[I decided to read this 1721 novel in four sections, writing about each section before reading further. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]
11 August 2021
To the arrival in Virginia
Literature students read this book. It’s from a time when novelists were still developing the form, and this is one of those in which the texts purports to be an account, narrated in the first person, of a real life. From the first sentence of the Author’s Preface, Defoe is playing with the idea: ‘The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances, that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine, where the names and other circumstances of the person are concealed, and on this account we must be content to leave the reader to pass his own opinion upon the ensuing sheet, and take it just as he pleases.’ He’s pretending it’s real, and leaving the reader all the leeway in the world not to believe it.
Like Swift and Fielding, other authors working in the first half of the 18th Century, Defoe was comfortable with this lightly ironic tone. Also like them, he wants to give the impression that there’s a serious purpose behind the entertainment. He will often state it overtly—‘the moral ’tis hoped will keep the reader serious, even where the story might incline him to be otherwise’—but, as ever, the reader is left to judge whether to take this at face value. Caveat lector? Something like that.
By the time we’ve read the Preface, we know that this is the story of a sinful woman. We’ve even been given a fairly full outline of the arc of the story, from her unpromising beginnings to her late years back in England, ‘grown very rich, and where she lived, it seems, to be very old, but was not so extraordinary a penitent as she was at first.’ Even in this supposedly serious section, there’s still the easy worldliness. Does she really end her life penitently? There’s enough of a clue in that little phrase, ‘not so extraordinary a penitent’ for us to doubt it. Even before Moll’s narrative opens, we already guess that there is going to be no easy moralising. I get the feeling Defoe wants to keep us on our toes and question everything she tells us…
…which she does, step by episodic step. Stuff happens to Moll—not her real name—as she narrates with the wide-eyed frankness of an ingénue. We know she isn’t, and we know that behind this voice is a worldly male author with a project to undertake. He knows, and the reader knows, of the many first-person narratives that came before this one, among them (so I’m informed following an online search) the famous Courage, translated from a racy German novel of the 1670s. ‘Racy’ hardly covers it, it seems, because the female narrator of that novel sometimes goes into pornographic detail. This is the kind of precedent that Defoe assures us he is not going to follow, so that when Moll becomes the secret mistress of the first man who takes an interest in her, she doesn’t go into any detail at all. Instead, she assures us, her story is a warning to the innocent or unwary. She knew nothing of the world, believed that she really was his wife in all but name… etc.
In other words, to this point, the story is archetypal to the point of cliché. And it’s surprising how long it’s taken to get here, along a path that has been surprisingly lacking in serious incident. Somehow, if jeopardy is threatened, it passes—which goes for the most serious danger she might ever be in, of being left friendless and pregnant as so many young women were. No, for Moll—always called Betty in these chapters, not necessarily because that’s her real name—the man who has such a good time with her in bed, over what seems to be many months, has a different role from heartless seducer to fulfil. At a time when he is making it clear that he is not going to be marrying her, he spends precious time alone with her a long way from any bed: ‘now he had me an hour and a half again by myself, and we fell into the same arguments all over again, or at least so near the same, as it would be to no purpose to repeat them.’ This glossing over of what is actually said is typical and, I feel, always a disappointment. But whatever he says, it seems to be enough to prove beyond any doubt that marriage is impossible, and that she should make use of his younger brother’s convenient infatuation for her and marry him instead. Which, Reader, she does.
But I should rewind. We would expect that the path to be taken by the infant Moll, her mother transported for theft, would be beset by snares. But if there are any, they all fall away. The woman who looks after her could not be more kind—no, I mean it, it’s demonstrably impossible to be any kinder than she is—and she teaches her everything a girl could want. Sure, the young Moll, or Betty or whatever thinks she is learning to be a ‘gentlewoman’, which causes hilarity all round. But her lovely foster-mother and mentor realises she only means she wants to be able to support herself by working hard—an idea with the fingerprints of the commerce-minded Defoe all over it—and all her mistake leads to is that she charms the pants off the ladies who come to visit.
