Defoe hopes that Moll Flanders will be taken for what he says it is, a true history, despite the fact of its heroine’s real name being concealed and the multitude of novels being published at the time.
He explains that he has altered Moll Flanders’ style to make it more polite and modest, as befitting her supposedly reformed character. Originally its language had been “not fit to be read,” as a result of Moll’s debauched lifestyle. Defoe explains in deetail that the story should be taken as a moral lesson rather than as a immoral novel, and that wickedness is described only in order to better illustrate its eventual downfall. In fact, the whole narrative should be turned to “virtuous and religious uses,” and no one should criticize it for its questionable content. Among its moral messages are:
• do not commit adultery.
• do not dress little children too finely or they might be robbed by enterprising thieves like Moll.
• never lose yoour head when your house is on fire, or you might entrust your belongings to a thief.
• if you are transported as punishment for a crime, industry and a sober life can lead you to prosperity.
Defoe suggests that he might yet pu
None of this should be taken at face value. When reading this preface, and indeed all prefaces of eighteenth century novels, one should always keep in mind the secret motivations of the author. For example, despite Defoe’s protestations, Moll Flanders is a novel, not a true history. The notion that it is true only serves to make it more attractive in the eyes of contemporary readers. Indeed, at that time, novels were not nearly so well esstablished as a literary genre as they are today: the first novels nearly always described themselves as true narratives, perhaps since readers had not yet become accustomed to valuing false (or fictional) ones. Defoe’s misleading description of his hard work cleaning up Moll’s language is a titillating detail which adds credence to his claim to truth.
Defoe’s second and rather more important bit of deceit is his claim that Moll Flanders is designed to improve its readers’ morals. His motivation he
Now it remains for me to show that Moll Flanders is not a moral work. Although Defoe insists that crime is consistently punished and virtue rewarded, this is not the case. Moll begins as a pauper and ends up as a wealthy woman, entirely as a result of adultery, seduction, and theft. She glories in her beauty and cunning, and enjoys her status as a talented pickpocket: she lives by her sharp wits. She only repents when her life is danger, and never embraces virtue with any great conviction. Although she is always a good businesswoman, her success in the new world results from the careful investment of illegally gained wealth, rather than the sweat of her brow. Moll Flanders is not a moral heroine.
In fact the moral message is quite different from what Defoe claims it to be, as we shall see.
Part 1: Moll’s Childhood
Moll begins her narrative by saying that she does not want to let her real name be known because of her criminal record. Moll Flanders was the name given to her by her colleagues in crime.
Because England had no House of Orphans, like France, where the children of executed or transported criminals could be raised, Moll began her life in a wretched condition. Her mother was convicted of having stolen some cloth, for which she was sentenced to death. She “pleaded her belly,” and was given a reprieve until Moll was born. Then, luckily for her, she was transported to the Virginian plantations, leaving Moll in England. Moll is not terribly clear on the subject of her earliest years, but remembers that she wandered with a tribe of gypsies for a while, and ran away from them when she was no more than three years old. In the parish of Colchester the magistrates had pity on her, and paid an impoverished gentlewoman to take care of her. The woman, who made her living by running a little school, br
In this fairly off-hand description, which is ironically juxtaposed with the “moral” claims of the preface, Moll publicizes the bleak fate of children of criminals. Without any system to protect them, they are thrown into the world with no training in any trade and no prospects other than starvation or the same life of crime that ended so badly for their parents. (Remember that Moll’s mother had been sentenced to death for having stolen three pieces of cloth). Moll herself was very lucky to be taken in: the parish (the area served by one church) were under no obligation to take care of penniless children who were not born there, or had no other particular claim to charity: “I was not a parish charge upon this or that part of the town by law.” Indeed the parish officers tried to find the gypsies in order to send Moll back to them, even though they were unrelated to her and she did not like them. Legally, they could have sent the toddler out to starve: she was saved only by their compassion.
Once Moll was taken in, her troubles had not come to end. An eight-year old could be made to work all day as a powerless “drudge to some cookmaid,” learning no useful skills and earning no more than a meager keep. Sewing and spinning was not much better: even working all the time, a woman could not earn a living. Moll’s pay, “threepence when I spin, and fourpence when I work plain work,” would not even pay for her food, much less room or clothing. When her nurse died, she could not afford to set up shop for herself, and had no choice but to go into service, which she no longer protested: “The fright of my condition had made such an impression upon me, that I. was very willing to be a servant, and any kind of servant they thought fit to have me be.”
During Moll’s period of innocence, then, we can see that, despite her hard and honest work, she is utterly dependent on the whimsical charity of the powerful – which can be withdrawn at any moment. She is lucky to be a charming child, thus gaining favor: perhaps it is better not to wonder about the fates of the ugly and charmless pauper children. Moll’s natural wish is for security, and simple virtue and labor cannot give this to her.
Part 2: Moll as a Maid, a Mistress, and a Wife
Moll did well in the Mayor’s household. An intelligent girl, she learned everything the Mayor’s daughters did: dancing, French, writing, and music. Indeed, she was more naturally gifted that the daughters, and grew to be beautiful as well. She had “the character of a very sober, modest, and virtuous young woman,” primarily (Moll tells us) because she had never had to occasion to be anything else. However she was vain enough to enjoy being complimented, and to expect compliments, and this led to her fall from grace.
The lady of the house had two sons as well as two daughters. The first was “a gay gentleman that knew the town as well as the country,” and he began to subtly take notice of Moll, speaking well of her to his sisters when he knew she was in earshot.
During one of these conversations, one of his sisters became piqued at his eloge of Moll, and pointed out that if a young woman had all the graces, and yet lacked money, “she’s nobody.” The younger brother insisted that he didn’t care about money. The sister, who had a smart tongue, said that she was well off: even though she lacked other things, she had enough money to get a good husband. The elder brother replied that her husband might yet be stolen from her by a pretty mistress. This conversation served for Moll’s instruction. The result of the brothers’ interest in Moll was to make her less popular with the women.
