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!