Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe (1722) – A Book To “Read Before You Die”

This was my third dip into Peter Boxall’s “1001 Books To Read Before You Die” which has already had me reading “The Golden Ass” and “Don Quixote”.  I’m dividing the recommendations into groups of five and choosing one. If I’ve read one before in the last 27 years it doesn’t count.  This made the next five choices:

The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

The Princess Of Cleves – Marie-Madelaine Pioche De Lavergne

Ooronoko- Aphra Benn

Love In Excess – Eliza Haywood

Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

I skipped past two titles because of the rules I’ve set myself.  “A Tale Of A Tub” by Jonathan Swift (1704) I read in 2005 and have no desire to read it again.  I really didn’t get anything from it, it was a 1* read for me and has probably put me off reading any more Swift for life.  The other “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe (1719) I read in 2008, it wasn’t what I had expected and I rated it a disappointing 2*.  Very aware that what I have done up to now is choose the most recent in these chronological lists I balanced that with choosing the book with a celebration this year as it is 300 years since the publication of Defoe’s second most famous book “Moll Flanders”.

I do believe I have read this before, as a teenager or in my early 20’s, I certainly had a copy on my shelves for a number of years but as this would have been longer than 27 years ago I thought it was time for another go, hoping that it would not be a let-down as “Robinson Crusoe” was.  It is subtitled “…who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu’d Variety for Threescore years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Years a Whore, five times a wife (whereof once to her brother), Twelve Years a Thief,  Eight Years a Transported felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest and died a Penitent”. The eighteenth century not at all concerned about plot-spoilers then!

Given this description it is far less sensational a work than I had imagined.  I’m wondering if I’ve had it confused in my head with John Cleland’s more notorious “Fanny Hill” from 1748, considered the first pornographic novel. In fact, Defoe’s work is also not quite a moral tract, but it is not that far off.  In the Introduction to the Wordsworth edition I read R T Jones explores the purpose of this novel and there is just too much joy within Moll’s cataloguing of her wrong-doings for it to be seen on self-improvement terms.  Defoe’s intention to guise his novel as a true account may have been a commercial one, attracting a younger readership guided away from the sensational novels of the era by parents who would allow their offspring to learn through what might be seen as a more pious journey of self-discovery.  This conceit of writing Moll’s narrative as if it was true does affect its readability however.  Most characters cannot be named and so “this gentleman” and “that gentleman” becomes confusing at times and just a tad tedious.  If only Defoe had felt able to give his cast names this would really have brought Moll’s tale and world to life.

Another purpose of Defoe’s penning this novel could have been to provide a lesson in street-life to the uninitiated.  Moll describes her crimes and those she has gulled and the methods by which she tricks them in a way that readers might learn not to be taken in thus (there’s another side of the coin here, the less honest could learn from the outlining of such crimes how to carry them off but it is unlikely that those keen to profit as Moll did would have been amongst the eighteenth-century readership). 

Moll comes across a vibrant, well-rounded character.  She’s on a continual slippery slope but blames no-one but herself and is able to put a brake on the road to ruin when needed.  Men do cause her downfall but she has a good relationship with them and is able to give as good as she gets.  Her incestuous marriage is a complete accident and leads to one of the most involving sections of the book.  I did enjoy this although it dragged for me in the mid-sections, the accounts of her youth and the latter part of the book (I can’t say declining years as there is no decline) provided a highly satisfying read and for me this book felt so much stronger than “Robinson Crusoe”.  We are not quite in 5* territory from my twenty-first century perspective of these earliest of novels but I’m sure we will not have to move forward too far chronologically before I start awarding my top rating.

I read the Wordsworth Classics Paperback edition of “Moll Flanders” from 2001 with an introduction by R T Jones.

Don Quixote- Cervantes (Wordsworth Edition 1993) – A Book To “Read Before You Die”

It’s time for my second pick from Peter Boxall’s “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die”.  Last time round, from this chronologically arranged publication I went with “The Golden Ass” dated around 260 AD.  I’m dividing the titles up into groups of five and selecting one to read from these.  The next five choices were:

The Thousand And One Nights

Gargantua and Pantagruel – Rabelais

Euphues: The Anatomy Of Wit – John Lyly

The Unfortunate Traveller – Thomas Nashe

Don Quixote- Cervantes

As with my previous choice I went with the most recent of the bunch but primarily because I had an unread Wordsworth paperback edition on my shelf.  So I set the time machine forward some 355 years from Apuleius for this doorstop of a book which appeared in two parts, the first in 1605, the second 10 years later.

The Wordsworth Edition uses this novel’s third English translation by Peter Motteux which dates from 1712.  Most of us would some idea as to what Don Quixote is about as both he and his squire Sancho Panca have entered our consciousness.  Most would know the “tilting at windmills” episode from early on in the book.  I knew it was a tale of a knight-errant obsessed with tales of chivalry but I had no idea how Cervantes would sustain this for a book of this length, nor did I appreciate just how old this work is, Cervantes was around the same time as Shakespeare, he died just a few days before him and this Spanish classic has proved an intriguing reading experience.

