Moll Flanders book review
Having decided to spend the next few weeks revisiting some of my favourite “bad girls” I’ve started with the author who literally wrote the book on virtue succumbing to vanity and vice: Daniel Defoe and his eponymous heroine, Moll Flanders. (Spoiler alert: while virtue wins out in the end, it doesn’t so much triumph over vanity and vice as outlast them.)
Hailed as the precursor to the modern novel, the book’s full title provides a fair synopsis of the story: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Years a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her brother) Twelve Years a Thief, Eight Years a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest and died a Penitent.
Published in 1722, the book purports to be the autobiography of a woman whose real name we never learn but who eventually calls herself Moll Flanders. (At the time it was written, “moll” was a common term for a prostitute, so the name is no accident.) She’s a colourful character – a gold-digger, a thief, an adulteress, and an occasional whore. She marries her own brother – albeit unknowingly – and so commits incest. And, except for a reunion with one of her sons in her latter years, she’s at best an indifferent parent.
Even by present-day standards, these are not qualities we want to instill in our daughters. Or our sons, for that matter. Earlier readers were properly scandalized. In an introduction to an anthology of his work, the late Victorian critic, Charles Frederick Johnson, expressed more than a little antipathy towards both the Defoe and his heroine:
“‘Moll Flanders’ and ‘Roxana’ are very coarse books, but it can hardly be said that they are harmful or corrupting. They are simply vulgar. Vice has preserved all its evil by preserving all its grossness. Passion is reduced to mere animalism, and is depicted with the brutal directness of Hogarth. This may be good morals, but it is unpleasant art.”
Digs at the author were common. In spite of – or perhaps because of – being an extremely prolific journalist, pamphleteer and successful novelist, he was regarded as something of a hack. There was also the matter of his schooling. As the son of a Nonconformist, or Dissenter, he couldn’t attend Oxford or Cambridge; instead he was sent to an excellent academy at Newington Green. It’s said he received a better education there than he would have at any English university but his peers never forgave him for not being the true gentleman he wanted to be.
But back to Moll. While the Victorians were working themselves into a lather about morality, the fact is the heart of the book is about money: Moll Flanders is a story of economics. Poverty – that “frightful spectre” – is the driving theme. At a time when to be female and poor almost certainly meant a short, hungry, brutal existence, Moll was a master of survival. It’s her conniving – her refusal to accept her lot in life – that has won the hearts of readers for the past 300 years. And it’s this as well that helps us overlook Defoe’s heavy-handed moralizing and the sense, more often than not, that he doesn’t really have a firm grip on the plot.
Which is this: Born in Newgate prison where her mother is being held on charges of theft, Moll is taken in by a band of gypsies. She runs away from them at the age of 3 (!), is given into the care of a poor but kind older woman, is seduced by the oldest brother of a wealthy family, and is eventually persuaded to marry the younger brother. When her husband dies a few years later, she’s relieved more than anything. “I confess I was not suitably affected with the loss of my husband,” she says, “nor can I say that I ever loved him as I ought to have done”.
Still, a woman without a fortune needs a husband. A born entrepreneur, Moll leverages her considerable assets – her beauty, her good manners, and her brains – to keep the wolf from the door. There’s plenty of sex, both inside and outside of marriage, some paid for and some not, but Defoe is coy with the details. When it comes to money, however – how much she has, has much she needs, what men give her – he’s not only forthright, he’s downright meticulous. After their first sexual encounter, the elder brother gives her five guineas. It’s the money, not the sex, that stands out:
“I was more confounded with the money than I was before with the love, and began to be so elevated that I scarce knew the ground I stood on.”
Moll has good reason to be “confounded” with the money. It’s all very well to be in love, and to have someone love you back, but love won’t keep a roof over your head or feed you when you’re starving. Defoe knew this and so did his readers. He was a businessman long before he began to write novels, and his sense of commerce threads its way throughout the book. After every adventure, we’re given an accounting of Moll’s finances. After parting with her second husband, she begins to “cast up” her accounts:
“I found my strength to amount, put all together, to about £400, so that with that I had above £450. I had saved £100 more, but I met with a disaster with that, which was this – that a goldsmith in whose hands I had trusted it broke, so I lost £70 of my money, the man’s composition not making above £30 out of his £100. I had a little plate [silver], but not much, and was well enough stocked with clothes and linen”.
Here’s where we really see a difference between then and now. As a society we’ll reveal the most intimate details of our sex life to anyone who’ll listen, or watch, or buy the sex tape, but heaven forbid you ask us how much money we make. Or what we owe on our mortgage. As a species, we can still be coy – only the details have changed.
I referred earlier to Defoe’s moralizing – the constant reminders that Moll is living a wicked life and is sure to come to a bad end:
“I had a most unbounded stock of vanity and pride, and but a very little stock of virtue. …Thus I gave up myself to ruin without the least concern, and am a fair memento to all young women whose vanity prevails over their virtue. …indeed I think I rather wished for that ruin than studied to avoid it.”
It’s the frequent sermonizing that made the story palatable to earlier readers, but it would be a better story without it. What I personally found fascinating was the wealth of information about life in the 17th century: women prisoners “pleading their belly” to keep the hangman at bay – the “liberty of the Mint” which allowed bankrupts to escape from their creditors – how the pickpockets plied their trade at the annual Bartholomew Fair. These are the details, rather than Moll’s bank account or even her sex life, that appeal to the modern reader.
In spite of her continual warnings to young women to avoid the path she’s taken, there is no doubt that in the end her vice, if we agree to call it that, is rewarded. Moll ends up a wealthy plantation owner living in happy retirement with the man she loves, embracing a good Christian life now that the need for “wickedness” is past. It’s hard to believe Defoe wasn’t writing with at least the tip of his tongue in his cheek.