The elder brother began to meet Moll in private, kissing her and telling her he loved her. She (believing herself to be beautiful enough for anything) believed him and didn’t object to the kisses, or to the money he gave her – more than she had ever had before. He said he would marry her when he “came to his estate.” Finally he carefully arranged a rendez-vous outside the grounds, all the time concealing their relationship from his family with complicated stories. There he promised again to marry her, and also to give her 100 guineas every year till then. Moll made no resistance and her virginity was lost. This relationship continued for half a year.
To Moll’s embarrassment, the younger brother fell in love with her, and openly proposed honorable marriage. Moll resisted stubborn: she could not stand the idea of being “a whore to one brother, and a wife to the other.” The young man’s love made his family suspicious of Moll; they began to plan her departure. She asked her lover’s advice, and to her horror, he counseled her to marry his brother, rather than to stop the confusion by revealing their engagement. Moll was horrified: she loved him and had believed his promises. He pointed out that he might not inherit for another thirty years, and said that since it was no longer safe for him to continue as her lover, she might as well marry the younger one, Robin. Moll was devastated and condemned his inconstancy, then fell very ill. Her continued resistance to Robin’s advances made his mother look on her more favorably, and at last she consented to the marriage. Frightened by the prospect of being “turned out to the wide world as a cast-off whore,” Moll finally agreed to marry Robin. Robin’s brother got him drunk on his wedding night so he wouldn’t notice that Moll wasn’t a virgin. He also gave Moll 500 guineas in gratitude.
Robin and Moll were married for five years, until Robin’s death; Moll had two children by him. She never really loved him, and never ceased longing for his older brother, who was married during that time. The Mayor and his lady took the children off Moll’s hands, leaving her a pretty widow with 1200 guineas.
Although Moll’s seduction is recounted in an almost off-hand manner, it is quite exceptional, by what it lacks as well as what it contains. We should remember that Samuel Richardson’s phenomenally popular and very long novel, Pamela, is all about a chambermaid who stubbornly resists the “fate worse than death” until her master, stunned by her fantastic virtue, finally decides to marry her. In Pamela, the girl’s parents continually remind her that they would rather she be dead than deflowered: the loss of virginity takes on a supreme importance, and it is assumed that the event must cast an indelible stain on the girl’s character. For Moll Flanders, it is really not that important: she does not immediately change from an innocent maiden to a debauched and wicked harlot. It does not even prevent her from following Pamela’s path and marrying her master – a different master, though. She doesn’t even get pregnant. In a novel which is thought by many to be all about sex, sex is not a big issue. The effect that sex does have on Moll is to deepen her feelings for her lover: before, she does not seem to care for him very much out of the ordinary, and afterwards she is genuinely in love.
Defoe’s broad-minded approach reveals his 3-dimensional perspective on women. He does not necessarily understand women marvelously well, but at least he can perceive a grey area between “angel” and “whore,” a concept not easily grasped by some even today.
The subject matter which provides material for both Defoe and Richardson is ample evidence of the tenuous position of female servants in eighteenth century aristocratic houses. Maids were generally young girls, attractive prey for lustful gentlemen. A maid who resisted – if she could – or complained might be thrown out by the gentleman. A maid who submitted might be thrown out by a jealous wife or a protective mother. A maid who became pregnant might easily be cast aside, and, unable to find a position in another household, might be forced into prostitution, where she would be at a very high risk for getting “the French pox,” or syphilis. Again Moll was lucky to escape with a broken heart, and a profitable marriage.
One should realize that Moll passes over uneventful periods very quickly: the five years of her marriage take less than a page to describe. We never hear about her children, or what childbirth was like, or anything domestic. Moll’s lack of attachment to her children is rather striking: it appears that children are only an unwanted charge for an attractive widow with no steady income. She is, however, careful to find homes for them.
Part 3: Husband Number Two, the Gentleman-Tradesman
A young, pretty, and quite wealthy widow, Moll was courted by many tradesmen. No longer a romantic girl, she “resolved now to be married or nothing, and to be well married or not at all.” She was disappointed that the most agreeable men did not often intend marriage, and that the ones who did were usually dull. Finally she found the object of her desire: a gentleman-tradesman. Marrying him was not as good an idea as she had thought, however, for he turned out to be a “rake, gentleman, shopkeeper, and beggar, all together.” The two of them would occasionally take luxurious vacations, pretending to be aristocrats and traveling around in style: thus Moll’s money was spent. A little more than two years after the marriage, Moll’s husband was arrested for debt. Following his advice, Moll took everything of value she could and left the house so his creditors would not be able to claim the goods. Her husband wished her well and said she might not hear form him again; he escaped from jail to France. He civilly sent her pawnshop tokens worth 100 guineas, and disappeared from her life. Moll had only 500 guineas now, and was in a difficult situation: she was not really a widow and could not remarry, but had no husband to support her. Accordingly she moved to the Mint and took an assumed name, Mrs. Flanders. There she observed the strange behavior of some debtors, who desperately spent what little money they had on unworthy amusements. Moll was shocked by their self-destructive behavior and decided not to become a whore for them. She moved again.
Much of this part deals with people who squander their wealth. Moll’s second husband appears to be a nice fellow, with the good manners that Moll so approves of. (Gentlemanly behavior, in her book, is closely associated with treating women well.) She does not even become particularly bitter at having all her money wasted away on frivolous pleasures: she looks back on the marriage with irony, but without hatred. Indeed, Moll herself enjoys their little masquerades as my lord and the Countess. Moll places a great deal of importance on social status at this time in her life: she prefers to lose her money married to a gallant man who can behave like a lord, than to enrich herself as the wife of a well-to-do, but insufferably commercial tradesman. She has a flair for gay romance. Thus it is not enough to dismiss Moll – as some critics have – as a woman motivated by money-lust, who profits off of men whose lust is less abstract. (Remember than her extremely profitable marriage to Robin was not what she would have chosen).
The behavior of the debtors she encounters in the Mint has quite a different effect on her: whereas her attitude towards her spendthrift husband is one of annoyed tolerance, she is sincerely horrified by these. She uses words like “sin” and “wickedness” to describe their activities. The lyrical description of them suggests that this kind of behavior is a particular interest of Defoe’s:
“.when he has thought and pored on it till he is almost mad, having no principles to support him, nothing within him or above him to comfort him, but finding the same darkness on every side, he flied to the same relief again, viz. to drink it away, debauch it away.”
Moll’s narrative could exist perfectly well without this interval, which involves almost no action whatsoever. It would appear that Defoe thought it was important to describe how money troubles could lead to blank and utter despair.
Part 4: Moll’s Advice on Catching a Husband
A friend of Moll’s, a “very sober, good sort” of widow of a ship’s captain, invited her to stay with her in a seafaring community, where she could meet and marry a captain. After half a year, however, the friend married instead. Moll herself found that there were two sorts of commanders: successful ones wanted to marry wealthy women of high social status, and unsuccessful ones wanted wives with enough money or connections to get them a ship. “Marriages were here the consequences of politic schemes for forming interests, and carrying on business, and. Love had no share, or but very little, in the matter.” Unfortunately, there were more women wanting to be married than men wanting to marry them, which gave men a substantial advantage in the matrimonial market.
A young lady, Moll’s friend, who was possessed of a handsome 2000 guineas, was courted by a young captain. However, when she made a few inquiries about his character and his financial standing, he took offense and abandoned her. She was very unhappy, but her fortunes improved when she followed Moll’s advice:
Moll told her that she must revenge herself, in order to save her reputation and that of women in general. She told her to spread the news that she had found out unsavory things about the captain’s history and character (including that he had not paid for his share in his ship, and was already married to a woman in Plymouth and another in the West Indies). This had the effect of making the captain unpopular with the families of the other girls he wanted to court. Moll’s friend also arranged to have a young gentleman, a relative of hers, to visit her often in a very fine carriage; she spread the news that she was going to marry him. At this, the young captain returned to her and begged for his forgiveness. She treated him coldly, forced him to clear up all the lies she had made up about him, and refused to let him make any inquiries about her. They were married according to her wishes.
Moll concludes this adventure by calling upon all women to stand their ground when dealing with men, and to show that they are not afraid of saying No. Although there may be more women than men, there are so few decent men that a woman cannot be too careful when getting married, especially since she risks more than her husband. Men will only respect women more for showing that they are not desperate.
This part is an interesting variety of social commentary. The notion that London marriages are based on money rather than love is apparently not surprising enough in itself to add much spice to the novel, but Moll’s reaction to it certainly does. Rather than bemoan the immorality of mercenary marriages (she was taught that lesson by the behavior of her first lover), she reasonably investigates techniques that will improve women’s positions within the corrupt system.
She and her female friends are all notably women on their own: the stereotype of young girls being married to young men according to the arrangements made by their powerful parents does not hold. High mortality (especially among sailors) led to large populations of widows who needed to marry again in order to establish themselves comfortably – and one can imagine that death in childbed also left many widowers. A young girl living at home might be completely controlled by her parents, but a widow with some money of her own is in a completely different situation. She must look out for herself and negotiate for herself. Living in an urban environment also adds to the relative independence of a marriageable widow: a widow in London would be unlikely to own any land or even a house. Her wealth would be in the form of money, and she could easily move to a different neighborhood among entirely different people.
Moll’s advice has nothing to do with love, and everything to do with business. Men start out with better matrimonial credit: they are not under the same time pressure to marry as women are, and there are fewer of them because of “the wars, and the sea, and trade.” At the same time, property laws favored men in marriage: unless other provisions were carefully made, the wife’s wealth would be under her husband’s control, without the opposite being true. Moll’s use of gossip and scandal is designed to reduce the captain’s credit by suggesting that he is not financially sound, and that he has a history of treating women badly: even with the shortage of men, no wealthy woman would want to marry him under those circumstances. In the other direction, the fake courtship that the young lady devises increases her own credit by making her appear more desirable.
Moll’s broader ideas suggest a kind of united front of women: if all women together refuse to marry men who treat them badly, a rude lover would not be able to simply abandon his fiancee and go next door when she protests his rudeness. This is very similar to unionization: these women would be doing the equivalent of refusing to work for less than a minimum amount. Thus, in economic terms: the supply of women wanting to be married is greater than the demand for wives, so women must settle for bad husbands – unless they organize, and concertedly raise their standards, putting pressure on men to shape up.
Part 5: How to Marry Rich When You’re Poor: Moll’s Third Husband
Returning the favor Moll had done for her, the newly married captain’s lady invited Moll to stay with her and her husband, and told her husband that Moll had at least 1500 guineas, and would inherit quite a bit more. This gained Moll many admirers, and she picked out her man: he, believing that she was rich, made all sorts of protestations of adoration, implying that he did not care if she were poor. They flirtatiously wrote the following exchange on a pane of glass with a diamond ring:
He: You I love, and you alone.
She: And so in love says every one.
He: Virtue alone is an estate.
She: But money’s virtue, gold is fate.
He: I scorn your gold, and yet I love.
She: I’m poor: let’s see how kind you’ll prove.
He: Be mine, with all your poverty.
She: Yet secretly you hope I lie.
He: Let love alone be our debate.
She: She loves enough that does not hate.
Thus he married her, believing her to be rich, although she jokingly said she was poor. Then she seriously reduced his expectations of her wealth so that he was happy to get anything at all. They then moved to his plantations in Virginia, surviving an eventful voyage, and moved in with his mother and sister there.
This part is all about the careful manipulation of Moll’s new husband: Moll manages to deceive him without ever overtly lying, thus making it impossible for him to accuse her of the deception. Moll shows that she is willing to take substantial risks, repeatedly telling him that she is poor, relying entirely on his tendency to take men’s words more seriously than those of women. He had been told, after all, by the captain, that she was rich. Moll shows a great deal of cleverness in breaking the news of her true poverty after the wedding: after first making him worry that she had nothing at all, she gave him her money in installments of about 150 guineas, so that each new sum was a welcome surprise. She also had refused to go to Virginia before they were married, so her agreement to go afterwards was another nice surprise to balance the disappointment of her finances.
We can see by Moll’s clever behavior and witty poetry that she has learned a great deal in her first two marriages, and careful observations of human mores. She no longer depends on luck, or the benevolence of the powerful, but rather on her own wits.
The difference between colonial America as viewed by Americans, and as viewed by the colonizing English, is worth noticing. We are in the 17th century, long before any breath of revolution: Virginia is simply a place where good money can be made. Moll does not want to live there permanently, as we shall soon see: the colonies are a means to an end, and England is home.
Part 6: Moll’s Husband is her Brother
At first Moll was very happy in Virginia: her mother-in-law was very good company, and so was her husband. Her mother-in-law told her many entertaining stories about the inhabitants of the colony: most of them had come over as slaves or indentured servants, or as convicted felons from Newgate. Such people were bought by planters and worked in the fields until their time was out; then they were given a certain amount of land, and could become wealthy and respectable. Then the old woman made a personal revelation: she herself had been transported, and had a brand on her arm to prove it. The details of her story convinced Moll, to her horror, that her mother-in-law was also her true mother. Moll had by this time had two children by her own brother, and was pregnant with a third. She did not tell anyone of her horrible discovery, but was terribly oppressed by it; also, she was afraid that if she told, she would be divorced without being believed, and left helpless far from her native land. Thus she lived for three more years, but without having any more children (she refused to sleep with her husband). Her relationship with him deteriorated drastically, and she requested to go to England. He was angry, and asked how she could stand to abandon her children (she did not want to see them ever again), and threatened to have her put in a madhouse. Finally she told him that she knew something which meant that their marriage was not lawful. He was very frightened and wanted to know what it was: he thought she was a bigamist (which might have been true as well!). He got his mother to ask Moll why she was so disturbed, and Moll answered that the secret of it lay within the old woman. Finally Moll told her mother the true story; she was horrified to hear about it, but wanted to keep it quiet. Moll couldn’t stand it any more, and said she would tell her brother if her mother did not. Finally, Moll exacted a promise from her husband that she would not be blamed, and told him to truth. He considered suicide, and in fact tried to hang himself a few days later, but was cut down in time. Finally they decided that she would go to England, that he would continue to support her as a sister, and would “receive news” that she had died, allowing him to marry again. She returned to England, having spent eight years in Virginia, but unfortunately most of the cargo that was to have supported her was lost in a storm.
It is not very flattering for the American ego to see that 18th century English people thought of America as a rather undesirable place which was largely inhabited by unwilling immigrants: slaves and transported convicts. It is only after American independence that Britain began to transport criminals to Australia instead (apparently the loss of a convenient sink for undesirables caused enough crowding in Newgate to justify shipping them halfway around the world).
The highly emotional reactions of the various people involved to the news of Moll and her husband’s incestuous relationship covers a whole range of outlooks on sexual sin. Incest is a very terrible thing to her: she becomes genuinely sick at the thought of intercourse with her husband/brother. It does not seem to appear to her in the light of a sin – she faces sin with relative equanaminity. This is more of an instinctive horror, like a fear of snakes. The reaction of her husband falls more into the ground of conventional morality: he wants to kill himself to remove the taint of sin, while Moll just wants to leave. Their mother seem to be more motivated by regard for conventions than anything else: she would actually prefer to have her children continue cohabiting, than risk the scandal of separation. Thus Moll is motivated by a sort of instinctive natural morality, her husband/brother by a more religious sense of guilt and sacrifice, and their mother by a concern for keeping up appearances.
Incidentally, it would be interesting to know where Moll found out about her origins, given the fact that she ran away from the gypsies at the age of three. It hardly seems likely that at that age she would remember her mother’s fate and the crime for which she had been transported, her name, and so on. Defoe never explains this, probably for the good reason that he could not.
Moll’s situation at the end of this part is not tremendously favorable: she does not seem to be able to rely on her brother for continued financial assistance, and she is no longer very young, though still pretty.
Part 7: The Gentleman at Bath
Moll was in England with 200 or 300 guineas and no friends: the woman who had set her up with her brother was dead, as was her captain husband. Moll was in any case not anxious to meet anyone who knew about her incestuous marriage, since she was now pretending to be unmarried. She moved to Bath and enjoyed herself, having become “a woman of fortune though I was a woman without a fortune.” Living gaily she soon ran out of money, and didn’t meet any man who wanted a wife. She made friends with her landlady, who charged her very little and fostered her friendship with a gentleman lodger in the same house. This man was aware of her poverty and thought she was a widow. He gave her money, without asking for sexual favors, and she nursed him during an illness. They lived together on familiar terms for two years without sex, although they would occasionally share a bed: the gentleman wished to demonstrate how much he respected her. However, one evening when they had drunk a little too much, their contract of chastity was broken, and after that she was frankly his mistress. She became pregnant and gave birth under the assumed name of Lady Cleve, wife of Sir Walter Cleve, to avoid scandal. She had a “fine boy” and lived quite happily, but with enough foresight to save as much money as she could, knowing that nothing lasts forever. The gentleman, incidentally, was married, but his wife was insane, so Moll provided much-needed companionship. They lived together for six years, and Moll bore three children, but only the first one survived. Then Moll learned that her lover was ill and at his house where she could not visit (his wife’s family would not approve). She heard little from him after that, and was afraid he would die and leave her resourceless. In fact he did not die, but his illness made him repent, and he didn’t want to see Moll anymore. She asked him for 50 guineas to travel back to Virginia, and left him the child to bring up: though she was very fond of the boy, she was not sure she would be able to maintain him.
Although people often associate Moll Flanders with prostitution, she is never a streetwalker. In fact she is rarely even a mistress: this is only the second time that she is in a sexual relationship without marriage. It is surely one of the most bizarre such affairs ever to be depicted in literature, perhaps because of the opacity with which it is described. Moll only hints at the emotional motivations of her lover and herself, which results in the comical picture of a middle-aged couple in bed, strenuously avoiding immorality. We can imagine that Moll provides emotional support and consolation for her lover, that he loves her and she is fond of him. But our imagination is left pretty much on its own. Their adulterous relationship certainly does not appear romantic, nor is it interestingly sinful. When the man decides to leave Moll after his illness, Moll first indulges in some melodramatic thoughts of guilt, then prosaically extracts as much money as she can from him, and goes on her way. This novel is evidently very different from the psychological works of Dostoyevsky and his nineteenth century colleagues.
This stubbornly unemotional affair provides an immense contrast to her previous marriage. With this dry romance, Defoe mocks Moll’s lover’s theatrical notions of morality. His insistence on sleeping chastely in her bed to demonstrate his great respect for her virtue, and his coldness to her after his illness, both seem equally risible. Moll needs money to survive, not respect. A genuine attachment would not be dissolved by a fright, causing the man to consciously leave his companion of six years and the mother of his child without an income: if he were truly good, he would continue to support her.
Part 8: Moll Looks for Another Husband
After these negotiations with her estranged lover, and others with her brother in Virginia, Moll found herself single, 42 years old, and in possession of about 450 guineas. She lost 70 of these due to the failure of a goldsmith in whose hands she had left some of the money. Moll was a little worried – although she had not yet begun to wear make-up, a thing she despised, she was undeniably no longer very young, and had no friends or advisors. Being a woman without connections, she had little access to the public sphere of business – thus she had not known that the goldsmith was financially unsound. She wanted very much to get married to a “sober, good husband,” and be a “faithfull and true wife.” She pretended she had a fortune of three or four thousand, but nothing showed up until she met a woman from the north, who (thinking she was rich) sweetly invited her to come visit her family there. Moll was attracted by the idea that living was cheaper in the north, and decided to go, but was unsure what to do with her money.
She went to a bank clerk she knew to be honest, and asked for advice. He recommended that she visit “a grave man of his acquaintance,” who would help her. She told this man that she was a widow, desolate and friendless, and afraid of losing what money she had. They got along very well, and she was sorry to find out that he was married. In their various meetings, however, it turned out that his wife was unfaithful, and had left him with another man. They discussed a possible divorce, and he asked Moll if she would marry him when he did get a divorce. She was pleased to hear this, but pretended not to take him seriously, and behaved modestly and respectably. He became even more enamoured of Moll and asked her to marry him then, though they would live apart until the divorce came through – or else to sign a contract promising to marry him. She liked this, but having hopes of the north country, avoiding anything binding, and thus leaving her money and suitor in London, went to the north.
In this episode, the metaphor of Moll as money (Moll is a commodity: she can exchange her love and sexual favors for money) is developed in a new direction. Previously, the question of interest has been how much Moll is worth: how much money must a lover give her? how much need a husband have? When this grave gentleman is considered for his worthiness as a possible husband, it is not merely his personal wealth and how much he thinks Moll has that decides whether or not he will marry her, and she will marry him. Instead, Moll encounters him in the role of a financial steward, someone who would take care of her money. Her money, remember, can be thought of as a symbol for herself. At the end of each affair, she takes account of the change in her finances – this financial evaluation takes the place of a psychological or emotional analysis. Moll becomes convinced that the grave gentleman would take care of her money (herself) very well, and this leads her naturally to think that he would make a good husband.
Interestingly, this development of Moll’s association of herself with her money makes her actions appear less mercenary. She is no longer overtly trying to accumulate as much wealth as she can – instead she wants to preserve what she has. No one could say that self-preservation is an unnaturally mercenary objective.
The question of divorce is also interesting in this part. It doesn’t take long to figure out that divorce in Moll’s time was not like it is today. It is considered as a last resort: the grave gentleman objects that it would be “very tedious and expensive.” (Even in the seventeenth century, lawyers were apparently rapacious.) A more reasonable approach, he thinks, would be a common-law divorce – he would simply have nothing more to do with his unfaithful wife, who was in any case living with another man. The problem with this approach is that he would then have to content himself with a common-law marriage. He worried that, in that case, no “honest woman” would have him, and he didn’t want have anything to do with “the other sort.” His suggestion that Moll could “marry” him before the divorce went through reflects the shaky hold of legal terminology on contemporary lives. People could consider themselves to be married or divorced, when in fact the law knew nothing of the matter. This was no doubt a reaction to expensive and unfriendly courts, where officials were probably more concerned with feathering their own nests than with justice.
Part 9: Moll Falls in Love and Gets Married and Unmarried in the North
Moll’s own trickery was outdone by that of her northern friend, who brought her to a noble estate, where the family entertained her like a lady of great fortune. They were Roman Catholics, which did not disturb Protestant Moll much: she “had not so much principle of any kind as to be nice in point of religion.” After staying there for six weeks, Moll’s northern friend brought her to a village to meet the man she called her brother. This gentleman, believing her to have about 1500 guineas, courted her assiduously, and he himself appeared to have a good estate of at least 1000 guineas a year. He “ran in debt like a madman for the expenses of his equipage and of his courtship.” Moll was dazzled and married him, sparing a few regrets for her grave gentleman in London.
After they had been married for a month, they were going to move to Ireland and the question of Moll’s fortune came up. Moll’s husband was under the impression that she would have to go to London to transfer it. She was unaware that he thought her so rich, and called his sister, her northern friend, in to clarify matters. When it became clear that Moll had no fortune, and her northern friend had deceived her brother, he was absolutely furious and desperate. His “sister” was in fact his former mistress, who had been sent to London with the particular design of finding him a rich wife, for he had no more estate than Moll.
Despite these fearful revelations, Moll was pleased by her husband’s kindness to herself. She offered him all the money she had with her, about 20 guineas, which he refused to touch – in fact he threw his remaining 50 guineas on the table and bade her take them. Moll was impressed by his gentlemanly behavior, and thought: “‘Tis something of a relief to be undone by a man of honour, rather than by a scoundrel.” The next morning Moll found that he had disappeared, leaving behind some money and an apologetic note saying that she should go to London and marry again, if she could. She was heartbroken and wept all day, calling his name, Jemmy (a nickname for James). In the evening he reappeared, and admitted that he had seemed to hear her voice calling him back.
Moll offered to go with him anywhere, and he said that he would at least escort her to London, but refused to take back any of the money that he had left with her. They lived together for a week, and Moll tried to convince James to go with her to Virginia, where they could make good. He had similar ideas about Ireland, and it was settled that he would try to improve his circumstances in Ireland, and if that failed, they would go together to Virginia. Then they reluctantly parted, though they exchanged addresses so they would be able to write.
