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 decision 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.