Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

Book Cover: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

Moll Flanders
Daniel Defoe
1722, England

One of the earliest English language novels, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders relates the story of the eponymous (but anonymous) title character, who as a young woman without known family is taken in during adolescence by a wealthy family whose matriarch has taken a shine to Moll. From there many adventures and misadventures follow her attempts to make a better–wealthier–life for herself. It is a first-person narrative, and remarkable for both the voice and agency it gives to a woman and a relatively poor one at that. It purports to be an autobiographical narrative, in the style of Defoe’s earlier Robinson Crusoe, as well as a story of spiritual redemption: after a life of deceit and crime, mostly thievery (and bigamy, though Moll seems not to count that among her sins, which I assume means that marriage was much more informally contracted and enforced in the 18th century than in subsequent eras), Moll finally lands in prison with the likelihood of execution looming before her. It is her repentance–which she claims as sincere and the minister meeting with her believes and convinces the judiciary of–that saves her from the gallows and sends her to the Colonies (Virginia, in this case).

I’m not convinced.

Moll is a classic unreliable narrator. Granted, anyone telling their life story is bound to get some things not quite right–memories can play tricks–but Moll is open about her lies and deceit as she makes her way through life. From her first relationship with the eldest son of her foster family to her post-jail life with her final husband, she doesn’t just keep secrets, she constantly lies to do so. Although there is not particular reason for her to lie to her reader, especially in a spiritual redemption story, her history of deception leaves a nagging suspicion in the back of the mind–how do we know she is not lying now? That she didn’t fake redemption to save her skin? After all, even after gaining her freedom, she still lies and seems to have no compunction with doing so. If this is the case, Moll has performed quite the coup: the end of the story, after years of tragedy and suffering–for no matter her own character flaws and crimes, we cannot deny that she has incredibly bad luck–is almost fairy-tale like in the arrival of happiness and wealth. Which gives me pause in my doubts. Would a writer such as Defoe, in that era, really reward an unrighteous character? From what I know of the times, probably not. It is more likely I apply my morality (truthfulness and honesty) to a time and place unlike my own.

Yet at the same time, Moll profits from her crimes–money that enables her New World life (buying out her servitude contract) comes from her life of thievery. This also seems in conflict with expected “Puritan” morality. So what is Defoe really saying–it’s OK to reward a life of sin financially as long as you’ve confessed it? This may not be an unreasonable thought; rewarding confession and repentance are surely more encouraging to the errant than punishing the repentant. Or does Defoe rather primarily intend it as a critique of the society that in a sense forces Moll–and so many others, men as well as women–into the crimes she initially commits for mere survival? It’s so easy to fall into the trap of approaching the novel from a 21st century perspective, especially when I don’t have a full context for the social/cultural/religious setting. There is definitely a critique going on, though, and that may outweigh concerns of morality in rewarding Moll–not for repentance but survival.

There really is so much to dig into in Moll Flanders, so many ways to approach or think about. I didn’t find it the easiest novel to get through–there is a complete lack of chapter or section divisions, combined with a steady first-person narrative in a more archaic style, without even conversation to break it up–but there is plenty to it, both in events and elements to consider. It is unlike most other novels (all?) I’ve yet read, but perhaps a wider contextual understanding (of the society/culture/history, as well as literature) would even further reward my understanding. Reading paths for future consideration…

Completed: Castle of Wolfenbach

Castle of Wolfenbach
Eliza Parsons
1793, England
Folio Press edition: London, 1968

The clock from the old castle had just gone eight when the peaceful inhabitants of a neighbouring cottage, on the skirts of the wood, were about to seek that repose which labour had rendered necessary, and minds blest with innocence and tranquillity assured them the enjoyment of. The evening was cold and tempestuous, the rain poured in torrents, and the distant thunders rolled with tremendous noise round the adjacent mountains, whilst the pale lightning added horrors to the scene.

So begins Castle of Wolfenbach, on a “dark and stormy night.” Abandoned castles, damsels in distress, kidnappings, murders, lost children, despair—it has everything one could want in an early Gothic romance except the desolate and rugged landscapes favored by later Romantics. Indeed, description is scarce, as Parsons was seemingly more concerned with telling a fast-paced dramatic tale—nay, melodramatic tale—than with her settings. Melodrama certainly reigned supreme, with our heroine and one of her earliest protectors falling pray to their emotions on seemingly near a once-a-page basis. Halfway through this brief novel, I began to feel that a more apt title (for the titular Castle made but a brief appearance) would have been She Fainted (Again). Marketing doubtless determined Castle of Wolfenbach would sell more copies.

Although the plot is almost ridiculous to the point of farcical, I did find it ridiculously fun, even prompting audible laughter at times. Admittedly, this was for the silliness of the prose or the excessive sentiments of the characters rather than any wit in the plot itself. Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe, I’m sure, were more impressed by the danger the innocent Matilda found herself in than I, 21st century reader that I am: I was never in doubt of the outcome.

Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”

“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! — What are they all?”

“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”

“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”

“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them…”

(Northanger Abbey)

I mention the Misses Morland and Thorpe, creatures of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, because it is only thanks to the Austen work that I discovered the earlier novel. Both Miss Morland and Thorpe are avid readers of the sensational works of the day, and while the Radcliffe remained well-known, it wasn’t until the 20th century that scholars realized a list of seven obscure works, of which Castle of Wolfenbach is one, were actual novels of the era. I only learned this history earlier this year, and knew as soon as the present Classics Circuit Gothic Literature tour was announced I would have to read one of the “Northanger Horrid Novels” as they are now known.

There is plenty for the 21st century reader to critique: the aforementioned excess of fainting, the implausibility of the plot, the moralizing (too much for those extremely allergic to moralizing, but easily ignorable in the context of the story—although I did find it a bit more hammered home at the end), the stereotyped characters—innocent damsels, valiant heroes, dastardly villains. (Only one character, a minor personage who could almost have been omitted from the story, showed any evidence of a rounded character.) My absolute favorite element however was Pasons’ fondness for the semi-colon; I found sentences with as many as five of these joining independent clauses together. Surprisingly, this did nothing to affect the readability of the work. I merely found it an amusing style. (And yes, I was very tempted to string the last three sentences together in imitation.)

Despite any criticisms to be found, it is as I noted an enjoyable (and fast) read. I envision Parsons as perhaps a Dan Brown or Brad Meltzer of her day, the writer of fast-paced suspense thrillers that are a joy to read but forgotten as the years pass. I am curious  to read the remainder of the “Northanger Horrids” and will doubtless be returning to them down the road.

Read as part of the October 2011 Gothic Lit Classics Circuit tour. My first! Find other tour participants here.

Castle of Wolfenbach also qualifies as my second R.I.P. read of the season—I’ve successfully completed Peril the Second!