The foster-mother dies—and… no problem. One of the ladies wants to take her in as a companion for her daughters, and we all know how daughters always turn against the attractive cuckoo in the nest. Yep, but not in this novel. The sisters love her, are impressed by her singing voice, her kindness… etc. And so the years go by, until she is noticed by the heir to the family’s wealth (although he won’t inherit for a long time, as he lets Moll/Betty know from the start), and he starts the charm offensive. She’s putty in his hands, considering herself as much his wife as though they had been married in church. What if she becomes pregnant? Don’t worry, she doesn’t. And when Robin, the younger brother persuades his parents that he really means it when he says he loves the pauper, they don’t disown him. He has a profession, so he will be able to look after her.
But, she tells us, she is in love with the older brother, so things have become a little complicated for Betty. Really, she is very squeamish indeed about having given herself to one man, only to be taken by another who assumes her to be the virgin she purports to be. The worry makes her ill, and she has to find a reason for refusing the perfectly presentable Robin. According to what she tells the reader—yes, I know—she considers herself already married. Meanwhile, everybody in the family is convinced she must be in love with somebody, and in the hands of some novelists this would have been the point at which all would have been revealed. But Defoe isn’t that kind of novelist, and the force of reason and argument comes into play. She is able to convince them that she is ill with the worry of a proposal she can never, in all conscience, accept. What payment would that be for all the happy years the family have given her? And now everybody loves her even more—while the reader can see what a calculating, manipulative con artist she is.
The force of reason and argument continues to bear down on her and, despite loving the older brother as much as ever, she agrees to marry Robin. But, uh-oh, he’s bound to notice something untoward on the wedding night—clearly, another reason for her reluctance—isn’t he? If you think so, you’ve forgotten what novel you’re reading. The older brother makes sure he’s so drunk he’s incapable. Better than that, Robin even has to ask her next day if he had been able to perform, and she is able to say yes. And…
…they would have lived happily ever after, if Robin hadn’t gone and died five years later. So she’s left penniless, yes? Well, no. Robin leaves her enough to live on, just, and soon she is able to marry a charming tradesman, so that’s all right. Except it isn’t, because he loves to binge on extravagant, carriage-driven trips around the country, spending the small amount of money she has. In the end, the creditors are after him and he ends up fleeing the country. So now she’s penniless, yes? Well, no again. She’s lost a lot, but her second husband isn’t such a villain that he leaves her bereft. He talks her through how, before the creditors pounce, she can save most of what’s left. It’s a risk, and she’ll have to move and change her name, but she does it. Phew.
But now things are starting to get a little trickier. She takes rooms in the ‘Mint’, the district where people who are down on their luck seem to wash up. And it’s no good for somebody who is hoping to pick up a husband with more money than she has herself. We realise now, if we hadn’t before, that she has no scruples about marrying when she already has a husband. She mentions the inconvenient fact to the reader, then seems to drop it. She seems to have acquired some worldly wisdom from somewhere, because she is able to advise a friend of hers how to conduct herself in order to marry a sea-captain with money. It’s all about not underselling yourself, and not taking on trust what any man says about his own prosperity…
…which is all well and good, but what she eventually has to resort to on her own behalf is a trick. She has her friend and her husband drop hints about how much money she has (about three times more than the reality), and hooks a man. As a part of their banter, she manoeuvres him into the position of declaring his own wealth whilst avowing that he has no interest at all in hers. He would marry her poor…. Which he does. She tells him she has hardly anything, then feeds him the truth over the next few weeks that she has a hundred here, another hundred there—until, he assures him, he knows all. And ‘I had brought him so near to expecting nothing, by what I had said before, that the money, though the sum was small in itself, was doubly welcome to him.’
But it means it’s not easy to live as well as they would both like. If they were to move to his plantation in Virginia, on the other hand, they would be much more comfortable. So… that’s where they go, and ‘we were received with all the demonstrations of tenderness and affection, by my husband’s mother, that were possible to be expressed.’ What can possibly go wrong?
I’m sure Defoe will think of something.
