Overview from www.bn.com: A tour-de-force of writing by Daniel Defoe, this extraordinary novel tells the vivid and racy tale of a woman’s experience in the seamy side of life in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England and America. Born in Newgate prison, and seduced in the home of her adoptive family, Moll learns to live off her wits, defying the traditional depiction of women as helpless victims. First published in 1722, and one of the earliest novels in the English language, its account of opportunism, endurance, and survival speaks as strongly to us today as it did to its original readers. This new edition offers a critically edited text and a wide-ranging introduction by Linda Bree, who sheds light on the circumstances out of which the novel grew, its strengths and weaknesses as fiction, and the social and cultural issues examined in the novel. In addition, her comprehensive notes clarify meanings, allusions, and other references.
It’s been a long time since I had read any classics so when this story came into my mind, I thought it is about time I finally read it. I had been thinking about reading this one for a long time. After reading Robinson Crusoe, Mr. Defoe’s other novel, and loving it, I remembered hearing that there was some controversy surrounding this one. That got me curious.
Two weeks ago, I finally downloaded a free version of this story to my Nook and started reading it. From the beginning, I was amazed that Mr. Defoe wrote a story from a woman’s point of view (I doubt many authors in those days did), but also wrote about issues that probably shocked most of his readers. The main character, Moll Flanders, does some terrible things– things that are even somewhat shocking in this day and age. But she tells her story, I believe, as a cautionary tale, as well as to shed some light on the condition of women who are born into similar station of life during this time period.
I’ll be honest. The story is sometimes difficult to follow mostly to Moll’s reluctance to state certain details outright. Although these things were frequently talked about on the Jerry Springer show, I suspect in those days they were swept under the rug. Therefore, we can understand Moll’s reluctance and do our best to pick up on what is not said.
Moll learns early on what it means to be woman with no family connections. Her mother was a convict who “pleads her belly” or her pregnancy with Moll to get out of going to the gallows for her crimes. Her mother is then sent off to the American colonies in lieu of being hanged. Thus Moll is left all alone in the world and raised by the kindness of a strange woman who loves her almost as though she were her own child.
When that woman dies however, Moll is once again alone in the world until she is taken on by another family as a servant. This is when most of her trouble start. The two sons of the family vie to have her as their own. At first, the older one wins, making her his mistress and promising to marry her as soon as he comes into his inheritance. He later tells her that he cannot marry her since he won’t come into his inheritance until his father dies. When he discovers that his younger brother wants to marry her, he encourages Moll to accept him.
At first she refuses, believing it is isn’t right to have sexual relations with two brothers, but when it becomes apparent that she has few options left, she reluctantly agrees. Though her husband is kind to her, Moll still hurts when her former lover marries another. And when her husband dies, she leaves their children with their grandparents and strikes out on her own.
Thus her story of whoredom, bigamy, and thievery continue. Moll knows that her best chance to get ahead in life is to find a man to take care of her and to that end she gets married again. After that marriage ends with her abandonment, she finds another. And so it continues. In the end, she marries five different times with some of the marriages never having been legally dissolved.
For a while, she takes a break from the marrying game and resorts to thievery with the help of a “governess”– I still don’t know why she uses this term to describe the woman who helps her with her life of crime. Many times she is nearly caught and sent to Newgate, the prison her mother had been in when Moll was born, but she always seems to escape detection.
When her luck changes, she too must find a way out of the gallows. At first she also tries to plead her belly but knows that she will soon be caught since she is not pregnant and can no longer conceive. Eventually she turns to a local minister to repent her sins and turns to him to help her get out of her predicament.
I won’t tell you how the story ends but I will say that I didn’t anticipate that it would end the way it did. I will say that Moll eventually does leave behind her life of crime and finds a way to be happy. The woman who at first felt trouble feeling any remorse for her actions, does come to see how her choices have affected the lives of the other people that she loves. I believe this, as well as her attempt to lead an honest life, are the very things that bring her the most happiness in the end.
Though the story, at times, is hard to read, I think it is a good one. I learned a lot about what life was like for women at this time. I also found the description of the American colonies of that time fascinating since I used to live near some of the places that Moll visits. If you can get past the language, I think you too will enjoy it.
Contains: criminal behavior