O my goodness gracious—where do I begin with this book? Many are probably
familiar with this story, as it has been made into several movies. I read it back in my college days, so I remembered little of that, but saw the
Masterpiece Theatre presentation starring the gorgeous Alex Kingston as Moll. My book edition is an old hardback published by New American Library I got from
a used book store, not the Dover edition I have pictured above, so it contains an interesting commentary by Kenneth Rexroth at the end, which contents I will
mention in the course of this review.
Daniel Defoe was an interesting character in himself. He was born in London in around 1660, and died there in 1731. He was an extremely prolific writer, but also had a life filled with ups and downs, particularly concerning political issues and debt. He worked as a government spy and spent time in prison. This is the third book of his I have read since writing reviews, and it is also the third where, at least in his own time, his authorship was not readily admitted.
What makes this one so fascinating is that it is written in the first person in the voice of a woman, and if one didn't know it was written by a man, one would be surprised to discover that. Defoe has the feminine view down pat—quite impressive. And this isn't just any woman—she is a prostitute, a thief, a hot lusty wench, and she is telling her own story, from beginning to end. While you may not agree with her professions, you have to admit, the lady had guts, resilience and determination. According to Wikipedia, Defoe based the story on a real-life Moll King. While the working title of the book is today known as Moll Flanders, Defoe's original title, published in 1722, was quite a bit longer:
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore 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.
Well, that certainly makes the content of the book clearer! And I cannot help
but think Defoe had a smile on his face when he wrote. The predicaments Moll finds herself in are challenging, to say the least. How one poor woman could
generate so much bad luck almost makes us cheer her that at least she found some means of survival! Unfortunately this novel also paints a very ugly picture of the
fate of women who were not born into money, and even more unfortunate, much of it is still true today.
One of the aspects about this book that make it different from many novels is that there is hardly any descriptions of the surroundings, which, to me always makes stories more appealing. Instead, it is a rather blunt, yet colorful account of Moll's life and the people and situations she encounters, interspersed with her own thoughts, almost in the fashion of a journal. What is amazing is that we, the readers, actually like her. She is her own person, and we cheer for her victories and are saddened by her losses. The story is so compelling, so readable, that the 300 pages (in my edition) just fly by. In the "Afterward" mentioned above, Rexroth says:
Defoe was the first and he remained the greatest of the founders of the plain style, which had become the standard English of the twentieth century. We think of it as being like speech; as a matter of fact, to judge from our quite adequate evidence, prose like this created modern cultivated speech.
He also goes on to say that "Moll Flanders is considered the most
authentic portrait of a prostitute in English literature."
The story, therefore, is about a whore, but more importantly, the social conditions which drive her into that profession. Her determination, even at the very earliest age, is to not succumb to poverty.
She is born in Newgate prison, which must have been the horror of London, since it appears in so many English novels. She is removed, and her mother, a convicted felon for a petty theft, for which the penalty was death, was able to win transportation, that is, be sent to the plantations in—yep—America, which was still a British colony. Moll, at the end of the book when she is at least seventy years old, dates her story at 1683, which means she was born probably around 1613 or so.
In other words, England shipped off their criminals to us, (who was really them at the time), as they also did to Australia.
The more I read about the history of England, the less I like it.
She points out that other nations then had organizations to care for the children of condemned prisoners, but England did not. Moll's greatest fear as a child (and Moll was not her real name—that she never reveals throughout the entire story), was to have to go into "service," that is, a maid, where she was certain she would be beaten and abused.
At first, she wanders into a band of gypsies, but refuses to go any farther with them, and, luckily is placed in the hands of a good woman who is a teacher. This woman is poor, but also very pious, clean, and mannerly, and runs a little school. The little child comes to adore her, but her stay is not to be long. However, every time she thinks she will be sent out, she cries and throws such a fit, that she is allowed to stay with the woman. And to make things almost humorous, Moll believes she is a "gentlewoman," which amuses those around her. But she continues stay, and the good woman brings Moll's attention to the Mayor and his family, who find her charming. The daughters ask her what is means to be a gentlewoman, and the little child's answer is that it is one who does not go into service. She is about ten years old now, and people begin to tell her she is pretty, and that is the beginning of her pride, especially concerning the male sex. People also begin to give her money, but she gives it all to her good caretaker. And Moll also at this time begins to do needlework, which she does quite well, and earns her keep.
Thus she remains quite productive and content, until at age fourteen, her loving mentor dies, and all her belonging are moved out. This begins a lifelong pattern for Moll—people who care for her and support her die, leaving her facing poverty and homelessness. And it also begins the hardening of her heart, and a resolution to do whatever she must do to survive.
But as it turns out, several families do want her, and she goes into service with one of the first who had noticed her several years back. Here she is treated very well indeed, and it is also noticed that she has musical talent and is smart. She picks up on her own what the two daughters are learning. The whole family adores her.
But that begins to change when the two boys begin to be attracted to her, and her loss of virtue with the elder brother begins her life of sin. Not really understanding what it is all about, she lets him convince her that they are married by this act, and when he receives his inheritance, they would make it legal. Though their affair is kept secret, the other family members notice the attention of the brothers, and the parents are ready to remove her. And it turns out that brother is a scoundrel.
But it is the younger brother, Robin, who truly does love her, and cares not whether she has money. In the end, she decides to marry him, and though it was the elder brother she loved, their life together is pleasant and amiable. He is a good man, and treats her very well, but then he dies, leaving her two children and a large sum of money. Robin's parents take the children, and Moll takes the money. Throughout the story, she leaves a string of children, twelve or thirteen, I believe, if I counted correctly, (though many of them die), and always manages to get them off her hands, to move on to the next man, without even seeming to blink. Over and over and over. Though Moll is fond of most of her men, she probably never really loves, in the true sense, Again, from Rexroth's commentary:
It is true that all values are reduced to price and all morality to the profitable. Love is replaced by mutually profitable contractual relationships, which are worked out in actuarial detail even when they are illegal. Money is not something with which to buy sex and other sensual gratification; on the contrary, sex is something to be bartered with shrewdness for as much money as it will bring.
And though Moll has her ups and downs, she is finally dropped to the lowest
level of desperation. She returns to her friend, the midwife who had delivered one of her many unwanted children—this one of a man whom she probably loved the
most, and was actually her husband, but who had no money and ran off. When Moll returns to her woman friend, she finds that this friend also has suffered
serious defeats. The two of them take up a life of crime—theft, actually. And Moll becomes very good at it.
I could tolerate her whoring, because, after all, it is an agreement between two consenting adults, but the acts she commits as a thief are quite heinous. She preys on those who are trusting, careless, vulnerable—and even children! But it is finally her undoing, and she ends up, at around the age of fifty, back in Newgate where she was born, condemned to death. And she discovers her husband that she had loved is there, too. They both, through their lives of crime and thieving have accumulated quite a bit of money, and are able to win transportation the America, where Moll supposedly repents of her past life. Well, perhaps, or maybe it is that she just stops doing it. Whether she actually develops any sense of morals is questionable.
In one last comment by Rexroth, he says:
Defoe was not stupid. He was perfectly conscious of the parallel he was drawing between the morality of the complete whore and that of the new middle class, which was rising around him;
Well. In any case, this is really a great book, both historically and entertainingly—a classic in every sense of the word. This review is extremely condensed. If I wrote about all of Moll's "adventures" it would go on for pages! Highly recommended.
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