From Virginia to the encounters near Stony Stratford
He does think of something. Defoe. And I realise that what we get in this novel feels not so much like a plausible unfolding of a plot to enable the psychological development of a character in relationship with others, as a seemingly endless series of new McGuffins for an inveterate chancer to deal with. She tells us—there’s an awful lot of telling in this book—that her new life in Virginia, with her husband and his mother, is going very nicely. But we learn nothing about any of it, beyond the fact that some children are born and it’s all pleasant enough. Until, that is, Defoe throws up the next crisis. It comes about because the mother-in-law, prosperous enough to own her own land, is not at all shy in her explanations of how she came to be there. Like most of the people in Virginia, including men now in positions of local eminence, she is a former convict. On her arrival, many years ago, she had been lucky enough to have become a servant in a good family…. The details aren’t at all important, and we learn nothing of her life beyond her having been able to marry and have the son who is now Moll’s third husband.
And guess what? Oh, you have. She isn’t only Moll’s mother-in-law, she’s her actual mother. Is this Defoe’s warning to the thoughtless, to those who put their scruples aside for the sake of convenience—Moll has no idea whether her second husband is still alive—or is it just an unhappy coincidence for her, and a happy plot development for the author? I suspect the latter, because it’s merely bad luck. It could be argued that she brought this on herself, but I find that far-fetched. Defoe needed a dramatic coup, and serves one up for himself.
What to do, locked into an incestuous marriage, with two surviving children? Answer: wait. Wait until you’ve worked out the consequences of every single possible step you might take, from simply saying nothing—she might, she reasons, if she didn’t have an almost physical revulsion to the idea—to confessing everything. After three years of prevarication and what she presents a perfectly reasonable discussions with her mother after she’s eventually told her—the mother strongly urges secrecy—our heroine opts for confession. But it’s only after an extremely difficult period of stilted relations with her husband/brother, whilst only telling him there’s a reason for this that she simply can’t divulge….
Finally, she sees how she might do it. After a very long time of careful thought, she makes a kind of contract of honour with him—she’s good at getting others to behave honourably whist she angles for the best option for herself: ‘as you are to hear the most unexpected and surprising thing that perhaps ever befell any family in the world, I beg you to promise me you will receive it with composure and a presence of mind suitable to a man of sense.’ When he agrees, and she tells him, she reminds him: ‘Now remember your promise, and receive it with presence of mind; for who could have said more to prepare you for it than I have done?’
Her foresight and negotiating skills have won the day. The poor man isn’t going to simply throw her out in disgust, but the shock almost kills him, and he would have successfully ended his life if his mother hadn’t discovered him n the act…. In the end, Moll is able to leave Virginia with enough to set her up as a desirable catch for any man. What could go wrong this time? She’s taking almost all she owns on a dangerous sea voyage, so Defoe isn’t making it difficult for himself, and following the near-wreck of the ship…
…her surviving property amounts to much less than she had before she lured her half-brother into marriage. She’s in London, with only a small amount being sent to her occasionally from Virginia, certainly not enough to live on. It would be good if she could get her old friend and her husband to set her up with yet another new man, but they’re both dead. And Moll daren’t re-kindle old acquaintances in London, where she fears a little too much of her past might be known… so she makes a new start, in Bath. This time, the McGuffin is that the genuinely lovely man she meets is already married, albeit to a madwoman in some attic or other. It’s OK, he chastely loves our heroine anyway, giving her money in spite of her urgent pretence first to convince him she doesn’t need it and then that his money was the last thing on her mind.
This goes on for something like two or three years, with no move on his part towards him making her his mistress. Even when they share a bedroom one night, he shows her that kisses are plenty enough for him. But… they aren’t enough for her, and she persuades him that sex will be fine. Which it is, in spite of a day or so of shamefaced mutual politeness afterwards. They get over that, and soon, as she puts it, she is his whore. It can’t last, she thinks, but it does, for some years. He assures her that she is the only one for him, would be his wife if only he wasn’t already married… so what could go wrong this time? Answer: an attack of severe moral scruples. Not hers, but his, following an illness during which she can’t nurse him (as she had once before) because his wife and family are in his house. His near-death experience teaches him the error of his ways, and events conspire to make their one subsequent meeting very strained. She isn’t penniless, but…
…but what? She might be no worse off than before she met him, but those passing years have left her in her early forties. It isn’t looking good, because she’s back in London yet again, with absolutely nobody to seek advice from. How on earth to live? She seems to have no chance of finding a husband, so affairs of the heart have to take a back seat to affairs of the bank balance. She decides to take advice from her bank about how best to use her meagre funds, and an honest employee there puts her on to a friend of his, who can advise her independently—and who also appears to be completely honest.
