Women's Financial Dependency: Marriage in the 18th Century

This page summarizes an excerpt from the introduction of the book Roxana by Daniel Defoe. It focuses on feminism as a means to understand relationships in Roxana's time period.

“After I have told you that he was a Handsome man, and a good sportsman, I have, indeed, said all; and unhappy was I, like other young people of our sex, I chose him for being a handsome, jolly fellow, as I have said; for he was otherwise a weak, empty-headed, untaught creature, as any woman could ever desire to be coupled with. And here I must take the liberty, whatever I have to reproach myself with in my after conduct, to turn to my fellow-creatures, the young ladies of this country, and speak to them by way of precaution. If you have any regard to your future happiness, any view of living comfortably with a husband, any hope of preserving your fortunes, or restoring them after any disaster, never, ladies, marry a fool; any husband rather than a fool. With some other husbands you may be unhappy, but with a fool you will be miserable; with another husband you may, I say, be unhappy, but with a fool you must; nay, if he would, he cannot make you easy; everything he does is so awkward, everything he says is so empty, a woman of any sense cannot but be surfeited and sick of him twenty times a day. What is more shocking than for a woman to bring a handsome, comely fellow of a husband into company, and then be obliged to blush for him every time she hears him speak? to hear other gentlemen talk sense, and he able to say nothing? and so look like a fool, or, which is worse, hear him talk nonsense, and be laughed at for a fool.” (Pages 7-8)

This paragraph is particularly interesting to me since it reveals how much feminism affected our understanding of the world and relationships in the past centuries. In this introductory paragraph, Roxana talks about her previous husband who later uses up all her money and leaves her poor with five children. Before she reveals this reality later in the book, she gives the reasons for her marriage, as a way to “defend” herself from the reader’s judgment; she starts by pointing out that marrying a handsome but a fool man was something that everyone did in her time: “like other young people of our sex, I chose him for being a handsome, jolly fellow.” This introduction is her way of stating that she doesn’t have to take responsibility for her failed marriage because she couldn’t know such a coincidence while virtually everyone around her was doing the same thing. Thus, Defoe gives the reader reasons to believe that Roxana’s later actions, such as giving away her children, are justified.

One major issue that this paragraph takes on is how women had to choose their husbands back in the day. Because women did not usually work, they did not have the means to financially support themselves and were dependent on men to survive. Thus, this particular paragraph takes on the major issue of “the struggle for power in relation to class and gender.” As a woman, Roxana is obliged to find a “smart” man, not a fool (although she likes his looks) because she needs him in case she wants to “[reserve] [her] fortunes, or [restore] them after any disaster.”

Sketch of soldier with prostitutes

This item is somehow parallel to Roxana's case when it comes to relationships between men and women in the 19th century; while men remain as "powerful" figures, women are usually in the position of a servant, as people who provides a service for men's pleasures.

Women's Financial Dependency