Moll begins with her birth and infancy as she understands it: she was born to a convicted thief in Newgate Prison, who “bled her belly” and was allowed to live until her baby (our titular character) was born. This is the story of Moll’s life, from gypsy infant to favorite child of a widow running a school for small girls, to the charity case in a rich family’s house where she is the elder brother’s mistress and then the younger brother’s wife. This first husband dies young and she leaves the family, starting afresh with a new husband who flees bankruptcy and debtor’s prison, telling her to make her own way and feel free to remarry. This leads her to a third husband, and now it begins to get really juicy: after traveling to Virginia together to farm a plantation, Moll gets to know her mother-in-law and discovers in horror that she is… her own mother. Moll has married her brother, and born him three children. At this point (after some drama) she returns alone to England.
Moll is befriended at Bath by a man who becomes her lover, and she his kept woman, until his near death causes him to repent his adultery and leaves her again shifting for herself. She is courted by an eligible banker – well, he will be eligible as soon as his divorce comes through… but in the meantime, marries a handsome man named Jemmy for his fortune as well as for the affection she feels for him. But she’s not yet to be happy: theirs is a union of double trickery, in which everyone loses, for he has married her for her (nonexistent) fortune as well, and gone into debt courting her, to boot. They part, and Jemmy, like husband number two, releases her to remarry if she finds a good option; but they share some loving moments, and he says he hopes to find her again one day when he’s made a (real) fortune.
At this point Moll intends to return to her banker, now divorced, but finds she is pregnant with Jemmy’s baby, so she takes a quick respite at the house of a woman she calls Mother Midnight. This woman is competent and caring, but criminal in her business of birthing unwanted and illegitimate babies and then disposing of them. After Moll has seen her child into adoption, she does marry the banker, and gets five years or so out of him before he dies. At this point I count five husbands, three of whom are still living, and my entirely casual count gives her something like 10 or 12 children, none of whom she has maintained a relationship with (the latest, the banker’s, she has Mother Midnight pass on). She is, again, destitute, and turns to petty theft and finally back to her friend Mother Midnight for help. This matron takes pleasure in training Moll in the fine arts of pickpocketing and conning, and the two become fast friends and make a fine living together; for the longest period yet, Moll is without male companionship and seems perfectly satisfied, indicating that her liaisons were more for the sake of financial security than anything else, although she has certainly enjoyed herself sexually as well. (There is a brief interlude of prostitution, in the most respectable manner, with a solitary high-class client.)
Moll’s criminal career goes smoothly; she is very good and very lucky. But her name (that is, her alias, “Moll Flanders” – we never know her real name) becomes well-known, and Newgate Prison, place of her birth, looms. Eventually, of course, she is captured, tried, and given a life sentence. During her time in Newgate, which she describes as the hellish place I have no doubt it was, she repents her life of sin (“a horrid complication of wickedness, whoredom, adultery, incest, lying, theft; and, in a word, everything but murder and treason”) and finds God. Eventually, with the ongoing friendship of Mother Midnight on the outside, Moll’s sentence is commuted to transportation, meaning she will be sent overseas into the New World, as was her mother. As a final coincidence, she is reunited with Jemmy, husband number four and rather a true love, who is imprisoned and also facing death for highway robbery. Things are worked out so that they travel together into the New World, where they start fresh with Moll’s still-considerable criminal savings. She meets the son of her incestuous brother-marriage, inherits a plantation from her mother, and continues to repent her days of wickedness. She and Jemmy, at the time of her supposed writing of these memoirs, have resettled in England with great fortune and happiness in their old age.
It is a heck of a narrative: entertaining, spicy, lusty, juicy, well-told. There are interjected moral moments: I am amused to note that I’m that audience member Moll worries about, more tickled by her transgressions than moved by her repentance. As a story of her life, I find it diverting, and an interesting look into 17th century England, particularly the difficulties of being a woman without substantial fortune and male relatives to look after her – which good luck would have come with its own tribulations. As my edition’s notes repeatedly explained, Defoe himself spent a few years in Newgate Prison, and could write both passionately and accurately about the horrors of that place.
I read a “Barnes and Noble Classics” paperback, and found it, if anything, over-notated. Some of the helpful hints seemed aimed at a reader who had never ventured out of 20th and 21st century literature before; it was elementary for me, but no harm done. If you’re comfortable reading 18th century writings, I see no need for this edition, but it has something to offer if you’re less comfortable with some of the usages of that time. The introduction makes a case for Defoe writing possibly the first English novel – that was definitely a point of interest.
I enjoyed this book, and think it has an important place in classic lit: it both moralizes and sensationalizes, and entertains to boot. Moll is a rather outrageous character and I like her very much. Her spunk and determination to take care of herself presage Scarlett O’Hara, and her freedom with her own sexuality recalls Madame Bovary and Lady Chatterley somewhat. Yet another banned book, of course, if you’re looking for a read for upcoming Banned Books Week! (That’s Sept. 30 – Oct. 6.)