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Daniel Defoe’s “Moll Flanders”: Fake it ’til you Make it

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You might know Daniel Defoe as the author of the children’s classic Robinson Crusoe, but Defoe definitely did not specialize in writing children’s fiction or even fiction at all, really.  His main work was writing pamphlets that were designed to sway public opinion, and in fact, he got arrested for expressing them so loudly and well!  I suppose England did not enjoy the extremely free press that it has now in the early 17th century.  Obviously when it came to religious freedom, which is what got DeFoe into trouble, it did not.

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Why I read Moll Flanders

 

As I write this during the Coronavirus shutdowns, I had originally decided to read Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. Knowing that nothing new is under the sun always makes me feel better about anything I’m going through although for me personally, this situation is far from the worst I have encountered in life.

Journal of the Plague Year

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But when I started reading this, I started thinking about how much I like Moll Flanders and suddenly found myself reading that again.

I have never had any discipline when it comes to reading.

I’ve always been a fan of  Moll Flanders.  Since the novel was published when the genre (the novel) was relatively new, there aren’t that many examples of any kind, and Moll Flanders is particularly interesting because it covers such a long period of time.  It begins when Moll is a child, and ends when she is nearly 70!  That is a good long life for anyone, even in the 21st century, let alone in the early 18th. 

I have to say I’m particularly a fan of Moll’s because part of her story is set in Virginia, my home state, but on life here, DeFoe is frustratingly vague.  Not that much is known about his life, other than his writings, but I doubt he spent much, if any time here.  Having said that, the details he does include about locations are pretty accurate. 

I think Moll Flanders has the reputation of being erotica, but it isn’t that at all.  It is about a woman who starts out with nothing, as the child of a condemned prisoner, and has to make her way through the world living largely by her wits and also by making the best use of her appearance and charm.  But “wits” also means that she has a great business sense and definitely the ability to keep a cool head and not to let life get her down too much.  So while Moll has her shortcomings, I think she’s pretty cool. 

And even when it comes to her shortcomings, she is honest about them.  She can poke fun at herself. She just kind of shrugs, says, “What can you do?”, and goes on from there.

She’s not what you might call a good person, but she isn’t a bad person either. She has ethics and morals, to a point, but in the end, she will do what she has to do and find happiness where she can.

Oddly, she reminds me of my mom. It would probably surprise many people who knew her to hear this, but my mom always told me that the most important thing you can do for other people is to take care of yourself. So they don’t have to.

And that’s basically what Moll does.

 

Why you would want to read Moll Flanders

 

I like Moll because the title character lives by her wits.  She’s not a bad person, but she’s not an exceedingly good one either.  She likes to have her fun, and while she’s flexible on how many men she can be legally married to at one time, she is always physically faithful to the one she is with, and never had anything to do with the demise of any of her five husbands! 

What’s a bit strange is that she fairly easily abandons the 8 living children she gives birth to during the course of the story, and we hear little about any of them again.  She makes sure their care in insured, mostly, and while I can’t say I blame her, it seems strange she never follows up with them even when former spouses or paramours reappear in the story. 

Her story is entertaining and quite frankly I learned a lot about human nature and salesmanship because that’s what she relies on most of the time.  The way you present yourself is 9/10ths of the way you are perceived, no question.  

 But there’s another part of me that wonders why, with all the shrewdness and business acumen that Moll displays throughout the novel, she doesn’t put all of it to use in some legitimate business of her own.  She certainly seems to pick up a lot from her husbands over the years, no question.  In fact, at the end of the novel, when she goes to Virginia, she finally just takes over for her husband, who is basically ready to retire (even though he is slightly younger than she) and does very well. 

Perhaps that’s because in Virginia, she finally has the connections of her own to make it in legitimate business. I want to say it’s because Virginia, as a young colony, offered more opportunities to women, but several female businesswomen appear in England throughout the book, so it’s not as though there were no opportunities for Moll. Maybe just not the right one.


