A best-seller in 1722 by the man who had also written Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders is a sort of Rake's progress about a lady who descends (quite slowly) into iniquity. Born in Newgate and raised first by gypsies (a common theme in 18th Century fiction and a strange paranoia of the times) and then by the parish, the lady who later becomes known as Moll Flanders (although she makes it clear that this is a pseudonym, the trade name she used when she later became a famous thief) dreams of becoming a gentlewoman. As a companion to the daughters of a family she is first seduced by the elder son and then marries the younger. Following his death she marries a spendthrift linen-draper; when he runs off she marries (bigamously, though this doesn't seem to be important) a man who takes her to Virginia where she discovers that he is her brother And this is important; she is horrified by incest); she then oscillates for a while between widowhood, being a mistress and marrying again. As in Jane Austen, the purpose of marriage is to improve one's fortune and therefore much effort is made to conceal her relative poverty: finally everything goes wrong when both herself and her new husband discover that they have both tricked one another into marrying for money and they are virtually destitute. However, Moll never really sees the need to work for her living, so poverty is a relative matter, and she never worries too much about supporting her children, most of whom she discards with little care. Finally, staring poverty in the face, she resorts to theft and begins a long and successful career as pickpocket, shoplifter and opportunistic sneak thief.
This is a fascinating insight into the morals and morality of early eighteenth century London. Without an effective police force, criminals could only really be caught 'in the act' by a hue and cry and then turned over to the authorities. One notorious criminal .mastermind', Jonathan Wild, ran a criminal gang and acted as crime boss, fence, 'recoverer' of stolen property for reward, and thief-taker. Moll's exploits, written when Jonathan Wild was at his height, seem based on the story of one of his female associates. He became iconic as a base for literary stories including 'The life of Jonathan Wild' by Henry Fielding and 'The Beggar's Opera' by John Gay (first performed in 1728).
Although there are some rather slow passages where Moll painstakingly analyses the moral dilemmas facing her (albeit from a very materialistic moral viewpoint), there is a lot of action. Little of it would seriously shock the modern reader: Moll is never a whore in the modern sense of the word although she often refers to herself as this because she has sex with men whilst she is unmarried, or married to someone else, or married illegally (eg incestuously). Her thieving is essentially opportunistic (it reminded me very much of 'Harry the Valet', the jewel thief). What seems appalling to her are abortion (which she goes to some lengths not to commit) and incest (which she commits accidentally).
Seen from a modern perspective, Moll is a deeply flawed woman. She casts her children away, marriage is a financial transaction, she has no compunction about her victims (a fact she admits herself) and even after her repentance in the face of death and redemption she is still more than happy to build the foundations of her new life as a businesswoman on the ill-gotten gains she has amassed from her life of crime.
I enjoyed Moll Flanders. Although there were moments when I struggled, there were also moments when the narrative had me hooked. Nowadays its principal delight is probably as a social commentary of the criminal underworld of London in the early 1700s but it is still well worth reading as a story.
April 2014; 317 pages
I have just finished reading a biography of Daniel Defoe. He was an extraordinarily interesting man who lived from the Restoration of Charles II, through the Glorious Revolution, till the Jacobite Rebellions of the early Georges.
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57