Thursday, September 11, 2008

Book #21 - Moll Flanders (Daniel Defoe)

My reading for this project has so far been pretty scattershot, rambling from one author to another in no order whatsoever, just flowing along wherever the streams of whiskey may take me. But I enjoyed "Robinson Crusoe" and "Journal of the Plague Year" so much, that I decided to immediately tackle the last Defoe novel on my list, "Moll Flanders". And I'm glad I did! Of all the three Defoe novels, I have to say I enjoyed this one the most.

The full title of "Moll Flanders" is "The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu'd variety of threescore years, besides her childhood, was twelve years a whore, five times a wife (whereof once to her own brother), twelve year a thief, eight year a transported felon in Virginia, at last grew rich, liv'd honest, and died a penitent". Damn...they certainly didn't leave anything out of the title in those days. I guess the title back then was the equivalent to the modern day dust jacket...something to get you interested enough to buy the book. Certainly the full title here caught my interest. Of course, it also gives away the entire plot of the book.

I have to give Defoe tremendous kudos for coming up with great ideas for his books. Stranded on a deserted island, watching while all around half of a major city's population dies of a horrible epidemic, and the close-up and personal life story of a woman who is, well, see the full title above. These are all such great could anyone not want to read these books, especially in olden times before the invention of the PlayStation distracted everyone?

As the title says, the narrator and main character of this novel is Moll Flanders (not her real name), who is born in Newgate prison as her mother is a convicted criminal. After Moll is born, mom is shipped off to Virginia, and Moll has to fend for herself. After living with gypsies for awhile, she's taken in by some local women, and eventually lives with a family as a maid. She grows to be quite beautiful, and one of the brothers of the house seduces her. They have a fling, and he promises to marry her, but he also always leaves her money after they have sex. Soon the younger brother falls in love with her, even though Moll scorns his advances, and eventually proposes to her. When Moll asks the older brother what to do, he tells her that he wasn't really serious about marrying her, and she should marry the younger brother. Moll's pretty ticked off about this, but eventually relents and marries the younger brother. They have a couple of kids, and five years later he dies. The two kids are sent to live with the husband's parents, and Moll takes off. This is not the last time in the book that she has children and then abandons them. In fact, I lost count of how many children she had, and then abandoned.

Anyway, Moll's adventures in men continue. She marries a draper (I'm guessing that's someone who makes drapes??), but after spending them into poverty, he gets arrested and flees abroad. He tells her she should pretend that she's not married because he'll never be back. Ah well. Moll then meets another man, who's wealthy, and she tricks him into believing that she's wealthy too. They marry, and then she breaks the news to him. Fortunately he loves her, and he takes her to Virginia where he has a plantation. They have children, and live with his mom, and they're happy, That is until Moll discovers that his mom is also her mom, and thus she's married her half brother. Oops. So, she flees back to England, with her husband/brother and her both agreeing to pretend the other one has died and they're no longer married (remember, this was in the days before the IRS had everyone in their database). Back in England, Moll has an affair with a married man whose wife has gone insane, and has several children by him (who are, that's right, are eventually abandoned by Moll with little fanfare).

After the married man affair falls through, Moll is courted by a married banker, who tells her he'll get a divorce to be with her, as his wife cheated on him. Moll says she'll think about it once he's actually divorced. Then Moll goes to the country where she meets and is courted by a wealthy gentleman, whom she deceives into thinking she's wealthy as well (hmm, seems to be a pattern with her). They marry, and then both discover that neither one is rich, and that they were both deceiving one another. They have a good laugh and get along famously. They are indeed two of a kind. But soon the husband, Jemy, runs away to Ireland to seek his fortune, and Moll doubts she'll see him again. So she decides to marry the banker, who's now divorced, but since she's pregnant again, she must wait to have her baby. Her landlord turns her on to a woman ("the governess") who runs a boarding house for ladies in trouble. This lady helps out Moll, and pays a woman to take away her baby once it's born (I didn't quite understand this part. Didn't they have adoption back then? Moll was quite worried the child would come to harm, but to her credit she follows up and makes sure it's OK with the new family). So Moll is now free to marry the banker, which she does. They live happily for a few years, until he loses all his money in speculation and then dies. Damn, Moll can't catch a break!

