A Life Of Continu'd Variety

Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, ISBN 0140433139

Daniel Defoe's picaresque account of a fictional 17th century woman's life, though in fact written in the early 18th.

Moll is born into extremely reduced circumstances and spends much of her life struggling to make ends meet. Along the way although she has a good share of luck, she is drawn deeper and deeper into criminal and immoral activities: slander, fraud, prostitution, incest, bigamy, pick-pocketing, embezzlement, burglary, horse-theft1 and more. Ultimately she lands up where she began and where, by the lights of her time, she richly deserves to be - Newgate prison. Having hit bottom, she finds God, escapes the gallows, and is transported to a new and somewhat more honest life in the new world.

1 ...although the horse is returned to its owner, as neither Moll nor her associate have the first idea how to fence it.

As well as an entertaining story there is a good deal of social and historical commentary to be found in the book's pages. The most obvious example is the role of women: Moll, and various of her friends, are at constant disadvantage, and must resort to underhand scheming (which Moll takes to well) to even the odds. The corrupt state of Newgate prison is revealed too: prisoners paying the guards for better quarters, guards paying prisoners to go out at night and steal for them. It is hard to imagine that Defoe is merely describing his society rather making a point here.

The trade with Holland and the political questions surrounding are visible both in the presence of Dutch merchants and in the prohibition on certain Dutch textile products (Moll both steals it - prohibition has made it even more valuable - and informs on smugglers for a share in a reward); and the lure of new land and new opportunity in North America regularly shows its head.

As Moll acknowledges herself, once restrained from committing a crime, it means little to be sorry for it; and when she reaches America, what does she use to buy herself and her husband and servitude and start themselves off, but the proceeds of her recent crimes? She even gives her son a stolen gold watch. Penitent she may be (though once out of Newgate we hear precious little more about God) but this seems more like an economic redemption than a spiritual or moral one.

For all that it's nearly 300 years old the language presented little difficulty. The most striking changes are reversals of terms like doubt (I doubt you do not understand me meaning "I fear you do not understand me" and an inn just against us meaning "an inn opposite us", for example) and the occasional word such as meer which seem to have gone out of the language entirely. There's about one note per page, some concerning language and others on the locations mentioned (endnotes in this edition, annoyingly). Modern notions of punctuation are far from fully developed, and somewhere around half the nouns have acquired capital letters.


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