Stephen Carver looks at Moll Flanders

Stephen Carver looks at Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe’s novel of the progress of a poor orphan girl in 17th century England.

‘Thus I gave up myself to a readiness of being ruined without the least concern, and am a fair Memento to all young Women, whose Vanity prevails over their Virtue.’

Like its famous predecessor, Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders is a story of survival. But instead of being shipwrecked on an uninhabited island ‘near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque’, the novel’s protagonist arguably has a more insurmountable problem, that of being born a poor orphan girl in 17th century England. As Defoe clearly understood, dealing with pirates, cannibals and wolves was a piece of cake compared to the lot of the working-class woman. And like Crusoe, Moll does survive and ultimately prosper, living to tell her bawdy tale, with every act of ‘sin’ and ‘wickedness’ necessary to ward off starvation proudly recounted for the sake of ‘moral instruction, caution, warning, and improvement to every reader.’ Although notionally self-explanatory, the exact nature of this ‘moral instruction’ remains unclear. As Virginia Woolf suggested in The Common Reader, Defoe probably didn’t know what it was either, even if he thought he did.

The novel’s full title and lengthy subtitle give a flavour of the whole, much as book jacket copy does today, with an emphasis on the sensational:

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 dies a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums…

The formula here is that of the Newgate Calendar – chapbook accounts and usually counterfeit confessions of notorious criminals, luridly described but then sweetened by a perfunctory concluding moral message, usually that crime did not pay and that the felon repented of his or her many sins on the steps of the gallows. Newgate Calendars always sold well, and even in the unlikely event that the moral was genuinely meant by the author, it hid the salacious appeal of the main body of the narrative with all the conviction of a negligée. Defoe was no stranger to Newgate biographies, and wrote several himself, most notably The True and Genuine Account of The Life and Actions of The Late Jonathan Wild, Not made up of fiction and fable, but taken from his own mouth, and collected from papers of his own writing, A Narrative of All the Robberies, Escapes, etc. of John Sheppard, and The History of the remarkable Life of John Sheppard, containing A particular account of his many Robberies and Escapes. There are even stories of Defoe the journalist shoving ‘confessions’ into the hands of the bemused and terrified condemned at Tyburn to be retrieved after the execution and passed off as real, and like any good researcher, he spent months interviewing prisoners in Newgate before writing Moll Flanders. Some say she is based on Moll King, a transported London pickpocket and one of Jonathan Wild’s crew, but she is much more interesting than that, being one of those literary characters that come completely to life on the page and end up slipping the leash of their authors. As any novelist will attest, you know you’ve nailed a character when they start telling you their story.

This illusion of reality is further enhanced by Defoe’s editorial preface. In common with his other novels, Moll Flanders is presented as a genuine autobiography:

The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances, that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine, where the names and other circumstances of the person are concealed … The author is here supposed to be writing her own history, and in the very beginning of her account she gives the reasons why she thinks fit to conceal her true name, after which there is no occasion to say any more about that.

The chosen pseudonym is a nice touch. In the vulgar tongue, ‘moll’ has long meant the female consort of criminals, as well as being the name of a Newgate Calendar regular, ‘Moll Cut-Purse’ (to whom Defoe’s heroine at one point compares herself), while in Defoe’s day the immigrant ladies of Flanders were considered by far the best prostitutes. Only Moll’s language has been tidied up by her anonymous editor for the sake of propriety:

It is true that the original of this story is put into new words, and the style of the famous lady we here speak of is a little altered; particularly she is made to tell her own tale in modester words that she told it at first, the copy which came first to hand having been written in language more like one still in Newgate than one grown penitent and humble, as she afterwards pretends to be.

