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One of the most determined, energetic, and lusty heroines in all of English literature, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders will do anything to avoid poverty. Born in Newgate Prison, she was for twelve years a whore, five times a wife (once to her own brother), twelve years a thief, and eight years a transported felon in Virginia before finally escaping from the life of immorality and wickedness imposed on her by society. She is as much a survivor, and just as resourceful, as Defoe’s other great literary creation, Robinson Crusoe.
Celebrated as “a masterpiece of characterization” by E. M. Forster, Moll Flanders is both a cunning examination of social morés and a hugely entertaining story filled with scandalous sexual and criminal adventures. In Moll, Defoe created a character of limitless interest, in spite of her unconcealed ethical shortcomings. Taking Moll through the echelons of eighteenth-century English society, Defoe seldom moralizes as he champions the personal qualities of self-reliance, perseverance, and hard work—even when it takes the form of crime.
Michael Seidel is a Jesse and George Siegel Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. He has written widely on eighteenth-century literature, especially on satire and on the early novel.
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About the Author
London-born Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) pursued a variety of careers including merchant, soldier, secret agent, and political pamphleteer. He wrote books on economics, history, biography, and crime. But he is best remembered for his fiction, which he began to write late in his life and which includes the novels Moll Flanders, Roxana, and the celebrated Robinson Crusoe.
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From Michael Seidel’s Introduction to Moll Flanders
Moll’s particular adventures had their antecedents in the lives of other infamous woman criminals with full narrative records of their adventures, such as Francis Kirkman’s The Counterfeit Lady Unveiled. Being a full Account of the Birth, Life, Most Remarkable Actions, and Untimely Death of Mary Carleton, Known by the Name of the German Princess (London, 1673). As Moll herself puts it, “My course of life for forty years had been a horrid compilation of wickedness, whoredom, adultery, incest, lying, theft; and, in a word, everything but murder and treason.” The narrative line of the book tracks the introduction of a young woman into a life of crime, the honing and schooling of the criminal, the capture and transportation of the criminal to America, and the first steps in confessional reformation.
Defoe identifies his primary genre in the “Author’s Preface” to Moll when he calls her story a “private history.” By that he means a memoir, and Defoe is quick to distinguish his work from what he calls “novels and romances,” but what Defoe means by novels and romances is not what we mean today. For early-eighteenth-century readers, novels were the unlikeliest of adventures, usually set in past times or remote and idealized places. They were marked by improbability and a suspension of the normal laws of nature and behavior. Private histories, on the other hand, were more like today’s novels. They provide readers access to aspects of a lived life that are usually hidden or unrecorded. What Defoe promises is a kind of voyeuristic biography or prose scandal, and he understands the likely “relish” of his readers for Moll’s “account of all her vicious practices” and “all the progressions of crime which she ran through in three-score years.” The mimetic impetus of Moll Flanders is set from the editor’s words in the beginning when we learn that the original manuscript is “written in language more like one still in Newgate than one grown penitent and humble.”
The editor then throws a sop to his readership by claiming that a beneficial morality can worm its way out of even the “worst story.” For those readers who demand moral uplift, the book is not only a criminal confession but a spiritual confession. Defoe says Moll Flanders is a book “from every part of which something may be learned.” For that process to take full effect, the reader has to believe in the authenticity of Moll’s spiritual life, and that turns out to be something of a stretch for any but the committed Christian apologist who will follow the editor in applying to all the “levity and looseness” in the book “virtuous and religious uses.”
As for the essence of the confessional genre, Moll explains its impulse when she tells the story late in the narrative of a thief who could not rest easily until he had unburdened himself by confessing in his sleep all the crimes he had committed the previous evening. Moll points out the general alliance of the confessional and the criminal when she notices the number of thieves in her world “obliged to disclose the greatest secrets either of their own or other people’s affairs.” Her observation helps explain not only the shape of the particular story she tells, but the impetus of all fiction, at least as it developed from the early eighteenth century to modern times. Novelists, as much as criminals, feel the need to reveal secrets, especially when those secrets involve “other people’s affairs.”
Confession allows Moll to recapitulate her story, an epitome of which we see when she “unlocked all the sluices of my passions” to the minister in Newgate Prison. The hope is that her criminal resumé can also be the first step in her repentance: “In a word, I gave him an abridgment of this whole history; I gave him the picture of my conduct for fifty years in miniature.” The idea of criminal autobiography is to lay everything out in deliberate sequence; the idea of confession is to get all bad things to the rear as quickly as possible. Moll does both in her narrative, though her criminality—in terms of the narrative space allowed it—seems to overwhelm her confession. The editor at the beginning refers to Moll’s penitent humility as a state in which she “pretends to be.” Eighteenth-century usage allows the word pretend a certain neutrality, a mere showing forth or revealing. But for Moll, “pretend” takes on the very obvious quality of “temporary.”
When Defoe fictionalizes the life of Moll Flanders and all her pretenses, he not only borrows from popular criminal biographies but also from the tradition of Continental picaresque, or rogue, literature, which became popular throughout Europe with the publication of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) in Spain. Picarós and picarás are orphans, vagabonds, desperadoes, and reprobates trying to manipulate the conventions of a world largely determined by established family and class connections. As Moll puts it, “I understood too well, by the want of it, what the value of a settled life was.” Picaresque fiction is the story of outsiders trying to get in, and the fortunes of the protagonist often depend on adaptable, protean, and duplicitous behavior as picaresque characters become who they need to be to survive.