That's when Moll turns to crime. She commits a theft, and rather enjoys it, so she does it again. And again. She finds out her old friend "the governess" can help her fence the stolen goods. In fact the governess totally enables Moll's life of crime, and turns her onto this whole underworld of petty criminals. Moll becomes a very successful and legendary criminal. This section of the book goes on for a long while, and Defoe describes the details of her many crimes, which were especially enjoyable to read. My favorite was the time she stole a horse (she wasn't planning to, but the opportunity arose), but then she and the governess couldn't figure out how to fence a horse, so Moll had to return it.

Eventually Moll is caught, sent to Newgate prison, and is sentenced to death for theft (they didn't mess around in those days!). But she repents to a preacher who is sympathetic, and he helps get her sentence commuted to banishment to Virginia (along with the help of a bribe). She also discovers her not-really-ex-husband Jemy in prison, himself caught for theft, but since there's not enough evidence to hang him, he plea bargains his sentence to exile to Virginia as well. So they go to Virginia together and start a plantation. Moll quite accidently finds her son and her brother/husband, who's grown old and senile. She is reconciled with her son, who gives her her inheritance from her own mother, the income from a working plantation. Moll and Jemy grow rich, are penitent, and finally move back to England when they're too old to work on the plantation. And they all live happily until death, having repented over their former lives. Or not. This is one of the interesting points about the book...Moll seems all penitent at the end, and repeatedly says she is. However, in the introduction, where Defoe claims he's merely "cleaning up" Moll's autobiographical text that she herself has written, he explains that he had to rewrite her manuscript because:

...the copy which came first to hand having been written in language more like one still in Newgate than one grown penitent and humble, as she afterwards pretends to be.

So call me crazy, but that sounds like Defoe is saying she's not really penitent. Which frankly is not surprising to me, and I suspect to the modern reader as well. In Defoe's day, it would be hard write a moral story about a whore and thief without the character being reformed at the end. But it's clear that Moll did what she did because she really had no choice. In those days, women were at the mercy of their husbands and their husband's fortunes. When luck ran out, as it did with Moll so many times, the women were thrust into dire circumstances. Moll proves herself quite clever and resourceful, and can thus deal with her setbacks. Which makes this story Defoe saying "Don't be like this woman, she's a thief and whore and a bad person"? Or is he merely seeming to say that on the surface, while he's really sympathizing with Moll, who is merely being resourceful in the face of unbounded adversity? Moll certainly is a devious trickster (don't trust her with your wallet) but she also seems to have a good heart. But does she really repent? I dunno, she seemed to enjoy much of it a little too much.

All three of the narrators in the three Defoe novels I just read (Robinson Crusoe, the unnamed narrator of "Plague Year", and Moll Flanders) all have a number of similar traits. They're all quite intelligent, they're all quite resourceful, and they all have to be resourceful to stave off death! They're all phenomenal observers of what's going on around them. And they're all basically loners; Robinson Crusoe obviously so, but also the "Plague Year" narrator, who lives alone as the plague hits and seems to have no friends, and Moll, who is continually abandoned by men, and who leaves all her children. Her only true friend in the book is the governess. It's only at the end when she's reunited with Jemy that she has a stable marriage.

Anyway, this is one of those books I was sad to see end. I really liked Moll, and I heartily recommend this novel. Defoe is great. Of all the authors I've read so far in the course of this blog, he's the one I'd most like to sit down and get drunk with...he seems like the type of guy a scientist could relate to: an observer at heart, with an eye for detail. The three books I've read are his best known works...If anyone has any other Defoe books they'd recommend, I'd love to hear about them.

1 comment:

Rohan Maitzen said...

Thanks for reminding me so vividly of what a riot this novel is! I like your remarks about her seeming reformation and penitence...and the postmodernists think they discovered unreliability and instability...