Did Defoe Write Roxana? Does It Matter?

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In an article on the many eighteenth-century continuations of Roxana published a few years ago, I traced the fluidity of the text before it acquired an author in 1775, and before the first edition of 1724 came to be seen in the nineteenth century as the only authoritative text. (1) My purpose was to urge critics not to dismiss the later editions because they contained non-authorial material, or, as in the case of the Francis Noble and Thomas Lowndes's edition of 1775, were rewritten so thoroughly as to make the 1724 edition unrecognizable. From the point of view of literary and cultural history, I thought, these publications were valuable because they showed that, for most of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, there was no such simple creature as "Defoe's Roxana". There were Roxanas in the plural, not all of whose parts had been written by Defoe, or had even referenced an author on the title page. Our habitual investment in the author had no purchase on a situation in which anonymous novels were the norm, and our exclusive focus on the first edition prevented our understanding the several ways Roxana circulated among eighteenth-century readers, with obvious implications for what could be said about the novel(s).

That article is part of a larger project on anonymity, one of several case studies that focus on theoretical and methodological problems of writing and reading anonymous texts, which are inseparable from the ways those texts have circulated. Anonymous publication brings these problems to the foreground in dramatic ways. The last thing I was interested in, I can confess, was straight attribution of a text to an author; I was much more interested in how readers projected authors onto texts, or in the case of Roxana, how, having acquired an author along the way, the text of the novel stabilized over the course of the nineteenth century and ultimately threw into the shade its own earlier picaresque history.

Nonetheless, it did occur to me, as it had to have done, that perhaps Defoe did not write Roxana. I approached the issue with an open mind, with no dog in the fight, as they say in Texas. After researching the question, I wrote, in passing, that I thought knowledge of Defoe's authorship of Roxana was part of the daffy business of the small and geographically concentrated world of London printers and booksellers, but it was not in my way at the time to provide evidence, which is the purpose of the present paper.

The state of the question that confronted me at the time--without the benefit of P. N Furbank and W. R. Owens's clarification of their position elsewhere in this journal--was as follows. Furbank and Owens, who had argued for the de-attribution of nearly half of the 572 titles in John Robert Moore's Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe, nonetheless accepted that Defoe wrote the prose fictions we think of as his. (2) Specifically, they based their attributions of Roxana, Moll Flanders, Captain Singleton, and Memoirs of a Cavalier on Francis Nobles publications in the 1770s and 1780s, the first editions of these books with Defoe's name on them. (3) Although they considered Noble a disreputable character, causing them to doubt the reliability of his ascriptions as external evidence for Defoe's authorship, they adduced what was for them a crucial piece of evidence, a 1738 edition of Colonel Jacque advertised as "by the author of Robinson Crusoe," and the 1739 reprint of the same, the Preface of which is signed "Daniel Defoe." In their view, this showed it was known that Defoe wrote novels other than Robinson Crusoe, making it more likely that Noble got it right. (4) In my view, however, this was not conclusive evidence for other novels. And although I accepted their appeal to "living memory," (5) meaning that it is not a question of ending authoritative attribution at the moment of the writer's death because those who lived and worked with her or him are still alive to give witness, it seemed to me something of a stretch to claim as external evidence publications appearing over forty years after Defoe's death with no intervening links. …