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Moll Flanders (Wordsworth Classics) by…

Moll Flanders (Wordsworth Classics) (original 1722; edition 1999)

by Daniel Defoe

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An orphan, born in a prison, works her way from the streets of London to a Virginia plantation.
Title:Moll Flanders (Wordsworth Classics)
Authors:Daniel Defoe
Info:Wordsworth Editions Ltd (1999), Edition: First Edition, Paperback, 304 pages
Collections:Your library

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Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe (Author) (1722)

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Daniel Defoe

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous
Moll Flanders

Penguin Popular Classics, Paperback [1994].

12mo. 384 pp. “The Preface” [1-6]. Cover: Four Times of Day – Morning by William Hogarth (1697–1764).

First published, 1722.
Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.


These cheap modern editions, wonderful as they are for hard-up book lovers like the present scribbler, are really rather misleading. The full original title is nicely kept on the title page of this one, but the rest is unforgivably omitted. The original title page is far more enticing, full of spoilers it is true (and “Spoilers Are Evil”, as the Preacher saith), but what an appetizer it is:

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 own brother), Twelve Years a Thief, Eight Years a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest and died a Penitent

Written from her own Memorandum

Racy stuff, is it? The rather astonishing thing is that the book does contain all of it, however oblique and evasive the writing may be. Even the incest is here, committed quite unwittingly and, when discovered, the subject of a hair-raising soap opera. Even that, however, is pretty tame by modern standards. Extramarital sex and children out of wedlock are so tame, indeed, that they are boring. They could still make for a lively and perhaps even controversial picaresque novel three centuries ago. But today they rather make for an unintentional comedy. Fortunately for us, calloused modern readers, the title character redeems the dated nature of the book.

Moll Flanders is quite a character, or rather quite a bundle of contradictions that has no right to exist but somehow becomes alive (after a hundred pages or so). She is cunning and crafty, vain and selfish, lazy and greedy, more than a little melodramatic and sometimes hysterical. Not a very likeable dame, is she? But Moll Flanders is more than that. She is also bold, brave, charming, sensible and very honest: “I am giving an account of what was, not of what ought or ought not to be.” On the whole, she is as good as her word. However dishonest she may be with other characters, she is honest with her readers. Give her some time and she might grow on you almost too much for comfort.

Much the most remarkable thing about Moll Flanders is that she is way ahead of her times. She is the first feminist in fiction. I am happy to say she is a true feminist, demanding no more – but no less, either! – than equal rights and opportunities for men and women. This is what feminism is, or should be, about. False feminists are more fashionable today. These are people, presumably women, who merely use feminism as a screen to hide their hate for the other sex. They usually see female oppression everywhere and actually demand male oppression as a sort of retribution for history; the more imaginative are of the opinion that women are some sort of higher beings. I am happy to repeat that Moll Flanders doesn’t belong to such mental aberrations. She’s the genuine feminist article.

Consider one of the most absurd of all social institutions, namely marriage: “always a hopeless idiocy for a woman who has enough of her own to live upon” as has been wisely said elsewhere. Our heroine knows this only too well, having married her second husband for his presumably gentlemanly ways but certainly not for money. She is dismayed that the marriage game is played entirely for money; affection is considered only when mistresses (or “whores” in plain language) are considered. She is nevertheless ready to play, yet she does wonder why only men should be allowed to make inquiries about their future spouses without losing face and why women should not be allowed to say “No” (more than once, that is) without damaging their marriage prospects. Why, indeed!

Moll is somewhat mollified by the fact that women, if they are smart enough, can generally turn the tables on the male part of society and choose their husbands at will. She relates one such case with a friend of hers (pp. 73-80 in this edition; the novel has no chapters). It’s an exquisite piece of comedy. In the end, the lady is victorious and the poor gentleman caller thoroughly humbled. You just have to agree that he well deserves his punishment. Moll becomes quite a master herself how “to deal with them in their own way and, if it was possible, to deceive the deceiver”, but even she is sometimes taken in completely. See pp. 155-67 for the hilarious debacle with her fourth (I think) husband.

It is funny that Moll should be so progressive in some ways and so backward in others. It never occurs to her that the only thing necessary to absolve sex from wickedness is mutual consent. It never occurs to her (who is too proud to work for a living) that a wife kept by a husband is no different than a mistress kept by a lover; both are indeed whores, with a clientele of one but without quotation marks. But I guess it’s asking too much of Moll, and Defoe, to be thoroughly up-to-date after three centuries. It might be worth noting that a wife’s financial independence was still controversial full two centuries after Moll Flanders. Somerset Maugham created a scandal when he made the title character in his play The Constant Wife (1927) describe the modern wife as “a prostitute who doesn’t deliver the goods.”

Moll’s matrimonial adventures are entertaining stuff (none more than the cloak-and-dagger epic with the midwife, pp. 176-95), but her criminal life is far more exciting. When Moll becomes a thief, the book becomes almost a page turner, especially for something published 298 years ago (and presumably “written in the year 1683” as we are told in the end).

