If you go into a church in Rome and see a mosaic of the BVM or St. Catherine of Alexandria or whoever, the pieces that make up these pious icons were most likely cannibalized from some extremely un-Christian image decorating the bath-house of a Roman emperor. Moll Flanders seems to me to embody the reverse of this process: though I know it violates chronology, it is as if Defoe had taken the fragments of earnest, moral Victorian fictions and reassembled them into something that thumbs its nose at every principle of moral and narrative propriety.
Moll (not her real name, but that’s another story) first sees the twilight of day inside Newgate prison, the child of a mother condemned to transportation (you can already see the eventual recognition scene coming, can’t you?). She is passed from hand to stranger’s hand until she lands in a foster home run by a virtuous and kindly woman, a gentlewoman living in reduced circs. So far so good, we could be in a Dickens or George Eliot novel. But now our little heroine decides that she wants to be a gentlewoman when she grows up, an ambition that everyone around her naturally finds comical. She has a most idiosyncratic idea of what this means: “To be a gentlewoman “was no more than to be able to get my bread by my own work.”” She even has a role model picked out, a woman who mends lace in town:
“She,” says I, “is a gentlewoman, and they call her Madam.”
“Poor child,” says my good old nurse, “You may soon be such a gentlewoman as that, for she is a person of ill fame, and has had two bastards!”
I did not understand anything of that, but I answered, “I am sure they call her Madam, and she does not go to service, or do housework.”
And therefore I insisted that she was a gentlewoman, and I would be such a gentlewoman as that.
And thus the neat little carriage of our story has veered into the ditch. It’s fair to say that Moll is true to her ambition.
The first step is the classic motif of the innocent girl seduced by an upper-class rake. Moll is quasi-adopted into a family of local aristocrats; the elder son woos her with money and obviously-false promises of marriage, she gives in (though she seems as impressed by the cash as by the promises), then the younger son actually wants to marry her She is so innocent that she at first refuses, but her lover eventually makes her see that this is the only prudent course. The way that Moll informs us of this is another indication of how far we are from the world of respectable fiction. Setting aside the fact that she has no affection for her new suitor, she mentions the worry that he would perceive on the first night that she was not a virgin:
But whether he did it with design or not I know not, but his elder brother took care to make him very much fuddled before he went to bed, so that I had the satisfaction of a drunken bedfellow the first night. How he did it I know not, but I concluded that he certainly contrived it, that his brother might be able to mmake no judgment of the difference between a maid and a married woman.
At this point Moll realizes that she has given away the revelation she was working up to, and says “I should go back a little here…” I find the contrast between this almost Edith Bunker-like sequence and the clanking machinery of Dickensian suspense strangely exhilarating and refreshing.
And although this introduction to the way of the world comes as a rude shock to young Moll (she’s going as “Mistress Betty” at this point), there is little of the authorial hand-wringing and melodrama that we would expect. When her husband dies and she is left with little money, we are not forced to wallow in the pathos of her situation, but just as refreshingly, we are forced to recognize it for what it is: the only available source of income is to use her looks and her reputation to get another husband, and she sets about this with few illusions.
It goes on like this—husband #2 is a nice guy, but they live beyond their means and he ends up in a sponging-house. He is, however, enough of a gentleman that he tells her to run and pawn all their stuff before the creditors can get it, then take the money and start a new life., for he will be fleeing on his own. Moll gives him full credit for this handsome gesture.
As her looks fade, Moll has to rely on increasingly dodgy strategems to get by; she is given the name Moll Flanders by some acquaintances who end up leaving the world “by the steps and string,” as she says. But two things remain constant: first, as long as you have money, the world will treat you as quality. This notion, so threatening to the ideology of hereditary class, is illustrated most tellingly when prisoners on a ship bound for America are able to bribe the captain and spend the voyage as his honored guests.
Second, the qualities that Moll admires appear to be completely orthogonal to respectable morality. Her respectable foster-mother is portrayed very positively, but her dearest and most loyal friend is a midwife who mostly works with prostitues and kept women, and has a sideline fencing stolen merchandise. The love of Moll’s life is a con man and highway robber who marries her to get the money she has convinced him she possesses (they’re kind of soul-mates that way). She not only forgives him, but regards him as a model gentleman.
It is amazing that such a book managed to get published in the 1720s. To be sure, there is a fig-leaf of Christian penitence toward the end, but it is utterly unconvincing. What happens is not so much a spiritual as a financial turnaround, as Moll parlays her savings from a career in crime into a startup plantation for herself and her highwayman husband (her third or fourth, I’m not sure) in the New World. The final chapters are a kind of wealth porn, as money and goods practically throw themselves at Moll and Mr. Moll; probably this was a gratifying exercise for Defoe, who was haunted by shame after his risky and downright stupid investment schemes had squandered his wife’s fortune and driven his family to bankruptcy. But this rather silly and pedestrian ending only reminds us how very strange and subversive the rest of the story has been.
PS I haven’t even touched on some of the weirdest aspects of the book. For example, we never learn the names of most of the characters, including some of Moll’s husbands and children. Perhaps, living mostly under pseudonyms herself, she doesn’t think names are of much use except for deception. Also, the novel is full of bizarre monetary details, such as an itemized accounting of the costs of a 3-month lying-in at her friend the midwife’s (including fees for linen, baptism, room and board, all on a graded scale from economy to first class).