Roxalana: Or, the Step-Mother. An Historic Tale
Publisher: Ann Lemoine and J. Roe
Publication Year: 1806
Book Dimensions: 11.5cm
University of Virginia Library Catalog Entry, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2 .R736 1806
Published in 1806 by an unknown author, Roxalana: Or, the Step-Mother is tragic tale of family disputes and an undying jealousy leading to a family’s demise.
Roxalana: Or, the Step-Mother. An Historic Tale is a gothic text in English originally published in London by an unknown author. The text comes in the form of a chapbook with no indication of the title on the cover page, however we do know it was published in 1806 and “by and for J. Roe.” As the book was gifted to the Sadlier-Black Collection, there is no concrete history of the potential author or the context in which it was written. The title appears often, most notable on the inside of the cover page and again on the second page. Its first appearance is under a black and white illustration depicting the inside of a living room and a woman who we can assume to be the stepmother. The illustration is carefully drawn with meticulous lines shaping the room and person within. The second page portrays the title in large, spacious lettering in black ink with still no indication of the author. The title appears again at the top of every page as Roxalana.
The chapbook itself is only 36 pages long with a length of 11.5 cm, its size is quite a bit smaller than the average hand. The condition of the text is extremely fragile with the first and last page hardly retaining their attachment to the rest of the pages. The paper is very thin and brittle, banded simply together with no distinct border. The faint binding remnants reflect a somewhat thicker cardboard material decorated with once brown and gold details. The only stylistic elements on the cover page is the faint impression of the illustration on the inside cover. We can easily observe the delicate nature of the chapbook, with the yellowing brown pages and pages threatening to fall out. Its worn state indicates its usage and its light weight contributed to its easy, cheap exchange. As the illustration is also in black and white, we can expect this book to have cost a small amount of money.
When analyzing the inside of the book, we can see the font is precise and aligned to allow greater space on the inner margins of the pages as opposed to the outer margins. Despite this, there is not a lot of blank space as the words have assumed a large portion of the compact page. The font initially seems small, however it still allows for easy reading without an overcrowding of words. There are no other illustrations within the chapbook save for the illustration on the inside of the cover page. In exploring potential signs to indicate prior ownership, there are no visible marks in the text nor on the cover pages; there are no stamps, stains, or names besides “I. Roe.” Staying true to making the most of out of the available space, the ending of the book finishes on the second side of the last page. Despite the compact size, the story covers a large amount of geographical space within the Middle East; this contrast seems to give the physicality of the chapbook another dimension.
Roxalana: Or, the Step-Mother, An Historic Tale was published in 1806 by John Roe and Ann Lemoine and printed by Thomas Maiden in London. The author of the text is unknown and there are no concrete sources definitely tracing a potential author. John Roe and Ann Lemoine were book publishers in the late eighteenth century; both partook in bookselling and often worked alongside Thomas Maiden to publish numerous texts. However, because of the sheer number of books these three collectively worked on, there is still no positive inclination towards one particular author of Roxalana. Despite this ambiguity, there are a few avenues that can provide for greater contextualization of the story.
This text is a chapbook published in English. There are no prefaces, introductions, prequels, or sequels to further guide the direction of the narrative. In approaching Roxalana through a historical lens, however, the character is indeed based off of a real historical figure in the 1500s, Aleksandra Lisovska or Hurrem Sultan in Turkish. Roxalana was a Slavic woman who was sold into the slave market at a young age to an acquaintance of Sultan Suleiman. Soon thereafter, she entered the harem and eventually became the legal wife of the sultan, a feat considered quite extraordinary. She bore him five sons and amounted a great deal of power over the course of her relationship. In grappling with Roxalana from this perspective, the reader can see the realistic aspects of the story as it derives from a nonfiction narrative (Parry).
An earlier version of Roxalana appeared in The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer in 1769 as The History of Mustapha and Roxalana. The content of the story mirrors the 1806 version despite the changes in details and writing. In the 1769 story, a major difference in the plot is the father killing one of the sons rather than servants proceeding with the murder.