(‘Pretends’ here having the older meaning, to profess or aspire to, rather than suggesting deceit.) This is a subtle move, affirming realism by making the language of the protagonist less realistic, just as Dickens would later reject the romantic vogue for ‘flash’ slang in his preface to Oliver Twist. Defoe knew his audience would expect underworld cant in an authentic criminal autobiography, but as much as rogues and vagabonds seemed to fascinate him, he detested slang and swearing, writing elsewhere that it was ‘a Vomit of the Brain’ and as impertinent ‘as if a man shou’d Fart before a justice, or talk Bawdy before the Queen’. Nonetheless, his commitment to ‘plain English both in style and method’ in his writing – which he equated with ‘honesty’ – brought wit, vibrancy, and authenticity to Moll’s compelling narrative voice, as it did all his fictional heroes.

Defoe was no Augustan. While contemporaries such as Pope, Swift and Addison were aesthetic and allusive, he was sharp and streetwise. He was a dissenter and the son of a Presbyterian tallow chandler from Cripplegate. While the literature of his age was dominated by the stylised artifice of upper-class Oxbridge classicism, Defoe studied at Charles Morton’s Dissenting Academy at Newington Green, which taught modern languages – rather than Greek and Latin – science, and mathematics. The progressive bias of the curriculum reflected the famous model for academic English set out by Thomas Sprat, one of the founders of the Royal Society, with a focus on clarity and concision. Modern prose, wrote Bishop Sprat, should embody:

A close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions; clear senses; a native easiness; bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can: and preferring the language of artisans, countrymen and merchants before that of wits and scholars.

Defoe was not just the son of a merchant but a merchant himself, trading variously in hosiery, woollen goods and wine until he went bankrupt in 1692 and turned towards journalism to make a living. (He was also a secret agent, but that’s another story.) He in fact exemplified the new mercantile middle class that were growing with the cities and would come to be the dominant social caste in England by the time of the Industrial Revolution. His ‘mathematical plainness’ of style was the language of modern commerce, empiricism and the English Enlightenment, the purpose of which, according to the philosopher John Locke, was ‘to convey the knowledge of things’. This could just as well be a manifesto for literary realism, which Defoe’s novels clearly foreshadow, while also allowing for the kind of linguistic verisimilitude a character like Moll Flanders – or, indeed, Crusoe – required to sound believable.

This quasi-scientific directness was also present in the new style of preaching favoured by nonconformists such as the influential Puritan Richard Baxter, who Defoe had read and whose non-separatist Presbyterian position was close to his own. Baxter had written that:

The more I have to do with ignorant sort of people the more I find that we cannot possibly speak too plainly for them. If we do not use their own vulgar dialect, they understand us not … yet if we compose those very words into a handsomeness of sentence, or if we speak anything briefly, they feel not what we say.

For Baxter, the way to get the point across to the masses was by simple repetition, a device Defoe uses in Moll’s narrative, for example with her oft-repeated controlling metaphor of the ‘snare’ for the lure of temptation. He also recognised the power of print over the pulpit, writing that the ‘preaching of sermons is speaking to a few’ but ‘printing a book is talking to the whole world.’ As a journalist single-handedly writing the Review for its owner – the politician Robert Harley, an early adaptor when it came to recognising the political power of the media, ‘spin’ and fake news – Defoe told his audience that while aware that his crisp, unornamental prose style might appear crude to more educated readers, it was ‘more generally instructing and clear to the understanding of the people I am speaking to.’ As Anthony Burgess wrote, ‘Defoe was our first great novelist because he was our first great journalist, and he was our first great journalist because he was born not into literature but into life.’ Jonathan Swift, who also wrote propaganda for Harley, would have nothing to do with him, aside from a passing reference recorded in 1709 to ‘the Fellow who was Pilloryed, I have forgot his name.’ (Defoe had done time in the stocks as well as Newgate in 1702 for ‘seditious libel’ over his satirical pamphlet The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters until Harley got him out.)