She does what she always does with good-hearted people, squeezes out every drop of use she can from him. As she tells it—and as he later tells her, for what it’s worth—he likes her from the start. But, again, there’s an obstacle in the form of a wife… except this time, she’s not mad but a serial adulterer. He would divorce ‘the whore,’ as he calls her, and marry the honest Moll, or whatever she’s called now—she’s always vague about the names she uses. The irony, of course, isn’t lost on her or the reader. He goes so far as to drawing up a contract, at her insistence. She finds the second draft acceptable, after he’s made the changes she insists on. If he can divorce his wife, he will definitely marry our heroine. Which might appear to be the best that anyone in her position could hope for…
…except, at the same time, she’s been keeping another iron in the fire. She has made one friend in London, and the woman seems genuinely to have her welfare at heart. She makes a big thing of how cheap it is to live in ‘the north country,’ where she is about to return—and why doesn’t our heroine go with her? It seems like thin stuff, but Moll likes to hedge her bets. She tells her would-be husband that she is very interested in his offer, and will be waiting in Lancashire to hear confirmation from him that his divorce has taken place. And off she goes.
In fact, she has already let us know that the friendship will later end badly, so when the new friend tells her all about his brother the gent with the estates in Ireland, alarm bells are ringing. What takes place in Lancashire is the archetypal charm offensive, where the supposed brother uses up the last of his fortune to demonstrate to her what a good match she will be making—having been told by his supposed sister that she has brought him a rich widow to woo. He really is charming and, as so often, Moll makes her calculations. The future marriage in London is by no means a certainty, so she will go with what looks like a safer bet with an attractive man. Reader, she marries him.
It’s the old tale of the couple who each marry for the other’s fortune, when neither of them has enough to live on. Moll had been careful, as she reminds her new husband, never to say she had a fortune—a fact the so-called sister can’t deny. The woman disappears, leaving the newlyweds wondering what on earth they can do next. Moll seems really love her ‘Jemy’, perhaps more than anyone she’s ever met before—and is devastated when she wakes up one morning to discover that he has left. Except he hasn’t—Defoe likes these odd little plot-kinks—because he can’t bear the idea and comes back to say goodbye properly. He tells her he must leave, but only until he can somehow make his way in the world. Then they will be reunited.
It sounds like nonsense, but that’s what picaresque plots are like. And he doesn’t leave, in fact, or not yet, because they like one another’s company too much. Moll tells him an edited version of her life in Virginia, and of how they could live well there. He, in turn, tells her of how well they could live in Ireland, describing how money goes six times further there (I think) than in England. Not that it matters anyway, because he decides to go with plan A, leaving her to go and make his fortune somehow. She mustn’t feel that she must wait for him, although (I’m paraphrasing) he suggests that it would be good if she did.
She would love to wait but, of course, she doesn’t. After he’s gone, and she has discovered she’s pregnant, there’s a chapter-length section of how she meets, and goes to reside with, a woman in London who makes a living looking after embarrassed mothers. Moll is keen to let the woman know that this isn’t a child born out of wedlock, unlike, as she puts it, the whores who bring the woman most of her business. But the ‘governess’ takes no interest in this, because her money is made by not asking any questions at all. I wonder if Defoe is holding her up as a kind of amoral, although necessary, archetype. If this is how society treats women, their survival depends on a safe place to give birth, and reliable foster-parents to be found.
