Daniel Defoe may be best known for his “Robinson Crusoe”, but he was apparently a prolific writer and his second entry on the List is no light-weight. “Moll Flanders” was published three years later and is in many ways a very different novel, though it shares two central properties with “Robinson Crusoe”: Both are written in first person pretending to be written by the main character and secondly the amount of detail and background knowledge included is staggering. Defoe did not do things halfways.
In “Moll Flanders” Defoe writes from a woman’s perspective, which in itself must have been challenging, especially since it feels very authentic. This is an age were gender roles were far more clearly defined than today and the reality of women would have been quite different from what men had to deal with. The central character narrates the story from her old age as a sort of confession on a sinful, but spectacular life. She is a penitent, yet beneath all her protestations we do sense a pride because Moll is a survivor and survive is what she has done through all the challenges and hardships she has been facing.
On paper she seems to have been a terrible person. She has been married five times, once with her own brother, she has been a prostitute and a thief, imprisoned and transported to America, a common way in those days to get rid of criminals, and she had several children with several men of which she only recognized one of them, and that after he became an adult.
However, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Moll is rarely to blame for her situation. She is trying to make the best out of difficult situations and things just sort of happens. One thing she does learn is to trust no one completely. I doubt she tells anybody the full story of her herself, instead she keeps certain parts of her situation, funds or background hidden. This often makes her come about as dishonest, but really, she has simply learned the hard way to be cautious.
It is a thoroughly interesting story that moves surprisingly fast despite the high level of detail. The section where she becomes a thief may be the most spectacular, and it is, but I was very interested in her many relationships and how she got into them. That gave a surprising insight into the social dynamics of the era so different from our own.
If there was one thing I did not quite understand it was her casual attitude towards her children. Even if some of them died early she must have had several children around that she seems to care little about. Those from her first marriage we hear nothing about. The one she got as a courtesan she keeps until he is five and then he disappears. With her Lancashire husband she has a child which is raised by foster parents that she pays every year, yet when she is together with him again the child is not an item. And what about the children she had with the banker?
It does not detract from the general impression though that this is a captivating read and a story full on the same scale as “Robinson Crusoe”.
This is actually a reread of the book. I did read it years ago, the first book on the list where this is the case, and I was surprised how much of the story I had forgotten and how much better I found the book this time. It may be that reading all this old stuff primes me for reading this. Or I just get smarter with age, though that is questionable.
A highly recommended read.