Book 17 of the 1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die list is Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe. I found this book on my work shelves, and I think I picked it up for free one time when someone else set a pile of no longer wanted books outside her office door. I had intended to read it, and I think I even started it, but alas I didn’t finish it. So, I picked it up this time around with better intentions.
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders was written after Robinson Crusoe (reviewed here). The 1001 Books editors describe Moll Flanders with this: “Narrated in the first person, the novel relates the autobiography of Moll Flanders. Moll leads an eventful life which includes travel with gypsies, five marriages, incest, prostitution, and twelve years as one of London’s most notorious and successful thieves” (42).
Specifically, Moll Flanders is the pseudonym of a woman born to a convicted criminal. Moll’s mother found herself pregnant and in Newgate prison in London. She used her pregnancy to get a stay of execution, a practice called “pleading her belly.” Moll’s mother is transported to America, and Moll is raised by a foster mom. Later, Moll becomes a servant to a household with two sons who love her. The older son convinces her to sleep with him and to avoid the consequences by marrying the younger son. She is later widowed and leaves that family, along with her children from that marriage, to try to attract another husband, one with enough fortune to provide her security. (The last time I tried to read this book, I stopped here. I resented any woman who would leave her children for whatever reason, and I decided I didn’t care what happened to her next.)
Her next husband goes bankrupt and flees leaving her on her own again. The next husband takes her to Virginia to meet his family. After she and he have two children, she realizes that his mother is also her biological mother, which means she married and procreated with her half-brother. She leaves him and their children and goes to Bath to seek a new husband. She finds a man their who she cons into developing a relationship. Because he is married to a woman confined for insanity, Moll becomes his mistress. They appear to be in love and have a child, but after an illness, this man repents his new life and returns to his wife.
At 42, Moll is still without a man which she sees as essential to caring for her. So, she finds another married man, a banker, and cons him into giving her his money while waiting on his divorce. She is still looking for a man with more money, who she thinks she has found in a Roman Catholic in Lancashire. She marries him, but then finds out that he was conning her in hopes of a great dowry. They are both disappointed in their lack of funds. He lets her out of the marriage, but Moll is pregnant again. Moll gives birth to a child here and the midwife digresses into a lecture on how much birthing costs related to social class, just one instance of Defoe’s Whig views being expressed in this novel.
She returns to the banker in hopes of getting his fortune. The banker becomes available after the suicide of his wife, so Moll leaves the child with someone else and rushed off to marry him. Together they have two more children, but the banker dies broke and destitute after five years.
Moll believes herself to be desperate now, so she turns to a life of thievery to get the financial security she needs. She steals from everyone, including a family whose house is burning to the ground and her lover. She is eventually caught and sent to Newgate. Here she is reunited with her husband from Lancashire, who has also been jailed from robbery. Together, they convince a minister to send them to the colonies to avoid execution. When they arrive, she learns that her mother has passed away leaving her a plantation, which is being carried for by her son (with her half-brother).
She and her husband find a farm in Maryland, and she connects with her son in Virginia. He will steward the plantation left by his grandmother, and in turn, she will make him her heir. She tells her husband about her relationship with her half-brother / husband, and her Lancashire husband doesn’t care and doesn’t blame her. The story ends with Moll, at age 69, returning to London with her husband to live “in sincere penitence for the wicked lives we have lived”.
The editors of the 1001 Books include Moll Flanders because it “stands as one of the most important precursors to the modern novel” (42). The passage ends with this description: “Defoe paints an unforgettable picture of the seamy underside of England. A masterful gold digger, conniver, and survivor, Moll exploits her formidable talents to evade poverty. The novel’s power lies in the force and attraction of Moll’s character which catches the reader’s imagination and sympathy. But it also lies in the delightfully subversive moral of the tale which seems not to be that wickedness will be punished, but rather that once can live a profligate life and not only get away with it, but in fact prosper from it too” (42).
And people have prospered from telling Moll’s story with various play and movie adaptations. Evidently, one of the movie adaptations, The Story of Moll Flanders, stars Robin Wright Penn and Morgan Freeman, both of whom I like. I have added this version to my Netflix list, but it was not available to Watch Instantly. I will try to watch it soon and let you know if it is any good.
Until then, Happy Reading!