Sunday 27 January 2013

Classics Challenge: Moll Flanders

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

Moll Flanders, you amazing woman! What a life you have led! Why oh why are you often described as a 'bawdy wench' and depicted on book covers with one boob hanging out as per below:


Because to me, Moll Flanders, you are a classier lady. Yes, I know you got up to all sorts behind closed doors, but I think on the surface of things you came across as a well-to-do woman. 

Moll Flanders (not her real name) didn't get off to a good start in life:

This is too near the first hours of my life for me to relate anything of myself but by hearsay; it is enough to mention, that as I was born in such an unhappy place, I had no parish to have recourse to for my nourishment in my infancy; nor can I give the least account how I was kept alive, other than that, as I have been told, some relation of my mother's took me away for a while as a nurse, but at whose expense, or by whose direction, I know nothing at all of it.

She wanted a quiet life, but she was determined from a young age to be able to provide for herself and somehow avoid going 'in to service'.

Now all this while my good old nurse, Mrs. Mayoress, and all the rest of them did not understand me at all, for they meant one sort of thing by the word gentlewoman, and I meant quite another; for alas! all I understood by being a gentlewoman was to be able to work for myself, and get enough to keep me without that terrible bugbear going to service, whereas they meant to live great, rich and high, and I know not what.

But she was driven to live life on the edge due to financial difficulties. Society wasn't kind to women in the 18th Century. Unless you were of high rank and came with a dowry, you were pretty much screwed. Women with no fortune depended on a husband to keep them out of the gutter. 

[…] if a young woman have beauty, birth, breeding, wit, sense, manners, modesty, and all these to an extreme, yet if she have not money, she's nobody, she had as good want them all for nothing but money now recommends a woman; the men play the game all into their own hands. 

Moll, one could argue, could have used her needlework skills to bring home the bread, but it would be a measly stale crust at that and Moll wanted a more comfortable life. She was quite well educated having been brought up by a wealthy foster mother (her own mother, a criminal, had been transported shortly after Moll was born, leaving Moll alone in the world. Not a good start for our heroine). A very pretty girl, her foster parents' two sons make a play for her affections. The first brother, who she falls head over heels in love with, keeps her a secret, makes half-baked promises (ooh we'll get wed as soon as daddy hands over my share of the estate....yeah yeah, all talk, no trousers) and uses her for you know what. 

Then he walked about the room, and taking me by the hand, I walked with him; and by and by, taking his advantage, he threw me down upon the bed, and kissed me there most violently; but, to give him his due, offered no manner of rudeness to me, only kissed a great while.

The poor girl is only 17 and when he drops her, because his brother is genuinely in love with her - much to the horror of the family who believe money is more important than looks - Moll falls into a fitful state and takes to her bed for a few months in true heroine style.

Time passes and Moll and the second brother marry. Being financially secure, she is content enough with a nice, quiet life. That is until he dies, five years into the marriage, leaving Moll with little financial security. End of hubby #1.

Poor Moll. She could easily have lived an unassuming life as a gentlewoman, wife and mother had luck been on her side. This was why she craved money. If only there had been a welfare system in the 18th Century! All she needed was a little housing benefit to get her on her feet, but sadly things were much tougher for females back then. There was certainly no help for single mothers, as Moll knew only too well when faced with the prospect of abandoning her babies because she was too poor to raise them singlehandedly or because she was not in a position to remarry with another man's child in tow. It was a harsh world and Moll must have grieved so much.

There is evidence to suggest she did live happily for a good few years when married to her various husbands. Although I lost count how many children she had and to how many fathers. It was only when misfortune struck and Moll was faced with poverty that she was forced to live on the edge, as it were. She certainly had it tough and she certainly found creative ways to survive. Talk about survival of the fittest! And this really is what it was all about for Moll. I felt for her when, approaching 50, she realises her days of finding a husband are over and, under the guidance of her 'old Governess', she turns to a life of crime.

Now it gets really interesting. Even though I was saddened Moll turned to thievery in order to survive, I adored the descriptions of her 'adventures' as she calls them which Defoe delivers one after the other. Wham, bam, bam! I think she became addicted to this way of life and looking for opportunities to steal and put away money for her future. She went to great lengths and racked her brains to find innovative ways to thieve without risking capture. She didn't stop when the going was good and honed the lifestyle into an art form. She was probably more skilled at it than needlework and I imagine it gave more of a thrill. My heart was pounding for Moll as her escapades became more ambitious. She went from simple pickpocketing exercises - pinching purses and fob watches - to more complicated schemes involving trips to the country in various guises (at one point she disguises herself as a man in order to half inch stuff) to lift horses and travelling gentlemen's rather large and heavy trunks. All on her own. Cor, did she have guts! Especially with the threat of the notorious Newgate prison and execution on her shoulders if ever she were caught. I feared for Moll, little adrenalin seeker that she is. Surely her luck would soon run out? I wanted her to overcome her difficulties and have a much deserved happy life.

It did tickle me when she brought home the horse and the Governess cracked up and said there was no way they could make use of it; she would have to think of a way to leave it somewhere. I like to think Moll liked the challenge and the getting away with it. 

Does Moll give up crime and eventually lead a settled life? Or does she hang? (Nooooo!). 

I love Moll. She's a strong, creative lady determined to survive and succeed in what was very much a man's world. I won't give away the ending, but I admire the mature Moll for wanting to provide for herself instead of turning to a man to provide for her. She became independent in a harsh world via harsh means, but, really, she had little choice. Anyone of a lesser nature would certainly buckle under the pressure Moll puts herself through, but such is Moll's strength of character, she just keeps going. (I have to say I was especially amazed at her ability to pop out babies with little effort. She even says so herself at one point).

I wonder if Defoe's book is an attempt to voice how easily people in need could turn to crime?

I like to think Moll turned the tables and didn't need a man in order to escape poverty and live the life she wanted. 

A fantastic book. Moll, abominable creature though you think you are, you are my heroine. 

My personal highlights from the book in the form of a Wordle.

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