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 detail 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 your 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 publish the individual stories of the adventures of Moll’s governess in crime, and her highwayman husband. He concludes that Moll Flanders lived some years after her narrative ends, and died a wealthy woman, though she was not consistently repentant for her former misdeeds.
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 established 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 here is quite clear: as I said earlier, novels were commonly thought to be frivolous and a bad influence. A novel like Moll Flanders, which enthusiastically recounts all kinds of misdeeds, was in great danger of being condemned on moral grounds. If Defoe could reinvent it as a useful and edifying work, he would profit.
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.
It is true however that the novel offers helpful tips on how to avoid theft, by carefully describing Moll’s techniques.
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, brought her up very carefully. When Moll was eight the magistrates decided she was old enough to work for a living as a servant, but Moll hated the idea: she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to do the work and would be beaten. Instead she wanted to be a „gentlewoman,“ by which she understood making her living doing spinning and needlework. Her adopted mother kindly decided to keep her. The Mayor was informed, and his wife and two daughters were amused by the stubborn little „gentlewoman,“ and befriended her. She spent a year with them, then returned to her nurse before they had time to get tired of her. Moll liked living like a real gentlewoman (she understood the work better now). Unfortunately when she was a little over fourteen, her nurse fell sick and died.
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
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,
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.