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Reviewing One of the First English Novels

How do you review a book that is 300 years old? The grammar, punctuation, and narrative structure are not like anything we see in today's novels.

Moll Flanders (1722) is written in the first person and reads like a journal entry that is a bit of a stream-of-consciousness-run-on-sentence. In fact, upon its publication the novel appeared without an author as it was marketed as a true autobiography. The synopsis of the book even gives away all the scandalous plot points right away:

"... twelve years a whore, five times a wife (whereof once to her brother), twelve years a thief, eight year a transported felon in Virginia, at last grew rich, liv'd honest, and died a penitent."

In fact, Moll is married, or almost married, so many times that the Wikipedia entry on the novel has a very handy chart of her partners and children.

It may seem strange to modern readers that Moll has many children but is not involved in the raising of them after she has parted with their father. A general twenty-first century view is that in divorce proceedings the mother is provided primary custody of children. However, this was not the case during Moll's time. Children were considered property of the husband and it fell to them to raise the next generation to take over the family land and fortune. In fact, this is one of the major legal inequalities Mary Wollstonecraft railed against during her lifetime.

Moll Flanders was eventually attributed to Daniel Defoe, known for his novel Robinson Crusoe (1719). Supposedly the protagonist Moll Flanders is based on the life of a real Newgate prisoner, Moll King, who Defoe met. There are a few echos of King's crimes in the novel such as stealing a gold watch on the steps of a church, learning pick-pocketing from a more experienced thief, getting arresting for attempting to steal from a house, and the final sentence of being transported to the colonies.

Like many eighteenth century texts, there is a spiritual thread that runs through Moll Flanders that positions the protagonist's experiences as a moral lesson to be mulled over by the impressionable reader. Repeatedly, Moll speaks directly to the reader asking them to consider her circumstances:

"I am not capable of reading Lectures of Instruction to any Body, but I relate this in the very manner in which things then appear'd to me, as far as I am able; but infinitely short of the lively impressions which they made on my soul at that time; indeed those Impressions are not to be explain'd by words, or if they are, I am not Mistress of Words enough to express them; It must be the Word of every sober Reader to make just Reflections on them, as their own Circumstances may direct" (Defoe 288).

Given the moral aspect of the novel, the reader can excuse some of the more sensational episodes in the story in order to analyze the bigger picture Defoe is getting at: morality needs to be flexible in order to address circumstances but at its base there are fundamental things that are right and wrong (see the episode where Moll finds out she's married her brother...).

Worth the Read?

Despite the seemingly random capitalization, colloquial phrasing, and sometimes awkward storytelling, the text itself isn't difficult to read. There is very little regional dialect to sound out and events are linked one to the next clearly for the reader to follow along.

A feminist reading of the text is unavoidable and greatly enriches the experience of reading the novel. It is also interesting that Defoe took on the voice of a female protagonist and presents a number of what would have been very feminist ideas throughout the text, including a realistic portrayal of how women could earn their own money at the time. While in many instances the reader may consider Moll lucky given certain things that happen to her (or don't happen to her), she is also a female character that is self-sufficient, confident, and adaptable. In addition, Defoe crafts a narrative that almost entirely avoids Moll falling into prostitution, although it is often mentioned as the last resort for many women of 'low circumstances'.

This novel will likely be of interest to those who are captivated by the evolution of the English novel as a storytelling vehicle or the historical social and gendered aspects of the text. However, it likely won't be required reading outside of an eighteenth century-specific syllabus. If it piques your interest, definitely check out a second hand bookstore as they are bound to have a copy or two.


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