Another version appears in The British Moralist; or, Young Gentleman and Lady’s Polite Preceptor, a two-volume collection of “novels, tales, fables, visions, dreams, allegories” published in 1771. The collection’s title page lists several authors and then further indicates the inclusion of other “Celebrated Moderns.” Within this collection, Roxalana appears in The Merciless Mother-in-law; or, The History of Mustapha and Roxalana; a story similar to the 1806 version and the authorship listed as“from Dr. Robertson’s Charles the Fifth” (276). Dr. William Robertson was a Scottish minister and Principal of the University of Edinburgh, his work History of Charles the Fifth is part of a larger volume of works. His work A History of the Middle Ages: Describing the Progress of Society in Europe from the Subversion of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the sixteenth century extensively covers historical and geographical details, such as a deeper look into the Ottoman Empire, omitted from other versions.
The multiple versions in addition to the 1806 printing indicate that there was a market for this story. The various places Roxalana can be located also implies that the audience ranged from those who could only afford chapbooks to those who had the money to purchase Dr. Robertson’s historical books. There are no reviews of the story that can readily be found in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century newspapers, however Roxalana reflects a longer tradition of European fascination with the Middle East.
Narrative Point of View
Roxalana, or the Stepmother is narrated from a third-person point of view. The narrator remains anonymous and never self-identifies through any means throughout the story. The narrator uses simple yet regal language; the plot is not overly detailed, however the specific vocabulary used reflects royal aura of the main ruling family. Further, the narrator is very exact in tone as the story unfolds and the audience is invited to read the story as if it were true. This echoes in the latter half of the title—An Historic Tale—as the narrator contextualizes the tale by providing historic details and geographical mobility. While the narrator does not provide excessive details, the narration still offers interiority of the multiple characters in a transparent, thorough way.
Roxalana being now raised in a co-partnership in the empire, and absolute mistress of the Sultan’s will, took upon her the administration of affairs; and soon made those that composed the Ottoman court, feel the powerful effects of her hatred or good-will. Her aversion for Mustapha increased with the report of his virtues, and her blind tenderness for Bajazet with the knowledge of his vices. She even thought it her duty to repair his visible defects, by the procession of an empire, and that a dignity of that high nature was alone capable of justifying her ill-grounded preference. As for Selim, a blended mixture of vice and good qualities composed his character; and if he sympathised in any thing with Bajazet, it was only in their desire of reigning. (8)
In this passage, the style of the narrator is evident, displaying evocations of empire and a regal atmosphere. While the focus is on Roxalana’s thoughts, the narrator also codes Mustapha, Bajazet, and Selim by explaining just enough for the audience to understand their respective characters. Another significant feature of the narrative style is how the narrator is able to adopt a classic oral storytelling voice.
Roxalana: Or, the Step-Mother, An Historic Tale centers on a royal Turkish family in the Ottoman Empire period. The story opens up with a discussion of women and their feminine charm, specifically how women can manipulate their charm to be powerful enough to rule over men and societies.
The narrator then introduces the family through this sentiment by bringing in Solyman, the current Sultan, and characterizing him as a just, respected ruler. Solyman had a Georgian wife, who passed away, with whom he had his first son, Mustapha. Solyman continues to have affairs with other women and a particularly powerful relationship with one Turkish servant, Roxalana. The story describes Roxalana as an evil stepmother capable of severe malevolence and intensely wicked in intention and actions. Together, Roxalana and Solyman have four boys and one daughter: Mahomet, Selim, Bajazet, Zeangir, and Cameria.
Solyman’s prized possession is his first son Mustapha and it is through this love that Mustapaha eventually marries and becomes a respected Prince of Amazia, a neighboring region. Roxalana utterly despises Mustapha and desires her son, Bajazet, to be the successor after Solyman’s death. To execute such a role, she realizes the importance of formally wedding Solyman and thus deceives a religious figure into blessing the matrimony of the pair; she then unleashes her limitless cruelty in securing her son’s position as Sultan. Bajazet and Selim take after their mother’s temperament while Zeangir imitates Mustapha’s renowned demeanor, prompting him to join Mustapha. During Zeangir’s stay with Mustapha they fall into battle with the Sophi of Persia and his army, resulting in Mustapha’s win over the Sophi. Mustapha’s grace extends to even the war prisoners, creating an almost peaceful, mediated space between the rivaling forces. Zeangir assumes power over one of Persia’s territories and falls in love with the Sophi’s daughter, Perselia. Zeangir confides in Mustapha about his love for Perselia and eventually, with Mustapha’s permission, leaves to pursue her after she returns to her home in Tauris. There, Zeangir meets with an anxious Perselia to profess his love and further intensify his goal of marrying her. Perselia responds by indicating the inappropriateness of their private conduct (regarding different sexes) and encourages him to offer a truce with the Sophi, who similarly wants an end to the conflict. Zeangir realizes the critical nature of securing this truce in wanting to marry Perselia, thus he quickly leaves and returns to Mustapha.