Defoe’s placement of this episode reveals him to be a careful and talented writer, attune to the moods of his audience. By this point, Moll’s loveless relationships had begun to pall somewhat: they were too similar to financial transactions. Her strangely romantic marriage with James reasserts her as a truly human being, rather than an attractive cash register.
Moll begins to love James after she discovers that he was both a deceiver and deceived in their marriage, not before. Perhaps this means that she can feel close to him because she knows that he, like herself, is a non-respectable person fighting to survive in a respectable society. She does not need to conceal her past from him, although in fact she does not tell him her real name or complete history. Moll seems to have a soft spot for sinners: she loved her first seducer, but not his upright brother. She was rather fond of her bankrupt linen-draper husband, but not particularly of her Virginia husband, or her moral lover from Bath.
The supernatural incident – James hearing Moll calling his name even though he was far away – comes as a surprise in this extremely ungothic novel. Perhaps it serves to demonstrate that this will be Moll’s true love – her only love where she doesn’t care about money. It is reminiscent of a very different novel, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, in which the lovers hear each other’s voices at a crucial moment when they are miles apart. Jane Eyre was written long after Moll Flanders – it would be interesting to know if Charlotte Bronte was inspired by Defoe in this case.
Given what we know about Defoe’s religious ideas, Moll’s tolerant attitude towards Roman Catholicism is further evidence that lack of principles can be better than staunch belief in rigid rules. Defoe was educated for the Dissenting Protestant ministry but decided that the clergy was not for him. Moll probably speaks for him when she points out that differences in belief are usually the results of “prejudice in education,” and that if her father had been Catholic, she would have been happy in that religion. The seventeenth century, in which the novel takes place, saw the English King Charles I deposed and executed, replaced by a Puritanical dictatorship led by Cromwell. Although Cromwell’s death resulted in the reinstatement of Charles’ son, Charles II, the religious troubles of England were not yet over: Charles II was succeeded by his Catholic-leaning brother, James II, who was dethroned in favor of the Protestant William and Mary in the Glorious Revolution. In the same period, French Protestants lived with difficulty under their Catholic King Louis XIV. Defoe, with his international experience, must have decided that strict religious principles were not worth the bloodshed and division they caused.
Part 10: Moll Meets her Governess, and Gives Birth to Jame’s Child
Back in London, Moll remembered her husband fondly, but her “pleasure was very much lessened when [she] found some time after that [she] was really with child.” This was very difficult, since she had no friends and no visible husband. The grave gentleman’s divorce proceedings went slowly, which suited her, since she did not want him to see her pregnant. The people where Moll lodged noticed her pregnancy and became rather unfriendly. Moll became ill and melancholy, but did not miscarry – although she would have been glad to, she would not try to on purpose. Finally the woman of the house introduced her to an extraordinary midwife. Moll told her that she was married, but the midwife did not care one way or the other: “all the ladies who came under her care were married women to her.” The midwife invited Moll to move to her house, where the parish authorities would not trouble her – she had an agreement with them that they would not be troubled with the children born there. She then offered Moll the choice of three levels of service, all covering, to a more or less luxurious extent, three months lodging and board, a nurse and use of linen for the birth, a minister, god-fathers, and a clerk for the christening, a supper for the christening, her midwife fees, and the service of a maid. Moll chose the least expensive, which came out to a little more than 13 guineas.
The midwife (referred to as Moll’s governess) turned out to have a number of lines of work, mostly not respectable. The ladies who lodged and gave birth in her house were mostly whores, and although she did not permit assignations in the house, it seemed probable that she was a madam and oversaw their illicit activities. She would also officiate at births outside of her house, and for a sum of money would take the child of the hands of the parents and of the parish. It is not clear what happened to these children, although the governess told Moll that they “were honestly provided for and taken care of.” The governess also implied that she would be willing to abort Moll’s child, which scandalized our heroine. Moll was hard put at first to see where her governess made a profit, but gradually came to understand that “the whoring account” made up for what she lost in providing cheap services for unmarried mothers. She was on all accounts an excellent and efficient madam.
In May, before Moll gave birth she heard from the grave gentleman that he had almost obtained the divorce. She put him off with some scruples, and wrote to him that she would return around the end of the year. About a month after Moll’s child was born, the gentleman wrote again and said that, not only had the divorce come through, but also his estranged wife had committed suicide, thus unquestionably freeing him to marry again. Moll discussed the matter with her governess: she had to solve the problem of what to do with her baby. At first she did not want to put the child out to nurse, fearing that an unrelated woman would not have the necessary affection to take care of the child correctly. Her governess convinced her that by paying a little extra money each year, she would be able to assure herself of the child’s well-being: the foster parents would be motivated by the money to take care of the baby tenderly. (This was an alternative to paying the foster family a lump sum, which Moll feared would make them want to get rid of the child as soon as possible.) Thus Moll gave the baby to a countrywoman, along with 10 guineas down and the promise of 5 more each year, if it continued in good health.
Moll’s governess is an impressive figure who poses a challenge to Moll’s ideas and to the reader’s as well. In one sense, her organized vice threatens everything commonly thought of as good. She is so hardened as to be immune, apparently, to feelings of guilt or affection – the feelings, in fact, which in the conventional scheme of morality ideally motivate most human actions. What is so disturbing about her is not simply this inhumanity – cruel and remorseless villains are stock figures – but rather the fact that she is living proof that financial motivations work as well, if not better, than emotional ones. Moll’s narrative is full of references to her governess’ kind behavior: full example, once the woman sent her a roast chicken and a bottle of sherry, which she thought “surprisingly good and kind.” This seeming kindness is not the result of the governess’ affection for Moll; it is part of her business plan. By the same logic, the governess tells Moll that she need not scruple to give her baby to strangers: a stranger, motivated by money, will be just as loving as a natural mother. Economics can now dictate morality.