It has taken me a month but I do feel enriched for having read it.  There’s a marked distinction between the two parts, the first was pretty much what I was expecting.  Don Quixote, nothing like the chivalrous heroes of old and suffering from delusions sets out with the verbose Sancho Panca (spelt like this in this edition but the c in his surname is now more commonly a z), Quixote on an old nag he has mentally reinvented into his steed Rozinante and the squire on his beloved donkey Dapple to do deeds of derring do in the name of a peasant woman Quixote has fantasised into his Lady Dulcinea.  They encounter various folk on their way who tend to have fun at their expense with Quixote’s mental wanderings occasionally leading him to make atrocious mistakes.  He believes a dilapidated inn is a castle and is so wrapped up in his image as a chivalrous knight that fact and fiction is blurred.

In the second part this fact vs fiction theme is rounded out nicely.  Cervantes writes as if he is the editor of an Arabic translation of the first part which has become a best seller.  Many of those who meet Quixote from here on in have read about him and his exploits.  A significant part features a Duke and Duchess who have much sport in setting up scenarios for the knight and his squire, bestowing on Sancho Panca a fake governorship of an “island” which was something Quixote has always promised him as a reward for his duties.  Another well rounded dimension is added to the book when Cervantes addresses something which had occurred in the real world when an author stole his characters and published his own “Don Quixote Part 2”.  Cervantes regularly insures his own reputation is intact and employs various methods to attack this author in his text.

All in all this is a very rich, very dense text.  At times it did feel like I was plodding through it but then I would remember the age of the book and the vitality of Cervantes’ tales and it would not be too long before it shifted into a fresh direction.  It’s a comic tale with much more besides and I emerged from my reading of it exhausted but very impressed.

Don Quixote was originally published in two parts in Spanish in 1605 and 1615.  I read the 1712 translation by Peter Motteux.

The Golden Ass – Apuleius (Penguin Classics 1998) – A Book To “Read Before You Die”

Fancying a bit of a literary challenge the other day I took down my copy of “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” by Peter Boxall.  I know this gets updated fairly regularly I have a 2006 edition with “A Clockwork Orange” on the cover.  I thought it might be fun if, occasionally, I worked through some of the titles suggested.  I thought I’d start by seeing what the first five listed books were and discounting any I might have read start by choosing one of this five.  What I’d forgotten is that this book is presented chronologically rather than alphabetically which meant that I was faced with five rather daunting tomes:

Aesop’s Fables

Ovid’s Metamorphosis

Chaireas and Kallirhoe- Chariton

Aithiopika- Heliodorus

The Golden Ass – Apuleius

Not being at all experienced with classic literature I almost gave my plan up at this point but I decided to bite the bullet and downloaded the Penguin Classics edition of “The Golden Ass” which is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety and was written around 260 AD.  This version is helmed by E J Kenney who provides rather a dry introduction which didn’t really set the work in the context I was looking forward to and gets bogged down in technical details but the actual text is lively and nowhere near as difficult to read as I was expecting.

Lucius is fascinated by witchcraft and his meddling in it leads him to be turned into an ass.  Before he can get to the antidote to the spell (roses) he is abducted by a group of thieves and is passed from owner to owner facing all kinds of ill-treatment on the way but hears many stories most of which feature others whose lives have been transformed by Fate and Fortune.  So, there are a lot of stories within stories, a device familiar to anyone who has read much early literature.  It’s probably best described as a picaresque novel.  Mid-way through you get a longer tale, told by an old woman to placate a young girl who has also been abducted by the thieves and this marks the first appearance in English (or it did when it was first published in the 15th Century) of Cupid and Psyche, a tale of the Gods’ interference in the life of mortals where Cupid, on a task from Venus to disrupt the life of a beautiful girl instead becomes her lover.  Many of the other inserted tales are more knockabout, cuckolded husbands, plots of revenge, some which end well and some which do not with the tale reverting back to the plight of the unfortunate donkey.

Much has been made of the last section and the change of tone as Lucius is restored to human form and becomes a devotee of Isis, the Mother Goddess.  This has proven enigmatic to many scholars.  I do have a thing about reading the notes as I go along which did slow me down considerably here but all in all I enjoyed this far more than I was expecting.  A couple of times I even laughed out loud.  I found myself wanting to know more about the context and background of this work.  Apuleius lived in North Africa and travelled widely in Greece and Italy and used Latin to rework Greek texts. (The bulk of this novel is from an earlier work by Lucian Of Patrae).  It did make a great change from chasing recent and forthcoming publications to discover this oldest surviving novel which has certainly stood the test of time.

I read the 1998 Penguin Classics edition of “The Golden Ass”