Maybe. He has to put into the mouth of our morally flexible heroine some serious objections to this system, the only alternative for women to the harsh rigours of being thrown on the mercy of the parish . There are no guarantees of the safety of the fostered children, a misgiving that Moll tells the governess is too hard for her to bear. It is tantamount to murder, she says, to let unknown hands take a child for payment, when the best outcome for them would be for the child to die. The governess will hear nothing of this, explaining the great reliability of those who take the children, but Moll isn’t happy until a moral get-out is proposed. If she pays an annual fee, she can see her child any time she likes. The contract is as full of safety clauses to do with anonymity and other guarantees as we’ve come to expect from Moll.
And guess what next. The would-be divorcee, in letters to Lancashire that have been redirected to her in London during all these months, has described how well things have been going with the divorce. And, yes, how he has finally been successful. He’s a little shocked when the wife takes her own life, but that removes any last possible objection to his remarrying. What’s a married woman to do? After all the usual caveats and agonised heart-searching about Jemy that she is very happy to share with us, she agrees to this new proposal. She decides, because she always thinks of this sort of thing, that it would be best for her to meet him from a coach from the north. He goes one better—we don’t know why, but she hints he has his reasons—and proposes to meet her half-way. Which is how, eventually, they come to meet near Stony Stratford. A marriage is hastily arranged, with a locum parson known to the landlord—more grounds for doubt on Moll’s part?—so…
…she’s now on husband No. 5, with only one of them definitely deceased and at least one of them definitely still alive. And you’ll never guess who she’s just seen arriving at the inn, along with two other gentlemen. At the point I’ve reached, she’s doing her best not to be seen by her so recently beloved Jemy.
If there’s one thing she knows about, it’s getting into fixes.
From Stony Stratford to the two maids calling the constable
I was wrong. At first, she seems to be in as big a fix as ever, having to tell the local constables that the three gentlemen seen at the inn could not possibly have been the highwaymen who have just robbed a coach…. But, for the next quarter of the novel, it’s staying out of fixes that she’s good at—to the extent that it becomes almost a superpower. In this part of the novel she becomes the notorious thief that nobody in London can ever pin down. Everyone has heard of ‘Moll Flanders’—which she confirms is not her real name—but they never know who this elusive woman is. She tries her hand at every kind of theft, using every disguise from rich dowager to ragged pauper, by way of a short partnership, dressed as a man, with another thief who never knows she is a woman. As so often in her charmed life of crime (before the two maids get their hands on her, literally), the other person’s ignorance is what saves her. She’s as good at taking advantage of this aspect of other people as she is of her victims’ trust in her.
Right at the start of this, I said how careful we have to be with this narrator. We have to be careful with the author too, but that’s a different matter…. With Moll, we really need to remember not only that she’s fictional—Defoe never makes it difficult for us anyway, as coincidences, luck and unexpected twists combine to an impossible degree—but that one of the points of a first-person narrative is the spin that the narrator puts on the story. At first in this life-of-crime section, I found myself becoming annoyed at her self-serving version of events. That, of course, is the point. It’s what crooks do—and it isn’t as though we haven’t been warned. In his Preface, Defoe wryly reports how, in her prosperous final years, she is ‘not so extraordinary a penitent as she was at first.’ She’s never any better than she should be, however she might plead otherwise.
To rewind…. Defoe disposes of the latest husband quickly and without ceremony, following five years of unexciting comfort and two more children. A business failure, which she can’t persuade him they will be able to climb out of in time, is enough to make him pine for the good times and die. Moll is able to live for a short time on what she has, never mentioning to us how she copes with the children, until the money runs out.
Her criminal activities might be the most famous aspect of this novel, but the relentlessly episodic nature of the narrative doesn’t make this section a particularly enjoyable read. Having spent everything, she reaches the inevitable point at which, she would have us believe, making moral choices is no longer an option. She prepares us for it long in advance when, still living well with her fifth husband, she can afford to look back on all the others with a degree of comfortable regret: ‘had I not fallen into that poverty which is the sure bane of virtue, how happy had I been, not only here, but perhaps for ever! for while I lived thus, I was really a penitent for all my life past….’
But now the money’s all gone, and being ‘really a penitent’ is a luxury she is keen to tell us she can no longer afford. ‘Oh let none read this part without seriously reflecting on the circumstances of a desolate state … that a time of distress is a time of dreadful temptation, and all the strength to resist is taken away; poverty presses…’ and so on. Later, she might tell us how her success as a thief gives her a taste for the huge amount of money she makes, but at this point it’s all about her shuffling off the blame for being led into thievery.
As I’ve hinted, Defoe seems to have put any idea of plausibility to one side, because he now needs his main character to tick some new boxes. She makes the highly convenient discovery that the ‘governess’ who sorted out her pregnancy and child-care difficulties is also sufficiently steeped in crime to become the perfect mentor. She’s also as expert in the disposal of any stolen goods as she had previously been of disposing of children…. Meanwhile Moll, who has always been able to take advantage of others in order to live as comfortably as she can, can now add a convenient lack of any compunction when taking other people’s property. Defoe uses different episodes, different kinds of crime, and a range of different techniques to narrate a series of low-life anecdotes.
I’ve mentioned before the idea of Moll’s story being a warning to others, and in this section what he puts into her mouth is the cautionary aspect. Sometimes it’s specific, as when she leads a young child away in order to rob it of some jewellery: ‘I had given the parents a just reproof for their negligence in leaving the poor little lamb to come home by itself, and it would teach them to take more care of it another time.’ Usually, however, it’s a more general warning to the careless, as though she is telling us all of this for our own good and for the safety of our property. It’s nonsense, obviously, the usual banter of the crook telling a good story as though the main point isn’t the thrill of pulling off a successful crime. Or ‘purchase,’ as Moll calls it, part of the racy jargon that makes the life seem more of a trade than anything dishonest.
As time goes on, she often admits that she ignores any thought she has of giving up, despite not needing to add more money to the hundreds she’s already made. At first, as we know, the only ‘devil’ she speaks of is ‘that worst of devils, poverty.’ But very soon, the devil she writes of takes on his usual guise, that of a tempter who preys on us poor humans: ‘the devil, who I said laid the snare, as readily prompted me as if he had spoke, for I remember, and shall never forget it, ’twas like a voice spoken to me over my shoulder, “Take the bundle; be quick; do it this moment.”’ This is the convenient devil that Moll can point to as the real culprit.
It takes a careful reader to spot quite how completely she wants to distance herself from blame—even while pretending the opposite. Quite early on, in passing, she mentions how ‘the devil put things into my head; and indeed he was seldom backward to me.’ Later, when she is working as a seamstress and making enough to live on, ‘I began to live; but the diligent devil, who resolved I should continue in his service, continually prompted me to go out….’ Yep, that’s how it is with the mean old tempter: ‘Thus the devil, who began, by the help of an irresistible poverty, to push me into this wickedness, brought me on to a height beyond the common rate, even when my necessities were not so great.’
Is there any need to describe the crimes? Not really, beyond the fact that a time comes when, if she can get away with taking anything from a watch dangling from a lady’s belt to a bolt of cloth left unattended on a counter, she will do it. And her governess is delighted. However… as it happens, it’s an opportunistic attempt to lift bolts of cloth that are her undoing. ‘I ventured into a house where I saw the doors open, and furnished myself, as I thought verily without being perceived, with two pieces of flowered silks.’ She is seized by the maids and, despite the house-owners perhaps relenting—there are always little circumstantial details like this—the same maids have already fetched the nearest constable. Her luck has run out at last.
London, Virginia, London—to the end
Except her luck never does run out, of course. For a short time, she really does believe she will hang for her crimes—Defoe has set all this in the 17th Century, when punishments were barbarously harsh—but we’ve known from the start that there’s no danger of it. Part of the interest, such that it is, is to do with how she responds both to what she believes to be her fate, and to her avoidance of it. The other part, I suppose, lies in the convolutions of her story from now on.
In a way, it’s the final working out of Defoe’s long joke about repentance. It isn’t only a joke—there was serious debate in the early 18th Century about how Divine mercy might be attained—but the way Moll seems to be able to say all the right things without truly understanding any of them is one of the novel’s best ironies. And it leads to a final sentence which made me laugh out loud when I read it. Having been able to multiply their combined wealth many times over in Virginia, she and her third husband return to England, ‘where we resolve to spend the remainder of our years in sincere penitence for the wicked lives we have lived.’ Defoe prepared us for this a whole novel ago, in his Preface. He describes these years back in England when she has ‘grown very rich, and where she lived, it seems, to be very old, but was not so extraordinary a penitent as she was at first.’
