Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

This 1722 classic by Daniel Defoe is not a book I was planning to read this year, if at all; I’m not really a fan of 18th century literature (I prefer the Victorians) and I should really be concentrating on the classics on my Classics Club list anyway. Then I noticed that it was being serialised by Pigeonhole in daily instalments and I was tempted – although I ended up just reading it on my own, at my own pace. Although it’s not a particularly long book (by 18th century standards), my progress through it was very slow at first, until I hit a point somewhere near the middle where I became more engaged with the story and then flew through the rest of it.

Considering that this is one of the very earliest novels in the English language, it’s surprisingly readable, although like other early authors, Defoe never uses one word if he can use fifty and doesn’t bother with things like chapter breaks either. However, with a bit of concentration it’s easy enough to follow what is happening and I certainly found reading this book a more enjoyable experience than, for example, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa!

It’s difficult to know how much I can say about the plot without spoiling it. I find that publishers of classic novels often give away too much on the back cover or in an introduction, but in my reviews I prefer to treat them like any other book and assume that readers know nothing about the story and don’t want me to tell them exactly what’s going to happen. Having said that, the full title of this particular novel, along with Defoe’s own preface, do give quite a detailed outline of the plot, so be aware!

I think I can safely tell you that our narrator, Moll Flanders (not her real name, but one she is given much later on), is born in Newgate Prison to a woman who is convicted of theft and transported to Virginia, leaving Moll to be raised by a foster mother. What follows is the story of Moll’s ‘fortunes and misfortunes’ as she reaches adulthood, has several marriages (some happy and some disastrous), gives birth to many children, most of whom are never mentioned again, falls into poverty and is drawn into a life of crime. Although Moll does some terrible things, whether she is driven to this by necessity or whether she could have chosen a different path is open to interpretation. Either way, she never quite loses her compassion and sense of humour and you can’t help but hope that she’ll find some happiness in the end.

What is certain is that the world Moll lives in is not an easy one for an unmarried, working class woman to navigate. It’s not hard to see why she places so much importance on finding a rich husband and why, when for one reason or another each marriage fails, she searches for other ways to survive. I found it interesting that Defoe chose to write a novel like this, from a female perspective, and that, although there’s obviously a moral to the story, he did seem to have a lot of sympathy with Moll’s situation. It’s also interesting that the novel is actually set in the 17th century rather than the 18th, something I hadn’t even been aware of until I came to the end where we are told that Moll had written this account of her life in the year 1683, at the age of around seventy.

Although I can’t say that I loved this book or that it’s become a favourite classic, I’m pleased I’ve read it. Maybe I’ll read something else by Daniel Defoe one day, but first I really need to concentrate on finishing my Classics Club list!

22 thoughts on “Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

    • Helen says:

      My problem with Richardson was the repetitiveness – you could read 100 pages and the plot hadn’t moved forward at all! I found this book a lot more entertaining.

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    Interesting! I was going through a stack of classics just yesterday that have been waited to be read (their whispers are definitely getting louder!) and this was one of the books in the pile. I have a few by Defoe that I’ve been meaning to ‘get around to’, maybe this one needs to be scheduled in. It’ll definitely be the oldest novel I’ve ever read…

    Oh, and I did chuckle about the 50 words where one would’ve done comment. I guess back then, with so few books being published and nothing else (like TV or movies) to compete for your time, a verbose author was a *good* thing.

    • Helen says:

      I have read Don Quixote, which is a bit older, but I’m sure this is the earliest English language novel I’ve read. I hope you enjoy it, whenever you eventually get around to it. And yes, I suppose people probably wanted their books as long as possible in those days!

  2. Karen K. says:

    I read this a few years ago (via audiobook, which always helps) and was surprised by how much I liked it, and definitely prefer it to Robinson Crusoe. Moll is definitely an anti-hero but it’s quite entertaining. There’s also a decent TV adaptation from 1996 which stars Alex Kingston and Daniel Craig who looks hilarious in a full-bottomed wig.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t often listen to audiobooks, but I think that format would work well for this kind of book. I was surprised by how enjoyable it was too. I’ll have to watch that adaptation if I get a chance!

  3. whatmeread says:

    I am fairly sure that I read this long ago, and my recollection is that you’re right, it’s much more entertaining than, say, the other book DeFoe is known for, Robinson Crusoe, and than some of the manners-based novels from this period.

  4. Lark says:

    I’ve never been able to make myself read this one; I find books written in that time period a bit of a challenge. But I love your review of it, and understand now a little better what it’s all about. And who knows? Maybe someday I’ll be in the mood to give it a try. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Books from this period are definitely challenging, but this one was a bit easier than some of the others I’ve read. You do need to be in the right mood for books like this, I think!

  5. Laurie @ RelevantObscurity says:

    I wanted to like this book. I have a great love for A Journal of the Plague Year and wanted to read something else by him. But I’m afraid I dnfed it. It was such a slog. If memory serves I was in a hurry to finish it and that is never a good thing. Your review makes me question that decision, though. Hmmm.

    • Helen says:

      I did find it a bit of a slog at the beginning, but once I got into it I found it much more enjoyable. I’ll have to try A Journal of the Plague Year.

  6. FictionFan says:

    I haven’t read it, and like you I really prefer the Victorians to these earlier novelists. But I second Set in the Past’s comment – the adaptation with Alex Kingston was fun, if you ever find the time or the inclination to watch it!

  7. mallikabooks15 says:

    One HAS to read Robinson Crusoe by him of course 😀 Moll Flanders is on my list mostly since reading a nonfic on transportation last year which mentioned her real-life counterpart Moll King. I had vague ideas of attempting to get to it this year since it turns 300 but I think I’d probably end up reading Journal of a Plague Year which also turns 300.

    • Helen says:

      I did start to read Robinson Crusoe years ago, but I don’t think I ever finished it and I was probably too young to fully appreciate it then anyway. I’ll try it again one day, but I would like to read Journal of a Plague Year too.

      • mallikabooks15 says:

        I actually don’t think I’ve ever read Robinson Crusoe in it’s full version, probably just one of those childrens eds when I was in school. But after Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone got me interested since Gabriel Betteridge in it treats RC almost like a bible. The answers to all his questions emerge from there.

        Plague year seems even more relevant in current circumstances

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