Defoe’s The Complete English Tradesman and the Prostitute Narrative: Minding the Shop in Mrs. Elizabeth Wisebourn, Sally Salisbury, and Roxana


Abstract: Written in the aftermath of the South Sea Bubble collapse of 1720, Daniel Defoe’s The Complete English Tradesman (1726) associates economic survival with the concept of mastery, or “minding the shop.” This concept had been explored in prostitute narratives published earlier in the decade, including Anodyne Tanner’s The Life of the Late Celebrated Mrs. Elizabeth Wisebourn (1721), Charles Walker’s Authentick Memoirs of the Life, Intrigues, and Adventures of the Celebrated Sally Salisbury (1723), and Defoe’s Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724). When one reads The Complete English Tradesman in relation to these narratives, the figure of the female sex worker emerges as a model for Defoe’s middle-class masculine ideal. Much like Defoe’s tradesman, the protagonists of post-Bubble prostitute narratives represent an endangered masculinity that strives for mastery within a precarious economic environment. The “femaleness” of these protagonists—and consequently Defoe’s tradesman—cannot be disregarded, however. Though the prostitute narratives discussed here are male-authored representations of masculine experience, they are also reflections of one of eighteenth-century England’s most fascinating and powerful female figures, a figure associated, albeit loosely, with actual female sex workers. Defoe’s tradesman clearly serves as a masculine ideal, but one that cannot escape its notorious “feminine” literary past.