Welcome to this my blog - a record of my life with books and pictures

Monday, June 21, 2010

Moll Flanders (*not her real name); A villain of substance, a victim of fortune and an inevitable penitent

As regular readers will know, I was transported by the book acquisition scooter whilst on a recent trip to Shakespeare & Co in Paris, and quite without intention, ended up buying Daniel Defoe’s classic Moll Flanders. The story of the novel is proclaimed on the first page with the words:

of the famous
Moll Flanders, & C.

Who was born in NEWGATE,
And during a life of continu’d variety for
Threescore Years, besides her Childhood,
was Twelve Year 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”.

Thus, the passage of the novel is not so much a revelation of what happens to Moll, as how it happens. Her personality is all-important as is the sharp eye that she casts upon her times. It is a touching, funny and addictive history of bigamy, incest, prostitution and the heavy burden laid upon the soul by a life of crime.

On one level, Daniel Defoe has written a straightforward morality tale. Moll does all sorts of naughty things for decades, miraculously gets away with them and at last is undone by discovery. Within the horrific walls of Newgate, the infamous prison of her birth, she finally repents of her dreadful sins and is able to live a more peaceful life. She is at pains to point out that her repentance is not simply regret at having been caught, but a true transformation. Modern readers have found it extremely difficult to accept her words at face value and this I suspect has more to do with our modernity than Moll’s mores.

That is by no means to say that there is no subtext to such Puritanism. The relish and gusto with which Moll’s adventures are related, the brevity of the moralistic parts of the story and Moll’s own recognition that some readers will prefer to read of the crimes than bask in the moral sunshine of the penitence are all instructive. The subtext is that Moll is quite a girl: a bold, beautiful, self-reliant crusader against poverty; a street wise product of a deeply brutal society; a thoroughly modern miss in desperate pursuit of economic independence; and an extremely amusing narrator to boot. She has many dimensions and much humanity and that is her charm.

Those interested in reading more of Moll may enjoy looking at Stacked, Bookaholic and this splendid piece by Nicola Lacey on the Guardian’s Comment is Free. As you will have gathered, Moll’s is a picturesque tale and has spawned plenty of dramatisations. I have included pictures of Kim Novak, Nicola Walker and the lovely Alex Kingston playing Moll as well as the book cover.


  1. I have this book on my shelf, and loved your review! It sounds as if this is going to be a really good read for me. Have you read Fanny Hill? I think they deal with a lot of the same issues. I have that one as well, and will have to let you know what I think of it!

  2. Great review. I've always had a soft spot for ol' Moll-I always like the bad girls in Victorian Literature. It's sort of like they're saying "screw you" to the oppression and sexism.

  3. Interesting to compare Novack's pristine presentation with the last more realistic one.

  4. I don't think it's just us. The central motivation of Defoe's central characters is their restlessness. That's not going to simply go away, whatever Flanders might tell us.

    Perhaps the book itself, her telling of the tale, is a new, safer outlet for her boundless energy.

  5. Loved your post and thank you so much for the links. I am going to enjoy this.

  6. Great post-it has been decades since I read Moll Flanders-I went through a number of his books one summer-it is tribute to his power that I can still recall much of the plot

  7. Nice review! I tried reading this book long back in college but for some reason didn't finish it. Perhaps I should give it a shot now :)

  8. I read this a long time ago and didn't really think much of it - it was one of those rare ocassions where I actually preferred the televised version. Thanks for a great review.

  9. Thank you for your post, Hannah!
    I love the photos you have included of the different ways in which Moll has been depicted.
    I must re read it. I am travelling in the North East of England for some of July - a great opportunity to pick up a copy ... and possibly more books!

  10. Very good review.

    It's true that many readers liked to read of the crimes at great length, even (perhaps especially) the more puritanical. Richardson recounts Pamela's sins at great length, and Fielding was outraged at what he believed was voyeurism masquerading as morality.

    Moll is much more engaging than Pamela, though.

  11. Hannah, I have something for you on my blog!

  12. What a great review! This is one of those books on my ever increasing "to read" list, might get round to it one of these days... thanks for jogging my memory

  13. Great post. I've never read Moll but I probably should! :-)

  14. I saw the BBC version with Alex Kingston and loved it (Daniel Craig, anyone?) I'll have to move the book up on my to-read list. And I love Shakespeare and Co.! So jealous.

  15. Great review! For years I have seen this book on my mom's shelves but have never thought of reading it. I definitely will :)

  16. i loved your review, you've got me interested in reading this one now!

  17. I liked Moll, although I took the book as a whole more as a lesson in how morality is entirely dependent on physical well-being. If you haven't got the opportunity to earn a decent living, you're more likely to turn to crime. I think Moll would have been a decent person if she hadn't been subjected to the down side of life and been fully aware that she could return there at a moment's notice. Of course, it may just seem this way since she is such a likeable character! Great review!

  18. An excellent review as always Hannah. I loved the TV dramatisation with Alex Kingston (now lighting up the screen in Dr Who!) but I haven't read the book. As usual you have prompted me to add it to my reading list which is being woefully ignored at the moment ...!