Wednesday 21 February 2018

Review: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

I tried to read Moll Flanders a few years ago but something more interesting came up. I was determined to return to the book and return I did.

I’ve had a few brushes with Daniel Defoe and he is a writer that has a definite skill, particularly that of an all-encompassing realism. He is at his best when he has a process to be described or an inventory to be listed. This talent for realism that both works for and against Moll Flanders.

The book tells the story of a woman, known to most as Moll Flanders, who is born in Newgate and has to shift for herself. Moll Flanders isn’t even necessarily her name, but as she lives she has to go through so many personas that her actual name is lost to time. To survive, she must flirt, deceive possible lovers, rob what she can and eventually comes to a redemption.

As part of the drive for realism, Moll Flanders early memories are sketchy. She’s not sure of the reasons of events when she was a child but remembers the impressions and emotions they caused. 

We then come to her first ‘adventure’ and first ‘crime’. The eldest son at the house where she lives as half-servant/ half-family member is making advances towards her. It’s obvious to the reader that, despite his protestations, he is not really planning to marry her, but the second son is. There are pages of emotional anguish as she has to give up the son who thrills her to marry the one who doesn't. - This is where the book fails. Daniel Defoe does not have the warmth, or the ability to write emotion to fully dramatise Moll’s confusion, temptation and anguish. 

It’s fair to say that eighteenth century writers, particularly the earlier ones, have a tendency to tell rather than show a story. Where later writers like Henry Fielding tell with joyful irony and Laurence Sterne told stories with playfulness; Defoe has a certain coldness, plainness and dryness that doesn’t work with matters of the heart. 

'Moll Flanders' is surprisingly astute for its psychological insights. She is sucked into her criminal life for understandable reasons. She is slightly vain, slightly naive and very shortsighted. Her other actions throughout the book make sense. Even her repentance rings true - she’s at her lowest point and a kind preacher comes with a positive message of change. The trouble with this book, and Defoe in general, is that his plain style makes him unable to make the reader feel the emotions behind the well observed actions, nor able to disguise that inability in a fun and distracting style.

Where the book succeeds is in the later chapters in which Moll Flanders runs out of possibility for romantic encounters and becomes a thief. Defoe has a skill in writing how things are achieved, explaining detailed and cunning plans with simplicity. Moll is not simply a pickpocket - she ‘rescues’ goods from fires, she bluffs goods on credit before disappearing, she hunts banned goods and helps authorities take them (while taking some for herself). Moll wears disguises, she varies her modus operandi, she takes chances and gets out of sticky situations with skill and general unconcern for anybody else.

Colonel Jack’, written the same year, was best when it described the pickpocketing youth of the central Jack figure, but the thieving part of Moll Flanders is far more varied and interesting. The plain style makes the intricacy, skill and quick-wittedness of her thefts clear, and the reader feels the exhilaration of the game - implicating them in the crimes along with Moll.

Moll is helped in this new life by The Governess, a former baby farmer turned fence, and an interesting character in herself. Defoe promises a history of her and the Lancashire Husband - a highwayman, but those books never materialised. 

Moll says that “Vice came in always at the door of necessity” but I find it interesting that she never steals something necessary. Never is Moll so hungry she steals food, she always steals some luxury item she can then sell. It’s an interestingly underhand criticism of the growing system of capitalism (which seemed to fascinate Defoe both as positive and negative). Despite this, it is clear that Moll’s actions from her second husband on, are driven by a fear of poverty. She constantly feels the presence of real want behind her and is determined to never fall so low. She is doubly aware that as a woman, if she doesn’t have money she has no power or independence whatsoever. This is especially true because she holds on to so few friends and allies.

Of course her luck runs out and she ends up in Newgate. I’d have liked a little more of the systematic Defoe here, it’s hard to imagine exactly how people survived in there in a practical sense but instead we get him in an emotional mode. This is pretty understandable as he’d spent some time in Newgate himself. We learn how on entry, the place seems like Hell, yet inmates get used to it even while acknowledging its hellishness. 

Moll sinks down in humanity, becoming animal-like to survive her zoo-like surroundings. It is here she tries to repent but realises she is only sorry for being caught, not for her criminal life. It isn’t until she is under sentence of death and a reverend from outside the prison (and not the prison’s drunken Ordinary) comes in and talks her through the depth of Christ’s forgiveness, that she begins to reform.

Although I would be one of those people that find the reformation part of one of these stories to be less interesting than the crime part, I was convinced by it here. There was something about her step-by-step conversion, nudging to a different way of looking at the world, which made it better than the sudden flood-of-clarity sort.

Moll Flanders eventually comes out of the story pretty well. She is transported, along with her ‘Lancashire Husband’ purchase their way out of servitude, create a good life for themselves and even come back to England as rich people. I presume the happy ending is a result of the repentance, though it is technically a result of both of their thieving days, as they can only buy freedom with the money accumulated by their ill-gotten gains. I can’t tell whether this is a purposefully sly wink or not.

Over all, Moll Flanders is an engaging character, especially when she is scheming and planning but less when overcome by feelings. Even when other characters come and threaten to take over, she demands that it remains her story. There are dry patches and it is not the most deliciously told story in the world, but Moll Flanders character is worth reading for her cunning, tenacious and very interesting self.

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