Defoe’s style then, when he came late to the writing of novels in his 60s, was perfectly suited to his chosen form of the fake memoir and his moral purpose, the ‘spiritual autobiography’, which he would not have viewed as incompatible with a commercially successful book about an incestuous bigamist, adulteress, prostitute and thief. He had to earn a living, after all, and as is well known, his enthusiasm for modern capitalism is shared by all his heroes. His fiction was, however, often critically misunderstood as clumsy and underwritten, especially by the Victorians, which is why many literary historians credit Richardson and Fielding as the founders of the modern English novel rather than Defoe, who pre-dated them by a couple of generations. And if his writing at times feels episodic or unstructured, it should be remembered, as Virginia Woolf noted, that ‘he came to his novel-writing with certain conceptions about the art which he derived partly from being himself one of the first to practise it.’ His device of passing off his novels as true accounts was therefore no mere hoax but a justification. For Defoe, a novel should tell a true story and preach a proper moral. ‘This supplying a story by invention is certainly a most scandalous crime,’ he wrote; ‘It is a sort of lying that makes a great hole in the heart, in which by degrees a habit of lying enters in’, hence his prefatory insistence on factual (journalistic) accuracy and an intention to convert the corrupt and warn the innocent.

Moll Flanders was written in 1722, a year of prestigious literary production for Defoe in which he also wrote his seminal work of creative nonfiction, A Journal of the Plague Year, a conduct manual entitled Religious Courtship, and The History and Remarkable Life of the truly Honourable Col. Jacque. The latter novel is very much a companion to Moll Flanders, being the first person account of an orphaned boy born into poverty and crime who eventually achieves colonial prosperity (also in Virginia), via a series of military and matrimonial misadventures ultimately leading to religious conversion, all motivated by his desire to become a ‘gentleman’. Young Moll, too, yearns to be a ‘gentlewoman’, which she interprets as ‘to be able to work for myself, and get enough to keep me’ to avoid her only legal employment option, which is going into service, a life she dreads. (Defoe plays on this by offering the alternate definitions ‘to live great, rich and high’ and as a soubriquet ironically bestowed on a local prostitute, both roles Moll will later play.)

Three years before, Defoe had begun his career as a novelist-pretending-to-still-be-a-journalist with the bestselling Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, another contender for the first true English novel, and one of the most ubiquitous and iconic texts in the history of fiction. (By the end of the 19th century, no book in the history of Western literature had gone through more editions or translations and the resourceful hero obviously remains a household name to this day.) Although subject to many post-colonial interpretations – James Joyce saw Crusoe as ‘the true prototype of the British colonist’, comprising ‘the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity’ of the ‘whole Anglo-Saxon spirit’ – Robinson Crusoe is a project very close to his author’s heart. It is a travelogue and an adventure story, forms of narrative Defoe loved, and a Puritan testament. The same is true of Moll Flanders. Both novels are cracking reads that also follow the structure of the spiritual autobiography, and though modern readers, seduced by Moll’s infectious personality and earthy sexuality, tend to assume Defoe was being ironic, he was in complete earnest.

The ‘spiritual autobiography’ was a mainstay of Protestant writing in the 17th century, particularly among English dissenters like Defoe, a notable example being Grace Abounding by John Bunyan, written in 1666. The structure of the narrative mirrored the way Puritans interpreted their own lives, and the moral history of humanity as set down in the Bible: a progression from sin to repentance, conversion, and redemption on the road from damnation to grace. This pattern is clear in both Robinson Crusoe and the more subversive Moll Flanders, as both protagonists face many obstacles and divine warnings which they fail to recognise, before a climax of crisis and epiphany reveals their fallen state, and they learn to interpret the apparently random events of their lives as signs from God. From this contrition comes spiritual rebirth and the promise of celestial redemption.

In literary terms, the model is Miltonic, and Defoe was one of the last major English writers to adhere strictly to the Puritan scheme of sin and salvation in his fiction, despite being closer as a stylist and intellectual to Enlightenment philosophers like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, who believed that man was part of nature, born innocently and corrupted by society rather than tainted by original sin. As a progressive thinker, both positions seem to co-exist in Defoe’s work. He understands that poverty and crime are symptoms of social inequality and that women are cruelly subjugated by culture and the Law; in his Essay upon Projects he was an advocate of the education of women so that they could achieve the same potential as men as equally productive (if not superior) members of society. When Moll embarks on a life of crime in the second half of the novel, being then too old to easily attract a rich husband, she begs the reader not to continue ‘without seriously reflecting on the Circumstances of a desolate State’ and to ‘remember the wise Man’s Prayer, Give me not Poverty lest I Steal.’ She is not an inherently immoral woman, she is forced into crime and deception because she has few options for survival as a poor, middle-aged, working-class, and unmarried woman. But her author is also deathly serious about the moral value of his book, writing in the preface that:

…the moral ’tis hoped will keep the reader serious, even where the story might incline him to be otherwise. To give the history of a wicked life repented of, necessarily requires that the wicked part should be make as wicked as the real history of it will bear, to illustrate and give a beauty to the penitent part, which is certainly the best and brightest, if related with equal spirit and life.

This should not be confused with the pious platitudes of the Newgate Calendars, designed to disarm offended critics or let readers off the hook for enjoying the racy parts in the way Samuel Pepys was apt to justify his consumption of pornography, but a genuine call to his audience to ‘be more pleased with the moral than the fable.’ The work, he explains, ‘is chiefly recommended to those who know how to read it.’ (In the 19th century, the same critical argument was used to protect Dickens’ underworld exposés from being read like criminal romances and Newgate novels, which ploughed a similarly sensational furrow to Moll Flanders but without the moral message.) But, as Blake wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty, when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.’ The same may be said of Defoe. He was always going to be a better novelist than a moralist.

When it came to utterly inhabit a fictional character, Defoe was inspired, being able to draw on his own life and experience. He was highly intelligent, forward-thinking, and had had a variety of professions, from merchant and ship owner to government agent and journalist, later writing that:

No man has tasted differing fortunes more,
And thirteen times I have been rich and poor.

He fought on the side of the Monmouth Rebellion, an attempt to overthrow James II, escaping the Bloody Assizes by evading capture and living in exile until the Glorious Revolution allowed for his safe return to London. He had travelled widely and mixed with all levels of society. In time spent in Newgate, as a journalist and a prisoner, and hiding from creditors in London rookeries, he had learned to admire the survival instincts and community of the lower orders. Years as a journalist and pamphleteer had honed his writer’s voice to unique perfection. Much of the power of Robinson Crusoe had come from this pseudo-autobiographical realism; Defoe was Crusoe, writing honestly in the first person and sharing the momentous events that changed the course of his life with the reader.

Defoe’s ability to bring life to a fictional voice with absolute realism and conviction meant that he couldn’t do irony even when that was his intention. This is what put him in the pillory. His satirical pamphlet, The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters; Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church (1702), was such a precise impersonation of the High Anglican Tory voice that many of them took his call for the extermination of nonconformists at face value while his own side was equally fooled and justifiably horrified. The subsequent publicity and debate drew embarrassing and unwanted attention to the terrible handling of religious freedom in England by Queen Anne’s Tory government, and Defoe was made an example of. He stood three times in the pillory (fortunately charming the locals enough not to kill him by throwing bricks, as they were wont to do), and spent six months in prison, which was more than enough time to ruin him financially. Robert Harley, then the Tory Speaker of the House, recognised the potential of Defoe as a propagandist and arranged his release, placing the again bankrupt journalist in his debt, making him a government agent and determining his output as a political journalist. The Shortest-Way profoundly and negatively affected author’s life, while failing as either a hoax or a satire. The narrative voice was so persuasive that the irony was undetectable, which is the true genius of Defoe the novelist.