The obvious question is how much Defoe supports this perspective. The answer is complicated: the governess’ case is good enough that we cannot simply reject it with horror. Indeed, the same philosophy is routinely employed today, when the government seeks to encourage charitable behavior with tax reductions, etc. However, the governess’ implicit suggestion that ordinary loving human relationships can be replaced by business contracts without any damage is profoundly disturbing. Moll shivers and turns pale, naturally enough, when she has this conversation with her: “She asked me if she had not been careful and tender to me in my lying in, as if I had been her own child. I told her I owned she had. ‘Well, my dear,’ says she, ‘and when you are gone, what are you to me? And what would it be to me if you were to be hanged? . Yes, yes, child,’ says she, ‘fear it not; how were we nursed ourselves? Are you sure you was nursed up by your own mother? and yet you are fat and fair, child.” Her hypnotic speech and uncanny knowledge are convincing, but, like Moll, we do not want to succumb.
Defoe forces the reader to think and doubt preconceived notions, but does not provide clear answers to the questions he has posed: is the governess right? Is she entirely wrong?
Part 11: Moll Marries the Grave Gentleman and is Good
Moll cautiously traveled part of the way to Lancashire in the north, before taking the stage back to meet the grave gentleman. This also allowed her to hide her path from her governess. Her gentleman met her at Brickhill, and said that they would spend the night in a good inn there. Moll realized that he was planning to get married that very night, and although she made objections when he told her so, she let herself be convinced by the divorce papers, a pretty ring, and some ardent protestations on his part. She felt guilty to be marrying such a sober man when she had led such a disreputable life. They were married privately and didn’t get up till noon the next day. Then Moll was frightened to see her Lancashire husband (apparently no longer in Ireland) go into the inn opposite with two other horsemen. She was afraid her bigamy would be discovered, and was relieved to see the horsemen leave. That evening people arrived with news that there had been a robbery, and that three highwaymen had passed that way. Moll managed to divert suspicion from her Lancashire husband by saying that he was a respectable gentleman. A few days later Moll and her new husband went to London.
There the couple lived happily for five years. Moll lived quietly and repented her wicked past, or thought she did. She had only two children, and was by the end of the five years 48, and past the age of motherhood. Unfortunately then her husband’s business failed when a clerk absconded with the money. Her husband did not recover from the disappointment, and fell into a lethargy and died. Moll was terrified: she had little beauty or money. For two years she slowly spent what she had, living in fear and misery.
In this part, and especially the one which follows, in which Moll begins a life of crime, it becomes increasingly obvious that virtue is closely linked to prosperity and security. As long as Moll has a comfortable income and prospects of continued stability, she glories in respectability: “Now I seemed landed in a safe harbour, after the stormy voyage of life past was at an end, and I began to be thankful for my deliverance. I sat many an hour by myself, and wept over the remembrance of past follies, and the dreadful extravagances of a wicked life, and sometimes I flattered myself that I sincerely repented.” The natural relief that Moll feels at having escaped the perils of the adventurous life is easily confused with the relief of no longer needing to sin. Through the social implications of Moll’s experiences, Defoe is encouraging his readers not to judge criminals and sinners too harshly, without considering the differences between their positions and those of more respectable folk.
This message is strengthened by the reaction of Moll’s sober husband to the failure of his business. Although he is a pattern of virtue while he does well, he does not have the necessary moral energy to save himself or his family when his clerk runs off with the money. Moll, an extremely energetic person who had risen under numerous misfortunes, was well aware of this: “the loss. was not so great neither but that, if he had had spirit and courage to have looked his misfortunes in the face, his credit was so good that, as I told him, he would easily recover it.” His virtue seems to be strong, but is only useful when he is already in a good financial position, and does not prevent him from weakly abandoning his family and dying. Perhaps a genuinely good person would combine both his principles, and Moll’s energy – but would such a combination be possible? It seems that Moll’s determination to live is directly related to her willingness to sin to that end. Does Defoe really believe in the possibility of true goodness?
Part 12: Moll Becomes a Thief
Finally, terrified by the prospect of approaching penury, Moll went out and stole a little bundle left unattended on a stool in a shop. She walked at random for quite a while, then returned home and found that the bundle contained some good linen, some silver, and money. She was distressed and felt guilty, but finally went out, a few days later, to steal again. She met a pretty little child wearing her mother’s necklace, going home from dancing school by herself, and tricked her into an alley, where she removed the necklace unseen. She was briefly tempted to kill the child, but, frightened by her own thought, sent the girl home safely. She comforted herself by thinking that the child was safe and sound, and that her parents would be more careful of her in the future. After this she had a number of other adventures: among other things, she once acquired a packet of silk and velvet that a thief, being pursued, tossed to her. She also broke a pane of glass and stole two rings left on the window-sill inside, after checking that no one was there.
Moll went to see her old governess to find a way to sell her stolen goods. Her governess was no longer a flourishing madam – she had been sued by a gentleman whose daughter she had helped to steal away from him – and had turned pawnbroker instead. She said that she would see Moll’s goods. For a while Moll lived with her making her living by sewing, and made arrangements for her youngest son’s care. Soon, however, she was tempted again and stole a silver tankard. She told her governess what she had done, and it became clear that her governess was not just a pawnbroker, but a leader of thieves and a receiver of stolen goods as well. She introduced Moll to a thief who taught her shoplifting and stealing ladies’ gold watches. They worked together and did very well: the experienced thief would bump into a lady from one side, and Moll stole her watch from the other. While the other thief and the victim calmed down, Moll would disappear, and her teacher would deflect attention onto other people.
Soon Moll had near 200 guineas, but she kept on with her dishonest work, hoping to make enough to be able to retire. She had a fright when her teacher and another thief were caught. They both claimed to be pregnant, and one was eventually freed during the reprieve that bought them, but Moll’s teacher was hanged, since she was an old offender. Moll stopped stealing until one day, when a gentlewoman’s house was on fire. She went to the house, pretending to have been sent by another gentlewoman of the same neighborhood, and offered to help. The harried lady gave her two young children and a packet of silver to bring to safety. Moll brought the children to the nearby gentlewoman’s house, and kept the packet, which proved to contain some gold as well, including the lady’s wedding ring. Moll felt guilty, but it wore off.
This section contains many descriptions of acts of theft and deception. There is not a great deal of character development: we hear that Moll felt guilty but became hardened to her new life, which seems natural and not particularly striking. Instead, the interest here lies within the descriptions themselves: Defoe is revealing tricks, against which his readers will learn to defend themselves. He makes this much clear in the prologue, where he claims these descriptions as evidence of his moral intent. It is probably clear by now that, although Moll Flanders does carry a moral message, it is not the straightforward one advertised by the prologue. Defoe’s readers are not learning what a terrible thing thievery is, but rather useful skills for how to avoid being victims of it – or maybe even how to engage in it themselves. The eighteenth-century reader of novels was interested in many things.
