Daniel Defoe led a long and varied life. Born in London in 1660 to a family of religious dissenters, he lived through the plague years and the Great Fire, before entering business. He became at first financially successful, but his involvement in politics, when he became allied with Queen Mary and King William, and engaged in espionage activity, which unfortunately adversely affected his French trading business. He fell into debt, was arrested and imprisoned, but was released and was soon back in business.
He started writing in the 1690s, not long after William and Mary’s ascension to the crown, and his focus was on political and social advocacy, not fiction. After William died in 1702, and Queen Anne took the throne, Defoe wound up in trouble because of his nonconformist religion and Anne’s devotion to the Anglican church. He continued to publish against Anne’s attempt to close down religious opposition, but he was identified and arrested for sedition. He was convicted, put in the public pillory for three days and then sent to Newgate Prison. He was released under promise of serving the government, which he did, but eventually again apparently cleverly acting as a double agent in writing his political tracts.
At the same time, he acted as a journalist, one of the first to cover day to day activities and began to write fiction. And of course it is his fiction that he is today best known for. Yet what is interesting is that, although his writing career lasted over 50 years, he wrote fiction over only five years, from 1719 to 1724. During this time, he wrote several novels, including Robinson Crusoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, Moll Flanders and Roxana.
I just finished reading “The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders”, a picaresque story of, yes the fortunes and misfortunes of Moll Flanders (OK, that wasn’t her real name).
Moll Flanders is a very clever woman. Abandoned at a young age when her mother is taken to prison, she was taken in by a woman of some means, first as a sort of servant, but as time went by more and more like a family member, largely because of her charm and intelligence. Her mistress had two sons – she was friendly to both, but clearly favored the younger and she him. They talked marriage (and willingness to forgo family objection, which might not have been too strong in any event) and were ready to expose their secret, when the older brother expresses his love and asks her hand in marriage. She goes to her “fiance” and asks what she should do, and he surprisingly tells her to accept his brother’s proposal, as he is the older. We will always be together and friends, he tells her. And, heartbroken, she accepts her proposal of a man to whom she is indifferent, and marries him, only to see him die nine years later (and to see the younger brother married to someone else).
On her own, she meets another man and enters into what seems to be a happy marriage and she eventually agrees to go with him to his plantation in the new colony of Virginia, where his mother is living. Enjoying her life in the New World, she gets along very well with her mother-in-law until she asks her how she wound up in the colonies. When she hears the story, she realizes that her mother in law is her mother, and her husband her brother. And, knowing this is a secret she must keep, things go downhill from there.
Moll Flanders has several other equally improbable romantic adventures (one where she believes her future husband is wealthy, and he believes she is, only to find out too late that each has been misled – both by a third party, their matchmaker) , but when she approaches 50, she realizes that her days as a wife and mother are behind her, and she finds herself alone and in need of sustenance. So, with the help of a series of friends, she becomes a professional – a very clever and successful thief, and has a series of a different sort of adventures.
Things look down more than they look up, but don’t despair. Everything turns out for the best.
Defoe’s novel are very early examples of the genre. And his style of telling tale after tale after tale reminds one of, say, Voltaire’s Candide, or even John Barth’s The Sotweed Factor. And Defoe is a very good story teller. The book is written in the first person, and in a very readable style. Moll Flanders, for all her problems and her eventual decision to join the underworld is very sympathetic. She’s sympathetic in part because her world seems so real, in fact quite contemporary, not at all as you might imagine it almost 400 years ago. The only differences (other than the obvious lack of smart phones et al) lies in the position of women and the treatment of debtors and criminals. Women’s rights are limited, of course, as is their ability to earn a living. But when you are as sharp and crafty as Moll Flanders and her various friends are, these limitations are hurdles, but not stumbling blocks. Debtors go to prison, and prison in the 17th century is no fun, and often you are there a long, long time (if you ever get out). Going to jail for criminal activity is worse. You may linger forever before your trial comes up. When it does, there seems to be little chance anyone will listen to you. And the list of crimes for which capital punishment is dealt is a large one. Of course, if you have money………
I picked up this book as a diversion – glad I did. A relaxing read. And very entertaining.