Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722)

mollI’ve read a lot the last few months, and not posted much about the novels I’ve finished, but I’ll make an exception for this… and for one nonfiction book on governesses, which I’ll get to later this month. (And a few thoughtful posts on novels I wasn’t crazy about, which… well, they’ll go up eventually, I suppose, if they seem worth it when I revisit them.)

Moll Flanders was an enjoyable enough book, once I got past the way novels were written in that time, which is to say, once I got past the lack of any kind of expository description of anything. Sure, Swift does more in Gulliver’s Travels, but then, there’s more he must describe for the reader to make sense of the story, whereas Defoe, here, describes only what’s absolutely necessary, which, well… is less than we’re used to these days, and it gives the book a starkness to modern sensibilities.

For those who don’t know the story, here’s an advertisement from the Weekly Journal, or The British Gazetteer, from 1726:


The Life and Actions of MOLL FLANDERS:

Containing, her birth and education in Newgate; her ambition to be a gentlewoman; her being taken into a gentleman’s family; her being debauch’d by her master’s eldest son, and married to the younger; her marriage to her own brother; her going over with him to, and settling in Virginia; her return to England; her marriage to an highwayman, who pass’d for a Person of Quality; her being reduc’d, and turning thief; her taking some plate from an house on fire; her turning informer; her robbing in man’s clothes; a singular adventure that happen’d to her at Bartholomew-Fair; her being apprehended, committed to Newgate, try’d, and cast for her life; her obtaining transportation; her meeting with her Quality-Husband in the same condition; her being transported with him; her second settlement, and happy success in Virginia, and removal into Ireland; her estate, penitence, age, death, burial, elegy, and epitaph. Adorn’d with cuts suitable to each chapter. London: Printed and Sold by T. Read, behind the Sun-Tavern in Fleet-Street.

Two odd things about the above:

  1. The edition I read lacked anything about “her estate, penitence, age, death, burial, elegy, and epitaph”… and now I’m curious if it was included in other editions. (I read a version from Project Gutenberg, and if you wish to do the same, I recommend the plaintext version, as .mobi and .epub versions go into italics about halfway, and stay that way till the end.)
  2. The above advertisement really, really emphasizes the second half of the book. Moll’s descent into crime happens in her late forties, and begins about halfway through the novel.

Well, it took me months to get back to it, but when I did, it was only a few hours to get from the middle of the book to the end. Funny, that. The book has a funny sort of bare-it-all confessional quality that somehow wins one over: you can’t help but root for Moll Flanders as she stumbles from possible life to possible life, wreaking havoc and lying through her teeth all the way, and it’s not all because she was effectively an orphan with the deck stacked against her: it’s also because you gather very clearly how limited her options were, you respect how clever she manages to be at times, you yearn for things to work out for her just once, and also, you have this sense she must turn out right in the end; if not, Defoe would never let her tell the story.

But I was left with a number of questions, like: is my sense valid that Moll Flanders is sort of an updated, sympathized rewrite of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, working her way through a series of men whom she screws (literally or figuratively) to death? Is Defoe challenging, or propagating, the sense that criminality is inborn? (Moll’s mother was transported to America as a criminal, but Moll’s siblings seem not to be crooks, and Moll gets a happy ending too… but only after a lifetime of miserable crime and wickedness.) What were Defoe’s reasons for deciding to write a novel with female narrator-protagonist, besides strategic ones related to moralizing? Previous to this, his most famous work was Robinson Crusoe, which all male, all the time.

There’s a certain degree more sympathy than I actually expected from the author–especially when it comes to Moll’s desperate struggle to marry someone of substance and become a gentlewoman, a narrative that seems familiar to us when it’s Austenian characters, but less so when it’s a penniless orphan who was born in a prison and . Defoe does handle her descent into a life of crime very effectively, I’ll add: Moll certainly doesn’t seem to leap in, but rather to be dragged in by desperation, and circumstances, and really as her final recourse–that is, when she’s old enough to be unlikely to be able to depend on the use her sexuality (through marriage or prostitution: the line doesn’t always seem very clear in the novel). He makes clear the argument–which Rictor Norton argues throughout The Georgian Underworld is an untenable simplification–that criminal behaviours are the result of poverty and desperation, which leaves me thinking about Defoe’s didacticism again. Though, oddly, one wonders at the ending, given Defoe’s thoughts on John Gay’s The Beggars’ Opera (those thoughts published only six years after Moll Flanders, and as quoted by Norton here):

Defoe in Street-Robberies, Consider’d (1728) said that ‘the Beggars Opera, in my opinion, has been of prejudice to the publick. Roguery there is set in such an amiable light, that vulgar minds are dazzled with it; and the author, I think, is punishable for not punishing the persons in his drama according to their desert.’

Is Moll’s last-minute salvation justified by her penitence, in comparison to the defiance of John Gay’s crooks? Is it maybe because Moll is female, and has less power over her fate in the world of that time? Or because she only entered crime regretfully, as a last resort, making an effort not to kill anyone? Moll does go on and on about how horrifying a life of crime is, of course… and how she constantly feared a death sentence for every little crime. But surely Defoe realized that even with the didacticism, plenty of readers were reading the book for the titillating confessions of Moll’s criminal, incestuous, monstrous life? So was the novel conceived as some sort of moralistic Trojan horse?

Maybe. Or perhaps Defoe saw stage drama in the same way some people today see video games: as different media, with a “special” influence on the audience (a potentially bigger audience, including more of those “vulgar minds”), warranting different standards.

Anyway, an odd, but interesting book. Probably I should have been forced to read it as an undergrad, but I’m not sure I’d have successfully finished it then… or seen the point in it, even. That’s one of the nice parts about researching a book set in the early 1700s: it’s given me a context where books like Defoe’s takes on a new kind of meaning.

More interesting thoughts can be found over on the Prison Voices blog, where the author delves into Defoe’s questioning the nature vs. nurture argument of crime, and the prison material in the book–Newgate was a focal point of public curiosity and interest, and Defoe himself spent time there (after three days in the pillory, for writing and disseminating satirical (“seditious”) pamphlets).

Legend has it Defoe was pelted with flowers while in the pillory for three days. This engraving is by James Charles Armytage.

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