Moll Flanders

New entry for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

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 gives 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.

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