Mustapha accepts the news willingly and secretly, unbeknownst to Solyman, sends an offer to the Sophi through a servant, Achmet, who later proves to be disloyal. Throughout this unfolding, Roxalana continues to wreak havoc by inducing paranoia in Solyman regarding his sons and taking steps to ensure the destruction of Mustapha. Solyman discovers the offer Mustapha makes and through Roxalana’s authoritative influence becomes enraged over his son’s actions. He then issues for the kidnapping of Perselia and summons his sons in Amazia to return to his palace. Roxalana continues to scheme and employs Rustan, the husband of her daughter, as her loyal ally in carrying out her horrors. When Bajazet falls in love with the captive Perselia, Roxalana and Rustan deceptively create traps for the other men to fall into: they prevent Bajazet from seeing Perselia (whom Roxalana despises), distract Zeangir by letting him meet with Perselia, and convince Solyman of his ultimate demise due to Mustapha wanting to overthrow him. Roxalana creates a lie regarding Mustapha’s desire to replace Solyman and elicits terror in Solyman.
Solyman, fearing replacement, orders Rustan and his men to murder Mustapha in order to retain his position as Sultan. Rustan and his men pursue Mustapha, who has realized his stepmother’s evil character, and succeed in murdering him despite Mustapha’s fighting stance. Zeangir, whom Perselia warned about the cruelty in Roxalana and Rustan, discovers he is too late and rushes to the bloody scene of his dead brother. Zeangir and many army men endure great agony in seeing the death of their beloved leader and mobilize to discover the cause. Zeangir then faces his father and accuses him of submitting to Roxalana’s influence and his own weaknesses. Zeangir then stabs himself in the breast and dies while Solyman finally realizes the truth of the situation.
Despite Solyman acknowledging the truth, he still persists in obeying Roxalana’s wishes and mourns her greatly after her natural death two years later. Prior to her death, Roxalana and Rustan force Solyman to consent to the death of Mustapha’s wife and child. Perselia returns to her father and is followed by Bajazet, who is still strongly in love with her in spite of Perselia’s disgust towards him. Solyman, overcome with grief and guilt, orders for the murder of Bajazet in the same fashion Mustapha had been murdered. Solyman eventually passes away with old age and Selim assumes the role of the next Sultan, a role portrayed as respected and fair.
“The History of Mustapha and Roxalana.” The London Magazine or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, vol 38, 1769. https://books.google.com/books?id=RxUrAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA345&lpg=PA345&dq=roxalana+or+the+step-mother&source=bl&ots=U_Wbsu68Zk&sig=ACfU3U3MgAbpB7t8EGLD9roeELty0juQqA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjyqIHc357lAhVyiOAKHb0gBQsQ6AEwA3oECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=roxalana%20or%20the%20step-mother&f=false
“The Merciless Mother-in-law; or, The History of Mustapha and Roxalana.” The British Moralist; or, Young Gentleman and Lady’s Polite Preceptor. London. 1771, https://books.google.com/books?id=7KQ_AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA275&lpg=PA275&dq=the+merciless+mother+in+law+mustapha&source=bl&ots=lUz0QVB9SY&sig=ACfU3U3ijflLtapqlNzwqR0ef1zPs9g0uw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwit_IH84p7lAhXIV98KHUWcAuAQ6AEwA3oECAYQAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
Parry, V.J. “Süleyman the Magnificent.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 16 May 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Suleyman-the-Magnificent.
Robertson, William. “General History of Europe During the Reign of The Emperor Charles V.” History of the Middle Ages. London. 1850.
Roxalana: Or, the Step-Mother. An Historic Tale. London, I. Roe, 1806.
Researcher: Iqra Khalid Razzaq