Moll Flanders

Moll Flanders by Daniel DefoeFull Title: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders
Author: Daniel Defoe
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics (2009) [First published under Oxford World’s Classics 1981, written 1722]
Number of Pages: 343 (with introduction)
How long it took me to read: 1 week
Where I bought this book: Age UK shop, Lymington, Hampshire
ISBN: 978-0-19-955607-6

Like a Moth to a Flame

Moll Flanders was the first book on the reading list for my MA Creative Writing course, which began last week, that I managed to find.  I bought it from a charity shop—called ‘Age UK’—while on holiday in the New Forest.  In something of a double coincidence, it was not only the first book we were asked to read, but also the oldest.  The course tutor told us, casually, to get through it all by next week’s lesson. This would have been challenge enough for someone like me, who usually takes his time with books, but given the archaic nature of the language involved, it was like being asked to swim the English Channel with my hands tied together and a five-ton weight strapped to my back.  Still, I wrestled my way through the entire text with a miraculous 8 hours to spare, only for the lesson to be called off because of a bomb threat. In Cambridge. Possibly the most pastoral, inoffensive city in England. This just about confirmed my suspicions that Defoe designed Moll Flanders to be an integral part of some unfathomable cosmic joke.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “…a Secret of Moment should always have a Confident, a bosom Friend, to whom we may Communicate the Joy of it, or the Grief of it, be it which it will, or it will be a double weight upon the Spirits, and perhaps become even insupportable in itself…” (p.325)

4. “…having thus acquainted my Husband with the whole Secret so far as was needful to him…” (p.329)

3. “…yet the Resolution I had formerly taken of leaving off this horrid Trade, when I had gotten a little more, did not return; but I must still get farther, and more; and the Avarice join’d so with the Success, that I had no more thoughts of coming to a timely Alteration of Life; tho’ without it I cou’d expect no Safety, no Tranquility in the Possession of what I had so wickedly gain’d; but a little more, and a little more, was the Case still.”  (p.207)

2. “…but finding it all Darkness on every Side, he flyes to the same Relief again, (viz.) to Drink it away, Debauch it away, and falling into Company of Men in just the same Condition with himself, he repeats the Crime, and thus he goes every Day one Step onward of his way to Destruction.” (p.65)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “THIS Knowledge I soon learnt by Experience, (viz.) That the State of things was altered, as to Matrimony, and that I was not to expect at London, what I had found in the Country; that Marriages were here the Consequences of politick Schemes, for forming Interests, and carrying on Business, and that LOVE had no Share, or but very little in the Matter.” (p.67)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: equipage (noun)

Definition (Source: 1) a carriage; 2) a carriage drawn by horses and attended by servants; 3) outfit, as of a ship, an army, or a soldier; equipment; 4a) [archaic] a set of small household articles, as of china; 4b) a collection of articles for personal ornament or use
Synonyms: as above
Origins: 1570–80; < Middle French; see equip-age
As in: “…his Income sufficient to a plentiful way of Living in the ordinary way; I do not say to keep an Equipage, and make a Figure as the World calls it…” (p.189)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Defoe’s preface to the story immediately lends his protagonist a sense of being ‘real’ by claiming it was her choice, as author, to withhold her true name.  Will his writing of her substantiate or dissipate this attempted illusion?”

“Our protagonist shows herself to be independent and wilful at an early age—orphaned, less than three years old and demanding to be left in town by a group of Gypsies, having ‘wandr’d among’ them.’ (p.9)  It is difficult at this stage to imagine the narrator being an older woman, as she relays the experience of childhood very much as if she were still a child:

‘…and as I thought, I say, that it was fine to be a Gentlewoman, so I lov’d to be among Gentlewomen, and therefore I long’d to be there again.’ (p.16)

“Did she never grow up?  Or is the archaic language suggesting more naïvety than Defoe himself prescribed?  The intended use of language is always a difficult dissonance to resolve with books of a certain age.  For example, the rhythm of her speech: quick, repetitive bursts, staccato and over-punctuated, making even long sentences appear curt and breathy, suggestive of a short attention span.  The narrator appears almost panicked, like a pursued rabbit darting from hole to hole:

‘I WAS now about ten Years old, and began to look a little Womanish, for I was mighty Grave and Humble; very Mannerly, and as I had often heard the Ladies say I was Pretty, and would be a very handsome Woman, so you may be sure, that hearing them say so, made me not a little Proud…’ (p.14)

“Is this characterisation intentional, or is it simply a result of how unnatural over-punctuated speech sounds compared to our modern dialects?  This rhythm also disrupts our ability to understand the events that are being described, suggesting they may be of less importance to Defoe than the depiction of his main character. With hardly any description of location, other characters or objects, such events are also very difficult to imagine—at least, without reverting to one’s own stereotypical ideas on what ‘ye olde times’ looked like.”

“What’s with all the Capitalisation?”

