“I reflect that many of those who may be pleased and diverted with the relation of the wicked part of my story may not relish this, which is really the best part of my life, the most advantageous to myself, and the most instructive to others.”
I knew absolutely nothing about Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders going into the book. For some reason I assumed it was written and set at the end of the eighteenth century, which is not the case. Though penned in 1722 the narrative spans sixty years ending in 1683, mostly in England. Apparently this is also before chapter breaks were invented because this book is one large block of text.
I’ve delayed posting about this because it’s so hard to come up with a concise or cohesive review, so I apologize for my rambling thoughts. I could do a summary, but I’d rather share the complete title-page, which probably does a better job:
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Three-score Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.
In some ways I think this must have functioned as the Gossip Girl of it’s time. Names are pretty much never given (even “Moll Flanders” is a pseudonym). Defoe lapses into occasional commentary, but the main focus is on Moll’s exploits. Everything that was acceptable titillation for his time is included with nothing of day-t0-day living remotely present. I kid you not that a single paragraph can cover the fact that she lived with her husband for eight years and had three kids, one of whom died, but then guess what scandalous thing happened next! The tone is extremely conversational, and surprisingly easy to read except for the cramped pace.
Basically it seems to me that a hierarchy exists for Moll: money, then love, then morals. Even as a young girl Moll dreams of being a gentlewoman so she won’t have to slave away for a living. Poverty is the ultimate evil and she will do anything to avoid it, relying on charm, instincts, and eventually what she calls the devil inside her. While monetary comforts last she is well-behaved but after yoyo-ing between rich and poor a few times greed and the need for security take over, so that she is never satisfied with what she has.
Love will always be secondary because she lets a man’s purse dictate her affection for him–just as men of the time did as well. Those she set her cap at were charming, honest, and affectionate gentlemen, but all wealthy nonetheless. Occasionally Moll herself claimed otherwise. She was reluctant to make her first match because she loved soemone else, and vowed to stand by another upon discovering his poverty. But she instead returned to a more favorable prospect and saved the pauper for a rainy day dream. She practiced self-preservative deception on all men she met. In fact, I question whether Moll genuinely loves any of her husbands. It is a strange blend of passion, security, companionship, and affection, but certainly not what the poets spoke of.
Until her late repentance Moll has no moral qualms about her lifestyle. She knows that what she does is considered wicked, and sees the consequences in others, but for her the end (money) justifies the means. Despite having been raised by a good and pious woman she claims early on that she has no knowledge of virtue (which I believe was also Tess’ excuse), being dictated instead by vanity and later fear of poverty. Perhaps one could claim “nature over nurture,” as her mother was also a convict in Newgate and she was born in prison much like Amy Dorrit. However, Moll turns out to be much more of a willing sinner than other of these more tragic heroines. Ultimately, I believe the cause of her merry life of wickedness is that no matter what life threw at her she refused to submit to hardship. You get the sense that though she eventually repents her deeds because they are wrong in the eyes of God, she still takes a certain pride in their variety and number.
Defoe (through Moll’s commentary) is surprisingly sympathetic to the female viewpoint and astutely points out how society disadvantages women. For example, he claims friendlessness to be the worst condition for a woman trying to make her way, because men can be their own advisers in business affairs whereas women must rely on others to invest their money and are more likely to be deceived. He is critical of the faults of such unscrupulous men, whom he admits are many. At one point he goes so far as to say that a drunk who makes passes at loose women deserve to have their pockets picked for all the harm they do. He is also, however, critical of situations where women fail to help themselves, such as accepting any man who courts their fortune instead of standing up for themselves and inquiring into his own backgound, even rejecting him if he is found unsatisfactory.
To me, one of the most nuanced aspects of the character is Moll as a mother. She has children scattered throughout the narrative , all of whom are left behind through necessity or the end of the relationship. This seems against female nature, yet because of the times it is impossible for Moll to be a single mother. At times, if the child is to be well cared for, she has neither regret nor a backward glance. During another pregnancy however, she is explicitly adamant about not terminating it and worries that her child will be neglected after adoption, contriving to visit secretly. Finally, she rediscovers a son years later and is thrown into a torrent of fond emotion, more than she ever showed for any husband save one. I’m sure all this seems very natural to Defoe, but I was just struck by how much of parenthood seemed to be simply providing for the child somewhere, a responsibility more than a bond due to societal roles.
Despite any criticisms, Moll is a dear irascible character who just kind of confesses her way into your heart. Virginia Woolf called this one of the “few English novels which we can call indisputably great.” I don’t know if I would go that far, because at many points the density seemed more challenging than Dickens (or perhaps just harder to skim). But I did enjoy this memorable book and am eager to see what the introduction and afterword have to say.
This is my third book for the Classics Challenge. Only one left! It is also on the 1001 Books and Guardian lists.
Update: The preface was apparently published along with the original book. It seems to question slightly the depth of Moll’s repentance, but the main purpose seems to be justification of such a scandalous novel. It repeatedly points out that Moll’s wicked ways are identified as such, and hopes to warn against being a sinner and also a victim of one. I wonder if Defoe seriously meant all this, because to my twenty-first century sensibilities it smacks of satire. I’ll have to look at some literary criticism to decide.