To read more about women in early Virginia, read The Lois Level’s If you’ve seen “Jamestown” and want more, try reading “Jamestown Brides” and more about the FIRST English colony in North America. 


If she were a real person, it might be BECAUSE women had more rights and freedom in Virginia at the time…so many people died for one reason or another that no one worried about gender as long as you could stay alive.  

Regardless, for me it’s entertaining and kind of empowering to get to read a book about a woman who is not a victim of her gender.  And certainly living by her wits, although at times she lives very economically, must have been preferable to the amount of work that must have gone into running a business.  Or maybe she just never had the capital or connections. 

The style of this book isn’t difficult to follow except that the sentence structure is very loose…and by loose I mean that one sentence usually is found in each paragraph, at least in the edition I have.  I just started to pretend that all the semicolons were periods (full stops), and I was fine. 

Even now, British English has much more flexible punctuation rules than American English, and in DeFoe’s time, it was probably “do what you will” for sure. 

I remember this book as being a novella, but it is a bit longer than that.  In comparison to other books of the era, which easily can run 1,000 pages or more, however, it is manageable. 


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Tips for reading Moll Flanders

 Early novels almost always have a frame of some sort in that they were based on the nonfiction prose styles that came before.  The reason some early novels are so long is because they are written as collected series of letters.  Moll Flanders is written in the voice of “Moll” but in the style of a personal history or autobiography.

While at times while reading, I thought she ran on too much, I came appreciate her (DeFoe’s) taking the time to guide me through her thought process, which after a while, I began to find entertaining.  Even when she discovers a circumstance that seems crystal clear in her favor, she takes the time to weigh her options and consider the best way to approach the situation for maximum benefit.  Very smart.  This is definitely a case of “showing” rather than “telling”, and anyway, if the novel didn’t map this thought process so thoroughly, “Moll’s” exploits would have seemed random and disjointed.

 

 

Roxana

Defoe’s last work is Roxana, which honestly I kind of wish I read instead of Moll Flanders, since I have read Moll before.  It is in a similar vein, but it is supposed to be darker, and just from the description, Roxana does some things that Moll never “stoops” to.  On the other hand, Moll never tries to support and care for her children unless she has a husband or at least partner financially supporting them.

About Daniel Defoe


Artist unknown, style of Sir Godfrey Kneller / Public domain/17th or 18th century

If Defoe were alive today, we would probably see him on CNN trying to get people worked up, or maybe he would be an Internet personality.  It would be interesting to see.  In fact, one of his books, The Storm, is considered one of the world’s first examples of “modern” journalism.  In this book, DeFoe wrote about the Great Storm of 1703, which he witnessed.

The Storm


DeFoe got put in the pillory for writing a satircal pamphlet involving the Church. According to legend, the publication of his poem “Hym to the Pillory” resulted in flowers being thrown at him rather than the usual nasty stuff. The 21st century did not invent social media!

James Charles Armytage (died 1902) / Public domain/date unknown

Conjugal Lewdness: Or, Matrimonial Whoredom

This is a short nonfiction work I threw in just because I like the title. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up!

About the Cover Photo


November 16, 2014, Le Poisson Rouge, New York, NY

“The Threepenny Opera”: Photo by Steven Pisano

This photo is actually from a production of The Threepenny Opera, which is a revision of The Beggar’s Opera, which is a spoof of early 18th Century Italian opera, written in part by one of DeFoe’s contemporaries, another English loudmouth rabble rouser known as Jonathan Swift. He wrote Gulliver’s Travels, which now passes for a children’s book although it’s really a satire, and “A Modest Proposal”, which you may well have read in high school. Everyone still gets that “A Modest Proposal” is a satire because it’s an essay that modestly suggests that we make use of beggar children’s skin for profit. Got it?

The Beggar’s Opera is set and was written at roughly the same time as Moll Flanders, and it features people from a similar level of society: the down and out, who usually did fake it until they made it, or not.

A Modest Proposal and other Satires

Puddle Jumper

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Gulliver’s Travels

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