On a historical level, it is interesting to note how much value is given to things: people like Moll routinely risk their lives in order to steal a piece of velvet or silk. Before the era of industrialization, the production of objects took an immense amount of labor: a piece of cloth could be the result of many hours of work, though stealing it might only take a minute. Even though labor was very cheap, the sheer amount of it which was required to make an object added up to make theft a profitable line of business. For example, the governess bought a lady’s watch that Moll stole for 20 guineas, presumably less than it was worth, since it was stolen; 20 guineas would have supported one of Moll’s children for 4 years. It would be by no means easy for Moll to make a living doing honest work, but she grows rich rapidly as a pickpocket.
The fate of Moll’s children by her sober husband is not clear. In the previous part, she referred to two children, but in this one she only mentions one son, and does so very briefly indeed. Her maternal instincts have apparently somewhat faded.
Part 13: Moll as a Full-Fledged Thief
Moll was by now quite rich, but continued her new trade, motivated more now by avarice than by want. She avoided shops, especially those selling cloth, where the shopkeepers were very watchful. New shops, run by inexperienced people, were thought to be safe, however. Moll worked for a while with a young couple who “robbed together, lay together, were taken together, and at last were hanged together.” She refused to break into a house with them, thinking it too dangerous, and indeed the couple were arrested and hanged, despite their youth.
Moll’s governess found good projects, and divided the booty with the thieves who carried them out. In one of these, she knew of a good amount of smuggled Flanders lace hidden in a private house. Moll went to a custom-house officer and told him where it was, on condition that she should get her share of it. They went to the house and she hid 50 guineas of it on her person while taking it out of its hiding place, and also bargained for another 50 openly with the officer. There was about 300 worth in all. Moll liked this line of work – safer than stealing watches – and engaged in it whenever she could.
After five years of thievery, Moll became an adept and well-known thief, incurring the envy of some of her colleagues. She was first called Moll Flanders, the name she adopted as a pseudonym.
Dressed as a man, she worked with a young fellow shoplifting for a while, until they were surprised and pursued after he insisted on a risky job. The man was taken. Moll fled to her governess’ house and changed into woman’s clothes, so that she was pretending to sew and mind a child when the constables came to search. The young man tried to gain favor by revealing his accomplice, but was unable to locate the person he thought was “Gabriel Spencer” (Moll never told him she was a woman). Moll left town for a few weeks and lay low. Despite her wealth, and the danger of her trade, she continued to steal.
Once she stole a fine piece of damask and entrusted it to a comrade, who was taken shortly thereafter, while Moll hid in a lace shop. Moll was sorry for the poor woman, who tried to improve her position by saying that a Mrs. Flanders had given her the bundle to carry home. The authorities could not find Moll, since she was careful never to tell anyone her true name, or where she lodged, or anything that could endanger her. The other woman was transported instead of being hanged. By this time everyone who had known Moll Flanders by that name was either hanged or transported, except for her old governess, so she was relatively comfortable and secure.
Moll Flanders was an exceptionally successful thief because of the precautions she took: she never revealed more about herself than absolutely necessary, protecting herself from incriminating witnesses, and she avoided jobs that she considered too clumsy and dangerous. The necessary lack of trust which results from leading an immoral or illegal life does not seem to burden her too much, but she evidently makes no new close friends during this period of her life. She does not appear to be particularly happy either: she lives in fear of being taken or betrayed, and her successes are tainted by remorse.
Moll’s profits off smuggled Flanders lace were indirectly caused by the trade wars between England and the Netherlands during this period. Both countries were important naval powers which derived much of their wealth from trade, and hence came into conflict. They struggled for dominance over profitable shipping routes, fought naval battles, and England imposed many punitive restrictions on Dutch goods, apparently including Flanders lace. The Netherlands did well in spite of British hostilities until 1670, when Britain and France joined together against the Dutch republic, ultimately ending its golden age.
Part 14: Moll Has a Lover – a Glance at Harlotry
During Bartholomew Fair Moll met a rich gentleman who fell to talking with her, and finally invited her into a coach with him. After some resistance, she agreed, and soon found out that he was quite drunk and in an amorous frame of mind. They went to an inn he knew, and he “did what he pleased with” her. Then they went in the coach again, where the gentleman eventually fell asleep. Moll quietly left, taking along his gold watch, purse, periwig, gloves, and sword. She thought his behavior ridiculous – she was, after all, over fifty, and he probably had a loving wife and children at home. In any case she thought that drunken men who went to whores were behaving stupidly: even during the act, the women were motivated by avarice rather than pleasure, and would pick their clients’ pockets if they could. One acquaintance of Moll’s even kept a purse of fake coins and a gilded watch with her so she could exchange them for the real objects during her clients’ distraction. Besides losing their money, men who went to whores risked catching “the pox,” syphilis, which they would then transmit to their wives, who would give birth to congenitally infected children
Moll’s governess thought she knew the gentleman, and went to see him. He was pretending that he had been robbed, and hadn’t told his wife about Moll – he wasn’t eager for the truth to get out. The governess discreetly offered to sell him back his lost possessions, and did so – except Moll sent back the sword for free. He was, by and large, a pleasant and harmless baronet, who didn’t blame Moll for her theft, especially since the governess told him that Moll was an innocent and impoverished widow who had never slept with anyone besides her husband. In fact, the gentleman wanted to see Moll again, so the governess set them up, and Moll spent the next year safely living off what he occasionally gave her. Then, as she expected, he tired of the affair and did not return, so Moll took up her old trade.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, prostitution was widespread in London. This was probably the result of a social system in which poor women could hardly make an honest living, and completely lost their reputations if they were seduced, thus making it almost impossible to get an honest job. A “fallen woman” had little choice but to remain on the ground. Also, men could not engage in extramarital sex with respectable women, and commonly married late.
Moll’s meditation on the lack of se