sequence that I call the Butcher scene. Defoe’s long sentences make the scene difficult to divide; I will read it in its entirety and put it on the screen.

I observed he came oftener to see me, looked kinder upon me, and spoke more friendly to me, than he used to do, particularly the last two or three times he had been there. He observed, he said, how poorly I lived, how low I was reduced, and the like; told me it grieved him for my sake; and the last time of all he was kinder still, told me he came to dine with me, and that I should give him leave to treat me; so he called my maid Amy, and sent her out to buy a joint of meat; he told her what she should buy; but naming two or three things, either of which she might take, the maid, a cunning wench, and faithful to me as the skin to my back, did not buy anything outright, but brought the butcher along with her, with both the things that she had chosen, for him to please himself. The one was a large, very good leg of veal; the other a piece of the fore-ribs of roasting beef. He looked at them, but made me chaffer with the butcher for him, and I did so, and came back to him and told him what the butcher had demanded for either of them, and what each of them came to. So he pulls out eleven shillings and threepence, which they came to together, and bade me take them both; the rest, he said, would serve another time (Defoe, Roxana: p. 64).

Defoe presents this elaborate, multi-party transaction in great detail, telling us not only what happened, but how it happened. We need to interpret these detailed descriptions in terms of the retail credit economy and its relationship to communal form. The landlord calls upon Roxana, as on business, and offers to buy food for them to dine together, and sends Amy out to get it. But Amy does not buy anything; it is likely that she cannot buy anything, because she is known as Roxana’s maid and Roxana’s credit has presumably fallen so low. The butcher would not likely believe that she has been instructed to buy on the landlord’s account. So, instead, she brings the butcher with her.

Interestingly, Roxana seems to think that what ensues is orchestrated by Amy, the “cunning wench,” but I’m not so sure. This is a very strange transaction, and I want to reiterate, Defoe gives us every step. Roxana chooses and settles on a price, leaving no doubt that the purchase is for her, but he pays, and pays cash up front. By paying cash at the time of purchase — and quite a bit of cash, which Defoe carefully enumerates — and ostentatiously buying enough food to feed perhaps eight people, the landlord is explicitly signalling both to Roxana and to the butcher, and through him the rest of the community, that he is assuming responsibility for her. This scene is of special significance because of the way the landlord performs his patronage of Roxana for the butcher. If you think about it, it is otherwise quite strange to have this interlocutor present, as a kind of witness on behalf of credit discourse, for what might have been depicted as a very intimate moment.

Roxana’s position would have been well understood by her neighbors, and so her landlord’s intercession takes on a kind of illocutionary excess. It becomes a performance. The landlord has offered to reinscribe her into the patronage and kinship networks that her absconded husband’s disappearance had disrupted. But — this is key — the reintegration on offer shouldn’t work. By becoming her landlord’s mistress, she should have forfeited by scandal any improvement to her status. Credit discourse means that financial ethics cannot be rigorously separated from other forms of ethics like, say, sexual discretion. In other words, his offer should be, effectively, illusory, and the rest of the novel should be about nosy snooping neighbors trying to figure out what’s going on, and whether the two of them are actually sleeping together.

It isn’t. Defoe has other plans: he wants the moral argument of the novel to be about the terms on which the reader will accept that Roxana is justified in sleeping around — for money? How about even when she’s already financially comfortable? For fun? But that story can no longer be told in that town. And sure enough, within three pages, she’s in France, launching her picaresque career as a Continental courtesan.

Defoe’s protagonist allows him to explore these casuist moral considerations at the individual level, but only so long as he keeps her moving. These trade-offs are only possible as long as she only has one interlocutor at a time: her landlord, the Prince, the Dutch Merchant, and so on. Were the social universe of the novel during her time on the Continent to grow beyond the claustrophobic space of her apartment, the whole thing would come tumbling down.

Which, I would point out, is precisely what happens at the novel’s conclusion, when she returns to town.

Thank you.

The citation is from the 2009 Broadview Roxana, edited by Mowry.