“The main character—I’ll refer to her as Flanders for the sake of argument—is undoubtedly very self-aware and very aware of how others might see her:

‘I do not speak of my own Conceit of myself, but the Opinion of all that knew the Family.’ (p.19)

“Such awareness suggests a woman of some experience.  Is this the experience of the narrator at her present age?  It does not suit the naïve child of the story, who is so mutely unaware that she is being used and lied to.  This seems to contradict my prognosis that the character might never have grown up.  I can only put her earlier tone down to my own misinterpretation of the language.  She appears quite verbose now, and capable of spinning words:

‘BUT that which I was too vain of, was my Ruin, or rather my vanity was the Cause of it.’ (p.19)

“She is more wily than a simple serving girl should be, and expresses a heavy sense of irony that, again, is suggestive of an experienced older woman rather than the easily lead girl in the story.  It is only when backed into a corner (forced by the man she loves to marry his brother in order to salvage her employment with their family) that she suddenly becomes empowered and strikes back: ‘…Your Dear whore, says I, you would have said, if you had gone on…’ (p.39) thus echoing that desperate scurrying animal implied by the rhythm of her speech.”

“Context is everything.  Any comments I make on the character are spurious because I know nothing of the period involved; of the attitudes between mother and child, wife and husband, or any other familial connections in those days, nor of the social circumstances in which different classes of people might have found themselves.  I certainly know nothing of what it was like to be a woman then, and nothing of the author’s experience, knowledge, reliability or, most importantly, his intent.  How, for example, should we interpret Flanders’ attitude towards children?  She doesn’t seem at all concerned at having to give away two children from her first marriage, or that another dies.  They are nothing more than a side thought to her—not even mentioned in the narrative until after the death of her husband and, even then, she is more concerned about how the situation affects her. Yet later on, when faced with having to give away another child, she lectures sternly on the importance of providing for one’s children. Does this make Flanders a hypocrite?  Is it indicative of attitudes towards children at the time?  Or is it a simple continuity error? Perhaps, with books of a certain age, my traditional tactic of ‘going in blind’ will only ever end with me stumbling over my own ignorance.  I need a historian to provide some kind of roadmap for me.”

‘…I made no scruple in my Thoughts, of quitting my honest Citizen, who I was not so much in Love with, as not to leave him for a Richer.’ (pp.140-1)

“This is exactly what she does as well. Despite having complained earlier that London men marry only for their own financial advantage, she deserts her ‘citizen’ and marries the brother of her friend because she thinks he has more wealth. Okay, so hypocrisy is human, but surely she must recognise her u-turn, give it some acknowledgement?  This tale seems to be spun from the most tangled, unwieldy yarn imaginable. Surely this can only be Defoe’s idea of satire?  What else could possess a person to write a book such as this?  Is there something I’m failing to see, some pattern of comprehension my brain is unable to knit together?  Perhaps I am guilty of looking too deeply for meaning, but even without a grand meta-message, I can at least excuse a story when I grasp the reason for its creation, or the sensations it is crafted to provoke, regardless of whether they are to my taste. With Moll Flanders I am failing to understand anything.  At the halfway point, this book feels so alien it might easily have just popped into existence from another dimension.”

“‘Yet, as I look ‘pon it, I can only figure, much as ’tis in my power, that with all intent ’twas only designed to confound.’  That’s not a quote—that’s just the language getting to me.  I am now painfully aware that any meaning I try to cultivate in my mind could, on turning over the next page, be trampled under the thrashing twists and turns of the main protagonist.  Is it about early feminine empowerment?  There are as many examples of her acting weakly, subserviently, towards men, and not just to gain an advantage but because she seems to believe that is her place:

‘I desir’d he would let me be Master in that thing only, and he should govern in everything else…’ (p.157)

“Could it be a satire on the corruptibility of love?  A comment on the exaggerated importance of love?  Or is that just me plastering my own perspective and philosophy over that of the author’s?  Maybe it’s about the universal human need for security and the ironically dangerous situations into which people throw themselves to attain it?  This seems a likely possibility, but to be honest I haven’t a clue.  All my guesses only muddy the surface of this peculiar puddle of fiction.”

“Still, stylistically (for where content is lacking one can hope that style might compensate) the book has opened a treasure chest of infectious rhythms and creatively carved words, so I cannot say it has no value at all to me here, in this distant age.”

“Context is everything.  I will say it again, because it should not be forgotten.  When making notes about a book, or any cultural artefact, no sense will serve you as well as that of hindsight.  The most important context is that of the full work.  A book is not a series of events to be considered as each plays out, but rather a self-contained wave that stretches, curves and leaps through time, and only after one complete read-through can its oscillations begin to be measured.  Moll Flanders, without its second half and the protagonist’s transformation to Master Thief, carves a distinctly different impression.  Once the wave stretches to reveal her true desperation I can begin to guess at Defoe’s intentions with more veracity, although, without further reading around the writer or his age, it will remain nothing more than a guess.  Although I still lean towards the aforementioned idea that Defoe was commenting on the desperate scramble to achieve some kind of security, the message of the book could as easily be ‘Circumstances dictate behaviour: are we really in control?’ or ‘Do what you want – you might just get away with it.”

Gareth Long

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