We have seen Moll penitent. She’s as good at it as she would have us believe she is at everything else, and the minister who takes an interest in her in prison is convinced that her repentance is as sincere as she herself believes it to be. She knows all about the danger of being bounced into a repentant frame of mind by the imminence of death—she has been condemned to hang for her crimes—but when it comes to her she welcomes it because it’s comforting. And we all know how Moll likes her comforts, in whatever form they come. ‘I was covered with shame and tears for things past, and yet had at the same time a secret surprising joy at the prospect of being a true penitent, and obtaining the comfort of a penitent—I mean, the hope of being forgiven….’ At this moment, she takes what she believes is being offered because there’s nothing else for her: ‘I thought I could freely have gone out that minute to execution, without any uneasiness at all, casting my soul entirely into the arms of infinite mercy as a penitent.’ I love that—‘as a penitent.’ She’ll take on this role as long as it suits.
Once she is genuinely convinced that the threat of execution is over, there is no more of this. Sure, she sheds bitter tears for those who aren’t as lucky as she is—aren’t able to give such a favourable impression, can’t respond so articulately to whatever the Newgate chaplain (not the minister involved with Moll) is able to offer…. It’s a part of the satire that the English system of so-called justice is so weighted towards those with pretty manners and with an air of having been raised in the right environment. Later, when Moll’s third husband, coincidentally, is brought in after literally decades as a highwayman, something else that tips the balance is money—as it does when they are both transported to Virginia. The right payment, together with the right word in the right ear—the sea-captain has become a friend even before the voyage has started, and will do everything necessary for the right remuneration—works wonders. Jemy isn’t actually transported, having chosen (and paid his passage) to go rather than wait for further witnesses to be found to testify against him. But Moll finds that 24 hours after she has been nominally ‘sold’ in Virginia, she and her husband can live entirely free lives.
And all along, penitent soul that she would have us take her for, she is as reluctant to let her ‘Lancashire husband’ in on all the facts as she was when she tricked him into marriage. True, she isn’t a thief any longer—but all her future prosperity is based on the governess’s readiness to supply her with instalments from the stash of money from when she just couldn’t give it up. And the joke wouldn’t work if she were anything other than the con artist she has always been. It stands her in very good stead in Newgate, on the ship, and in Virginia.
I can’t remember if it’s Moll herself—I can’t think who else it would be—who remarks on how good fortune doesn’t only fall on those who deserve it. But, once she has left England, things just seem to fall into her lap. Her birth-mother is dead but, as she had always promised, has left some of her estate to Moll. Her husband/brother is alive, but suffering from dementia and near-blindness, so he doesn’t need to know anything. It’s her son, the one who embraces her as the mother he lost in early childhood, who sorts everything out for her. He and a steward will manage the plantation between them, and the income will add to what Moll and Jemy will make on their own land. Moll hadn’t told her husband how much money she had—of course she didn’t—so, when it arrives from England he is as pleased by the windfall as she always knew he would be. She just doesn’t seem capable of playing it straight.
Is that all there is? For me, I think so. It’s a period piece, from a time when it was acceptable for a novelist only to tell us, for instance about the interesting conversations Moll has with the minister, rather than actually let the reader in on them. Or when there’s no chance of the reader urgently wanting to find out what will happen because we know from the start. As a satire it’s less subtle than a modern reader—any reader—might hope, so that we’re left with what feels like a proto-novel. The problem doesn’t arise simply because these are the early days of the form. Gulliver’s Travels was published within five years of this one, and it leaves me with the thought that Jonathan Swift was simply better at it. Moll tells her story, episode by plodding episode, and Defoe, I suppose, is content for us to draw the morals as we read.
If only it had been more interesting, if only Defoe had known that a series of vivid scenes would have been far more engaging than his impossible attempt to account for every single part of a life. The final irony for me is that by having his narrator tell it in this way, we don’t get a sense of any life at all.