Did Defoe Write Moll Flanders and Roxana?

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The question in my title is not rhetorical, but neither is it truly answerable. In their Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe, P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens offer such evidence as exists for assigning Moll Flanders and Roxana to Defoe. (1) That evidence is late and unsatisfactory, a fact that has been gingerly acknowledged by authoritative reviewers. More than a decade after the appearance of the Critical Bibliography, however, scholars are mostly carrying on as though we do not have a problem. In edition after edition of the novels, no mention is made of the basis of attribution. Even Furbank's excellent introduction to his Pickering and Chatto Roxana alludes only briefly to the posthumous attribution of that work to Defoe. (2) I want here to reevaluate such case as has been made for assigning authorship of Moll and Roxana, with some consideration of other "Defoe" novels, granting at the outset that no solution is in sight. My object is to deal with the implications of the uncertainties with which we are necessarily left after confronting a disquieting reality: the truth is that all is not well with the Defoe canon, even where much of the major fiction is concerned.

Let me be very clear: my argument is not for de-attribution. I cannot disprove authorship, and if a better case can be made for treating Moll and Roxana as definitively Defoe's, then I very much hope it will be made. But in the absence of further evidence, we need to be scrupulously careful. What follows is meant to be rigorously skeptical. I am calling into question all of the arguments that might be made to support the attribution of these and other novels to Defoe--not necessarily because I find those arguments unconvincing, but because I want to establish the possibility of doubting any or even all of them. In other words, I have adopted an "assume nothing" attitude in an effort to demonstrate that Defoe's non-authorship of Moll and Roxana is conceivable, and that this unwelcome fact should be reckoned with.


A number of Defoe scholars have pointed out that Moll Flanders and Roxana appeared anonymously and were never publicly connected to Defoe in his lifetime. (3) He said nothing about them, and evidently the original readers of those novels had no idea that he was the author. His contemporaries might well have been surprised to be told that he was busy producing works that would get him remembered as a great novelist: they saw him as a grubby party pen, a mercenary dealer in ephemera, a journalistic hack, and a spy. In the half century after his death, Defoe was thought of as a pamphleteer and an economic thinker, when he was thought on at all. Only in the last quarter of the eighteenth century did the term "novelist" begin to be applied to him. (4) What of the status of Moll and Roxana in the eighteenth century? How did rather disreputable anonymous texts eventually come to be widely accepted as Defoe's?

Both The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1722) and The Fortunate Mistress: or, A History of the Life and ... Fortunes of Mademoiselle de Beleau.... Being the Person Known by the Name of the Lady Roxana (1724) purported to be the "true" lives of the protagonists. Moll's story was, the title page assures us, "Written from her own Memorandums," and the anonymous preface explains that Moll is "Author," but that another (unspecified) hand has "put it into a Dress fit to be seen." (5) Roxana's preface asserts that the account is "not a Story, but a History," and that the "Relator" responsible for arranging publication "was particularly acquainted with this Lady% First Husband, the Brewer, and with his Father," and so "knows that first Part of the Story to be Truth." This relator, we are told, has tried "to keep clear of Indecencies, and immodest Expressions" in the text, and so what we are reading is ostensibly a slightly tidied up version of the truth as written by the protagonists in the first person. …


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