Our heroine, now a woman of the world and a penniless widow in her fifties, is as brutally honest as ever: “but as poverty brought me into the mire, so avarice kept me in, till there was no going back.” Avarice is soon joined by success and Moll learns first-hand that “when once we are hardened in crime, no fear can affect us, no example give us any warning.” For she becomes the most celebrated thief in London, not without the solid help of the aforementioned midwife who is now a “pawnbroker” that makes Machiavelli and Mephistopheles look quite innocent by comparison. These two are a real dream team. They steal and sell everything from linen and lace to gold watches and silverware. When the occasion presents itself, they don’t mind resorting to blackmail. You wouldn’t want to be a wealthy and lonesome baronet somewhat the worse for liquor at the mercy of those ladies, let me tell you.

In short, Moll and her “mother” (as she calls her) plunge into a London underworld of almost Dickensian darkness. It’s a thrilling read indeed!

Too bad all this should be spoiled in the end. Moll’s prosperous time in America is a massive anticlimax. The return to matrimonial melodrama feels more mawkish than ever before. The Newgate interlude before that is better, at least in the beginning. Moll describes her time in this legendary prison with great vividness and typical frankness. She ended in her place of birth after a life of “wickedness, whoredom, adultery, incest, lying, theft; and, in a word, everything but murder and treason”. She repents of her wicked past, but she knows only too well this is “the effect of my fear of death, not a sincere regret for the wicked life that I had lived”. So far, so fine. But then comes another anticlimax.

Moll’s genuine repentance, religious in nature of course, is much the least interesting part of her story. It is the most dated and by far the most boring episode in the whole book. But at least it’s not bursting with pious moralising like that amazing piece innocently titled “The Preface”. If this is satire, it is unsuccessful. Defoe is no Swift. If it is sincere, it is appalling. I guess they could still buy this claptrap in 1722, but today it simply won’t do.

The book’s didactic purpose is far from subtle. (What do you know! Even the midwife becomes “penitent to the highest degree for her sins”!) Lest somebody miss the point, the whole novel is peppered with penitent, guilt-ridden reflections. For the benefit of the most obtuse, Moll makes it quite clear with sharp bluntness, never mind her claims to the opposite. “I am not capable of reading lectures of instruction to anybody”, she says in one of her very few dishonest moments with her readers. But in the end she drops all pretentions and observes that “this account of my life is for the sake of the just moral of very part of it, and for instruction, caution, warning, and improvement to every reader”. She needn’t have bothered to state the obvious.

An unrepentant Moll, dying in Newgate and defying the ghastly society that has produced her or living happily ever after in the New World untroubled by remorse, would have been a much more inspiring conclusion. Then again, I very much doubt anybody – even Swift – would have had the guts to end the book like that.

Somerset Maugham, in a rather generous and perceptive review, remarks that Moll Flanders “is not a moral book”. I beg to differ. Moral is precisely what the book is, or at least tries to be, in a rather obvious, not to say obnoxious, way. This is one of its two major drawbacks. The other one is the writing.

Unfortunately, Defoe has not learned to write since Robinson Crusoe (1719). He is still in love with the comma and simply adores the semicolon. He still hates the full stop. He still says the same thing three times with increasing verbosity, apparently under the impression that he is dramatic or profound. He is neither. The writing is trite, turgid and tedious, if you forgive the alliteration. Defoe must have been tone deaf, or “word deaf” rather. He doesn’t seem to have been aware that words have sound. He certainly had no sense of prose rhythm. He is no Swift indeed! Defoe at his best is something like this:

But that which I was too vain of was my ruin, or rather my vanity was the cause of it. The lady in the house where I was had two sons, young gentlemen of very promising parts and of extraordinary behaviour, and it was my misfortune to be very well with them both, but they managed themselves with me in a quite different manner.

I will spare you and myself an example of Defoe at his worst. It gives me a headache. Notwithstanding a trenchant phrase here and there, Defoe is one of the great masters of convoluted prolixity in the English language. I’ve come across greater masters, to be sure. But not much greater!

Nor is the narrative better than the style. It is very poorly paced, for one thing. Single scenes drag for pages, but whole years are squeezed in a single sentence. Speech is a clumsy and confusing mixture of direct and reported. Moll mentions in passing sea storms, pirates or the deaths of her children, but she is always keen on repeating the details of her financial condition or the character of her latest husband. Maugham is certainly right that Defoe, while an excellent journalist with a wide experience of life, had “no sense of climax [...] little imagination and not much humour”. That is putting it mildly.

