Moll Flanders (not her real name), born in Newgate Prison, quickly becoming a ward of the parish, is lucky enough to have a kind foster mother who teaches her fine manners and sewing skills. After the old woman dies, things seem to be looking up when Moll takes a place as a maid in a wealthy household, but once the older brother seduces her, she begins her life as a dissembler, a woman who doesn’t quite tell the truth, as the truth would be the end of her and it is more profitable to lie. Strictly following the rules would result in starving. Her first crime is adultery, the second bigamy. She marries many times and has many children, all of whom she abandons. It’s only much later in life (and in the book), once Moll loses her youth and looks, that she turns to theft. And she turns out to be a gifted thief. With some close calls, she makes a living, until she is caught, reprieved from the noose and exiled to America. But through a fortunate plot twist, sixty two year old Moll reunites with her favorite husband, buys a few slaves (or African servants as she calls them) and makes a fortune planting tobacco, accumulating enough money to return to England and enjoy her golden years. So a happy ending.
This was a remarkable book with an irresistible first person narrator. It’s hard to believe Moll Flanders was one of the first novels, although the book’s structure is simplistic, episodic. The motivation for every scene is, I need money. Even though Moll is a con woman for almost the entire book, the reader roots for her success. She’s a little too mercenary (and possibly humorless) to be likeable, but she is recognizably human and easy to empathize with. Moll is very practical. She’s always itemizing; her pounds, her linen. She’s is not unusually greedy. She only turns to dishonesty when funds get scarily low.
No one is truly malevolent here. All of Moll’s husbands and lovers, her Godmother midwife/abortionist, and the various people she meets are quite nice. Though it is difficult for the modern reader to accept the way Moll simply abandons her babies without an iota of regret. There is not a shred of romanticism in this book, no Jane Eyrish dilemmas here. You wouldn’t find Moll fainting from hunger by the side of the road, she would swipe something first. The end of the book reminded me of a Fidelity Investments retirement advertisement. You deserve it. It puts lie to the idea that everyone died back then when they were thirty two.
Personally I found this book a bit of a chore to read. I wasn’t excited to pick it up each night. I’m not sure why – the writing is lively and Defoe made me feel that I was inside an actual woman’s head. Perhaps Moll is too cold. I learned some things – I didn’t realize lace was as valuable as gold. And her crime spree and eventual return to England is certainly helped by how easy it was back then to abandon one identity for another. A convenience that is probably gone forever.