The Life & Times of Moll Flanders (book review)

Moll – The Life and Times of Moll Flanders, Siân Rees (Chatto & Windus)

When a writer of crime fiction was recently asked in an interview on Radio 4 why she created only women as the main characters in her books she answered it was because there had been so few previous examples. In fact she could recall only two female criminals of any note, one of whom was Moll Flanders.

I would perhaps argue that Moll, who lived her fictional life over three hundred years ago, was anyway not one of the most notorious of criminals. The misunderstanding has largely been created by numerous film and television adaptations that have left us with the image of her as a bawdy wench, living in the Georgian London criminal underworld. Siân Rees states in the introduction to her new book, The Life and Times of Moll Flanders, that one of her aims is to correct those modern misconceptions.

Women relied financially to a far greater extent on their husbands in previous centuries and wives who were abandoned or widowed without money were likely to end up in the gutter. Unfortunate circumstances led Moll to become a serial bigamist and fraud throughout her adult life but it was only due to financial desperation when in her fifties that she finally resorted to petty theft. In truth, all she really longed for was to settle down in a quiet life as a housewife in moderate comfort.

By the time he wrote Moll Flanders Daniel Defoe had led a varied and eventful life. A bankrupt businessman, pamphleteer, wanted man on the run, pilloried, a prisoner in Newgate, newspaper publisher, government spy and journalist, he eventually turned his hand to writing historical studies, biographies and moral family manuals. By then in his late fifties and living in the village of Stoke Newington, Defoe produced the best-seller The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, one of the earliest English-language novels. Further books came thick and fast and in just one year he produced six, one of which was The Adventures and Misadventures of Moll Flanders, published by a Covent Garden bookseller in January of 1722.

Defoe presented all his ‘histories’ as memoirs, Moll included, although it is unlikely that many of his readers would have been deceived into thinking these improbable tales were genuine autobiographies. They were adventures, based on Defoe’s studies and personal experience. Moll Flanders, for example, is partly located in the nascent North American colonies of Virginia, Maryland and Carolina, in which Defoe had particular interest. Moll is born, and is later imprisoned, in London’s notorious Newgate, of which Defoe had first-hand knowledge. The characters of Moll and her associates were probably an amalgam of a number of real-life London criminals and bigamists, as Rees ably demonstrates. Some, from the century before he wrote the work, were possibly known to him via biographical pamphlets.

Moll and her mother lived in England in an age when even minor theft was punishable by a trip to the gallows but both of them in turn were ‘reprieved for Virginia’ – the newly-introduced sentence of transportation. For many it would be a fate worse than hanging: a long, slow and painful death-sentence. Most of those who survived the dangerous journey across the Atlantic were indentured to plantation owners, many toiling long hours under a baking sun in tobacco fields in the decades before the arrival of Negro slaves.

As Defoe recorded in Moll and elsewhere, the 17th and 18th centuries were also a time of widespread corruption, particularly in the justice system, when everyone from the prime-minister down to lowly prison wardens used their official position to line their own pockets. Money could gain privileges in prison; be used to bribe witnesses and magistrates; and for a lucky few arriving by transportation, to buy their freedom.

In the first two sections of her book Siân Rees gives us the bare bones of Defoe’s story. At an early stage we are reminded that, contrary to memory, Moll did not live in the 18th century. Defoe set his novel a hundred years earlier than its publication and it was therefore already historical to his contemporary readers. They would have no need for a lesson in recent history and the novelist concentrates on the adventures of his central character. Rees, on the other hand, gives us a useful and entertaining background into the great events of the 17th century. We also read of the difficulties faced by women of that time, including almost an entire chapter on midwifery and child-birth, and of the criminal underworld. Parts of her book inform us of the early days of the first English settlements in North America. We are provided with fine descriptions of the various places at which Moll spends time, including the maritime Thames-side village of Ratcliff (Rotherhithe), Colchester, the liberty of the Mint at Southwark, pre-Georgian Bath, and the hamlet of Hammersmith, as well as the aforementioned Newgate.

The final part of the book includes a brief biography of Daniel Defoe. Rees concludes with the life of a woman – also named Moll – she speculates was the main inspiration for Flanders. A contemporary of Defoe, she lived a life of petty crime and was transported to America on several occasions, each time finding her way back to London. Rees believes that Defoe may have even interviewed her during one of her spells in Newgate.

This is a well-written and entertaining book that will appeal to lovers of history of the 17th and 18th centuries, whether or not they have read Defoe’s original novel. Historical explanations are light and engaging rather than academic, written clearly and concisely and with just enough detail to maintain interest. Although a relatively short work it covers so much ground that even those with a broad knowledge of English history are likely to discover something of interest in its pages.

First published by London Historians, September 2011.