So, to conclude, Moll Flanders is a much more interesting story with a much more compelling title character than Robinson Crusoe. But to enjoy them, you must again cope with some of the worst writing ever published in English. It’s a bummer, but there it is. ( )
  Waldstein | Feb 1, 2020 |
This is a re-read of this classic novel which I previously gave up on a decade ago, now approaching its 300th anniversary (published in 1722). It is colourful, rambling and sometimes frustrating read, one that is typical of 18th century picaresque literature. Moll (not her real name, which we never find out) is born in Newgate prison to a woman sentenced to transportation and is brought up by gypsies and then in a household where, as she grows into a young woman, she is seduced by both of the brothers of the household. In all she has six marriages or quasi-marriages (including one to a man with whom she moves to Virginia and who turns out to be her own brother, whom she had not seen since young childhood, and where she also re-encounters her transported mother) and gives birth to numerous children over the next thirty years or so. After this time, reduced to poverty, she perforce turns to theft to keep body and soul together. But, as she grows richer through the proceeds of crime, it becomes its own motivation and she cannot give it up, becoming a member of a crime gang led by "the governess". After years of close shaves, she is eventually caught and taken to Newgate. She is sentenced to death but this is commuted to transportation. In Newgate she encounters one of her ex-husbands who has been arrested as a highwayman and they get together again for the voyage to Virginia. By dint of her links to a now reformed "governess", she is able to reacquire some wealth which enables her to turn over a new leaf and build a prosperous future in Virginia, where she is also reconciled to her son by her ex-husband/brother. A decade later in comfortable old age, Moll and her husband return to England in 1683.

This breathless account does, however, mask some problems with the narrative. It is one continuous course, not divided into chapters or sections; and, perhaps worse for readers' recall, almost none of the characters have names. We find out the first names of a couple of her husbands, and one or two other minor characters, but the vast majority are not named. I got used to this after a while, but had to make notes as I was going along to keep tabs on her relationships. A great read, though, dealing with issues in a way that most mainstream literature did not again for over another two centuries. ( )
  john257hopper | Dec 8, 2019 |
Riotous! This book was written in the early 18th century, and I can understand why it would have been a bit of a sensation. Its tale is now pretty tame for our current time and place.
Spaced throughout the novel there are several pages regarding the condition of women at the time, and how they were at the mercy of a male dominated world in everything from their virtue, marriage, childbirth, and employment. While for me, it sometimes became tiring to read such moralizing, it did also make me grateful I live in THIS century. ( )
1 vote a1stitcher | Jun 22, 2019 |
One of the first novels in English and division into chapters had obviously not been introduced, which is a little off-putting. But the story flows naturally on and on. Along the way it gives a fascinating insight into life and marriage circa 1700 in the English provinces, in London and in Virginia, among gentlemen and thieves, confidence-tricksters and planters, unwanted children and sailors.
1 vote jgoodwll | Apr 1, 2019 |
I am sometimes afraid that we will have nothing to say to each other at our reader discussion groups. Hah! We talked for over an hour and a half about this picaresque classic. How much was to be considered 'true', considering that it was supposedly a memoir of a repentant woman? How could she say so little about her children? Did she exploit her sexuality or just make the best of the society? She confessed to liking the thrill of theft even after she no longer needed more money, trimmed her stories to her circumstances and her audience, barely mentioned the hardships of crossing the Atlantic (I wonder if Defoe ever did?), learned to make and manage money, and in general navigated a society that was not kind to women without status and means. Was Defoe as tuned in to the hardships of women as this book suggests? Or was he more interested in writing a sly, picaresque adventure with the allure of a female protagonist? Did we believe the 'woman's voice'?

Defoe shows us the society of the time, the narrow path between servant and master class in the late 17th century in an urbanizing country as well as a new world. The book is filled with incident - in fact, when Moll has achieved, however temporarily, a quiet life, we hear nothing about it except how it ends. Moll ('not my real name') tells us at the beginning that she ends up in London, secure, married, content, mature, repentant of her sinful life. So the traditional suspense is absent - it was all about how it happened. But it was fun to read, watching her journey and learning about the times. ( )
2 vote ffortsa | Feb 13, 2018 |
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Moll Flanders is an authentic portrait of a prostitute but it is not a neutrally objective one. Indeed, it is a relentless evaluation, a judgment. This judgment is pronounced ironically entirely in the terms of the specific kind of realism Defoe chose to employ. The story is not only based on facts; it consists of almost nothing else... Moll Flanders gives the overwhelming and indelible impression that it is modeled on a whore in fact. Its authenticity is not due to the accumulation of elaborately researched detail. It has none of the sensory richness of background and local color we find in Zola’s Nana, although it says essentially the same thing about the profession of whoring. Defoe’s is a classical realism.
added by SnootyBaronet | editSaturday Review of Literature, Kenneth Rexroth

» Add other authors (171 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Defoe, DanielAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Aitken, G. A.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fragonard, Jean-HonoréCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hulse, MichaelEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Leishman, VirginiaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Merlington, LauralNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Miers, Earl SchenckIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Porter, DavinaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rexroth, KennethAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schwob, MarcelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Seidel, MichaelIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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My true name is so well known in the records or registers at Newgate, and in the Old Bailey, and there are some things of such consquence still depending there, relating to my particular conduct, that it is not to be expected I should set my name or the account of my family to this work; perhaps after my death it may be better known; at present it would not be proper, no, not though a general pardon should be issued, even without exception of persons or crimes.
So certainly does interest banish all manner of affection, and so naturally do men give up honour and justice, humanity, and even Christianity, to secure themselves.
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