Moll Flanders is above all, as E.M. Forster wrote, ‘a novel of character.’ It is Moll’s vibrant Cockney voice and big personality that holds the novel together – don’t expect detailed descriptive passages or vivid accounts of Restoration London. In a knowing, sultry Wife of Bath meets Barbara Windsor kind of voice (beautifully realised by Alex Kingston, who seems to have been playing Moll ever since, in the 1996 ITV adaptation), Moll rambles, contradicts and repeats herself, jokes, justifies, apologises, celebrates and repents as she recounts key episodes from her life. There is something of the Molly Bloom about her, and her often random stream-of-consciousness delivery adds to her realism rather than hurting the structure of the novel. Most of Moll’s anecdotes of course relate to sex and money, which are indivisible to her and, by implication, to all women. As she learns early in life:

…as my sister-in-law at Colchester had said, beauty, wit, manners, sense, good humour, good behaviour, education, virtue, piety, or any other qualification, whether of body or mind, had no power to recommend; that money only made a woman agreeable; that men chose mistresses indeed by the gust of their affection, and it was requisite to a whore to be handsome, well-shaped, have a good mien and a graceful behaviour; but that for a wife, no deformity would shock the fancy, no ill qualities the judgment; the money was the thing; the portion was neither crooked nor monstrous, but the money was always agreeable, whatever the wife was.

And because she lies a lot, passing herself off to men as a virgin or a rich widow, when Moll speaks the truth like this it has real resonance. For Moll, after the first time, love is nothing but business: ‘I had been tricked once by that Cheat called love, but the Game was over…’ (Even the man she loved paid her from the outset, though she was too naïve to grasp the implications of the ‘gift’.) From then on, her body is the only thing of value she has to exchange in order to gain financial security, her only motivation in five marriages. When she meets the banker who becomes her fifth and final husband, she explains that ‘I resolv’d to let him lye with me if he offer’d it’ because ‘I wanted his help and assistance, and I knew no other way of securing him than that.’ She literally doesn’t know any other way of surviving. Through the narrative, Defoe seems to imply that women like Moll are in an impossible position: they must have money and they must preserve their virginity until marriage, social expectations that are frequently at odds for her class and gender. Not that she doesn’t enjoy a good romp, the price of an active sex life being the 12 children she perfunctorily abandons in order to avoid the impediment when hunting for the next husband (and which Defoe and most readers forgive her, being similarly under her spell). When a financially advantageous marriage is no longer likely because of her age, she turns to prostitution, and as an older woman, she rises in the criminal underworld from an accomplished pickpocket to a professional thief in a successful female criminal fraternity. She is finally apprehended when she impulsively steals a horse, a much more male crime. It is from a state of despair in Newgate that her contrition begins, leading to a happy Christian ending.

‘There is a dignity in everything that is looked at openly’ wrote Virginia Woolf of Moll Flanders, thus the modern reader admires Moll more than we judge her, which may or may not have been Defoe’s original intention. It is difficult to imagine writing a character as rich as this without loving her, and he certainly respected the unalloyed pragmatism of the poor and the outcasts of society. Their tenacity clearly appealed to him, and Moll’s circumstances seem presented to solicit sympathy on the part of the reader rather than condemnation, just as her strategies and victories delight us. It is also unclear whether her repentance is genuine or conditional on the comfortable life she finally and fortuitously achieves. Perhaps her good fortune is a gift of providence, keeping the story within its theological frame. But who knows? As Woolf concluded, Defoe ‘seems to have taken his characters so deeply into his mind that he lived them without exactly knowing how; and, like all unconscious artists, he leaves more gold in his work than his own generation was able to bring to the surface.’ To a 20th-century modernist like Woolf, Moll can cut the mooring line with her repentance and stand alone as an autonomous survivor; a proto-feminist who plays the best game she can with the hand she’s been dealt. Her ultimate advice to other women is to have the ‘courage to maintain their ground’ against men. Above all, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders follow this principle, celebrating the freedom, self-determination and pleasures open to an independent woman of modest means who both enjoys and uses her sexuality to thrive in a patriarchal society. She is a prototype of what Angela Carter called the ‘Sadeian Woman’ – in the sense of Sade’s libertine heroine Juliette, not the tragic Justine. From Moll Flanders to Harriette Wilson, Mae West and Madonna, this role gleefully repeats itself in life and art, and although Defoe’s dirty girl is hardly a feminist icon, she probably should be.

Image: Alex Kingston in the 1996 Granada Television series ‘The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders’.

Credit: Copyright Film Company Granada AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo