Wednesday 28 February 2018

Video Review: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders

In no way have I reviewed ITV's raunchy adaptation of 'Moll Flanders' to capture my youtube viewing figures for Fanny Hill.

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.

Wednesday 14 February 2018

A little about Automathes

One of the mysteries of ‘Something New’ was the name of the author. The given name was Automathes, which I judged as a mixture of ‘polymath’ and ‘auto’ - as in someone who is a polymath automatically.

It didn’t take much googling to find the man’s name, Richard Griffith. It took far more effort to find more about him. Unusually, Richard Griffith’s details were found under the entry for his wife - a very unusual circumstance.

His wife was Elizabeth Griffith, a Welsh lady who had a more successful Grub Street career than him. She wrote a number of successful novels including ‘Lady Barton’ and ‘Juliana Harley’ as well as works on Shakespeare.

This is Elizabeth Griffith, I can't find one a picture of a Richard Griffith who isn't the guy who played Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films.

Richard Griffith’s first work was with his wife and was the most successful for both of them. It was called ‘A Series of Genuine Letters between Henry and Frances’. However it were not really letters between Henry and Frances but a slightly polished version of the love letters they wrote for each other. It was a bestseller and made celebrities of them both.

It seems they went separate ways, at least intellectually, but there was one other book they wrote together. It was called, ‘The Triumvirate or the authentic Memoirs of AB and C’ and was published under then name Tri-Juncta. The same Tri-Juncta that becomes a running theme in ‘Something New’. Of course, a large part of one of his book was to promote another one. Even ‘The Posthumous Works of a Late Celebrated Genius, Deceased’ was another Griffith effort. He even quotes parts of his wife’s plays in ‘Something New’.

She died in 1793, he ran off with a young heiress but didn’t marry her before dying - in an unknown date.

Does knowing anything about the author of ‘Something New’ help in any way? It explains a little why some of the essays were chosen. That said, I feel I know more about him from ‘Something New’ then by researching about him - I will now seek out as much Richard Griffiths as possible. He seems to sum up Grub Street in some very pure way.

 Long Live Grub Street- and long live Richard and Elizabeth Griffiths.

Wednesday 7 February 2018

Review: Something New by Automathes

Did you know that Oxfam sell antiquarian books online? …I didn’t, until early January when I was alerted to an up to 75% off sale. My attention was grabbed by a collection of essays by ‘Automathes’, published in 1762 and called ‘Something Different’. 

And it is. It’s also a little peculiar.

To mix things up further, it turned out I only bought the second of two volumes. 

The first essay (or essay XXXIV) is titled ‘The Wager’ In this short essay, the author talks about a 100 guinea bet he has with an academic friend of his. This friend suggests that all thought happens in chains and that it is impossible to write a series of essays in which each piece really does deal with something different’ to the previous and next. Our anonymous author has no problem committing to the bet, as 100 guineas is likely to be more money then he will make in ‘all my authoring’ as writing is not ‘worth the printing’. I will periodically return to this wager and assess how he has done. (He also reveals that he is 55 years old… maybe we can build a picture of him as we continue.) 

The second essay (essay XXXV) is called Ifmamijasond. The essay is a paragraph long, asks us to ‘exercise your wits’ on this nonsense word and proudly declares that it has nothing to do with the previous essay and so is on the way to winning the wager - except that it mentions the wager, and so is inspired by it.

The next few essays are more conventional than Ifmamijasond. There’s one laughing at stoics for stifling their emotions and natural goodness. The next a general French-bashing trip to Amiens which involves a bit of catholic-baiting, describing an argument between Amiens and a church in Rome who both have a genuine John the Baptist skull and have been ‘shaking heads’ at each other. This leads on to a religious essay where a woman tries to get a parrot into heaven by teaching it the Lord’s prayer, Nicene creed and the articles on the Church of England - but it chokes to death on the 12th article about ‘good works’.

The next essay (XXXIX) is called ‘Indiana continued’ and has a subtitle referring me back to essay XXVI - which I don’t have. It seems a little like the adventures of Lien Chi Altangi’s son in Goldsmith’s ‘Citizen of the World’ essays. Indiana is the daughter of a Muslim nobleman from India who converted to Catholicism, then protestantism and moved to England. Here she grew up following English customs and falling in love with an English Lord but was sent back to India when her father dies. Later, in ‘Indiana concluded’ (XLVIII) she is forced into the Indian King’s harem, which causes her to cry, press the narrator to ‘her soft, warm and panting bosom’, which wakes him - in what state I daren’t guess. Perhaps we found out the story was a dream in earlier instalments. The following essay is on dreams - this wager is not going well.

One of the strangest parts of the book is a loose series of essays (XLII, LI, LII, LIV and LV) that deal with a strange power. The first of these essays is ostensibly a book review for an anonymous book titled ‘The Posthumous Works of a Late Celebrated Genius, Deceased’ - a title which deserves the ‘no-shit Sherlock’ award for telling us the author is dead three times in nine words. It’s heavily suggested that the late, deceased genius who has left posthumous works is Laurence Sterne, which greatly upsets our author as there is a small mention in it of the existence of a whole new kind of bodily pleasure - which he will never find the answer to.

After a little research, our author discovers the writer of the book not to be the dead Sterne but a living person known as Tri-Juncta. Over the next few essays, Tri-Juncta says how he is able to control the ‘liquid’ which carries nerve signals to create physical pleasure in himself through the force of will. We also learn that he has the ability to kill people with his mind and to sleep at will. Our author discusses the moral possibilities if these skills could be taught and scoffs at those who don’t believe in such powers by citing prodigies such as the piano playing child genius from Salzburg, Theodore Mozart (better known today as Amadeus).

These Tri-Juncta parts are particularly puzzling and reveal one of the hardest elements of the book to understand. I can’t properly judge the tone. Are these essays (and scientific ones such as XL, XLI, XLV, XLVII) supposed to be serious? In XLI, about ‘un-natural’ science, he mentions the mill that grinds old people young. Kit Smart’s alter ego, Mary Midnight talks about this same mill and stretches it into absurd degrees - but Automathes seems to take it seriously.
There’s a whole chapter that includes diagrams and logical chains that tries to prove a mathematical point. I don’t know enough about eighteenth century geometry to understand if it’s a parody - I have the notion it is, but I can’t tell for sure.

In terms of religion, there is an essay (LVII) which includes the phrase, ‘man created God in his own image’ and wallows in a number of pan-religious, pantheistic quotes. It would seem clear that these quotes are mainly included to encourage the readers to laugh at and that the writer of this book is a standard Anglican. That said, there’s the jab at the parrot being choked by the 39 articles. (EDIT: Though, in retrospect, I suppose a parrot in a cage is incapable of good works, so might have choked on that article for that reason.)

We find out a little more about our author. There is a concluding part (XLIII) of a series of personal essays. It says very little. We learn that Automathes used to be a bit of a hustler but because none of his projects came to fruition, he now finds he relaxes more. We find out more in essay LVIII ’On confidence’. In this he says how he feels himself naturally jolly, that he appreciates the little he has in his life, that he was a wife he loves. He also states his ambition in life, which has to be one of the best ever. “I am obstinately resolved, some hundred years hence, to die in the first bloom of my beauty, and the very flower of youth.” 

The book ends with four essays detailing his funeral, elegy and sheet music for the dirge to be played at his funeral - again, these are themed. Although the book was, in itself, ‘Something New’, each essay does link in some way to the pre, and pro-ceeding one. He’d have lost his wager, which is a shame.

The shortness of the essays and the way the author refers to previous chapters would suggest that these were not magazine articles collected into books like ‘The Rambler’, ‘Midwife’ or ‘Citizen of the World’ but written as a whole book throughout.

Oh and Ifmamijasond, it’s a childhood pneumonic about the months of the year. The ‘i’s are ‘j’s, thanks to Latin making them easy to swap for each other. He also includes the classic trick of counting on the hand to remember which have 30 and which 31 days - it also includes a handy, dandy woodcut of a hand. 

I had enormous fun being catapulted into this odd book of seeming in-jokes with no apparatus to help. I want to do it again some day.