Review: Moll Flanders

Moll Flanders is a classic adventure story by Daniel Defoe, an early novelist better known for Robinson Crusoe. Although there are a few issues in consistency, it is a gripping tale of fortune, poverty and crime with a strong female narrator who gives an account of her notorious adventures and exploits. The full novel is available for free download thanks to the Gutenburg Project.


Title: Moll Flanders

Author: Daniel Defoe

First Published: 1722

Synopsis: Moll Flanders is a tale that spans 70+ years, accounting for the fortunes and misfortunes of a woman – known to some as Moll or Mary, others as Mrs. Betty, and other aliases aside. An abandoned infant of a prisoner sent in exile to America, Moll is entered early into poverty but refuses to be destined as a servant, instead claiming she will be a gentlewoman. The story then follows her as she falls into prostitution, several illegal marriages, and thievery – most of the while appearing the gentlewoman she claims to be. Her tale finally ends with her in penitence, although the web of deceit she has wrought is ever present as she writes her memoirs under her false name.

The book opens with spoilers, advertising that this is the story of a woman who was born in Newgate prison, was a whore for twelve years, married five times (once to her own brother), a thief for twelve years, a transported felon for eight years, and finally grows rich, lives honest, and dies in repentance. This would have annoyed me in a different story, but with Moll Flanders it barely makes a difference as the suspense and enjoyment is gained from the realization of the details, and the twists still catch you by surprise. In a way, though, I was a little disappointed at how “not evil” Moll was, as I was fully expecting a devious and wicked heroine, but was given instead a woman with morals and conscience who was plagued by a fear of poverty – indeed, it was this terror of poverty which moved her to do the things she did, and in most situations they were well justified, and thus her repentance wasn’t really as big a deal as I was anticipating on starting the book. I was also surprised that she took so long to become a thief, as she lived previously by ‘marriages’ or patronages from semi-honourable men until she was over 50 and her good looks failed her. In short, it was not the book I was expecting from this opening advertisement, but it was still a good story nevertheless.

The world that Defoe described, and the characters interactions in it are so detailed that it is easy to become absorbed in the story and picture the world in your head. Even though the novel was written in the 1700s, a time in which people get “the vapours”, and often get dejected enough to die from depression or mortification, Defoe’s writing style is refined enough that it has lasted the passage of time and can still be easily understood. I found the world so gripping I found myself wishing that someone would make an open world video game of it, in a similar style to the Elder Scrolls or Fallout series – but I digress…

There were a few difficulties that I found with this book that would make me hesitate to recommend it to anyone, however… Stylistically it is written in one big bulk, without chapter breaks, which could make it difficult for some readers. It took me in between 10-11 hours overall to read, but every time I wanted to have a break I would have to put it down in the middle of the action, which made it disconcerting when I began to read again. The other issue I had was with some inconsistencies in the middle of the novel which seriously grated against me.

For instance, Moll has two living children with her Banker-husband when he dies, and the destitution of this poverty leads her to crime. In every other situation her previous children’s disappearances or arrangements have been named – here the children are named as a part of her terrible situation and thus a motivating factor for her shoplifting and robberies, but they are quickly forgotten, never explained, and she is once again treated as a single woman with no dependents. Another situation was when she was repenting of her ill treatment of her Banker-husband in becoming his wife although he did not know she had already slept with thirteen men besides him – although by my count she was only up to six. I wouldn’t have been so bothered by it, except that she gave detailed accounts of her life, relationships, and periods in between so that there was no room for these extra mysterious men to have arisen and the inaccuracy still irritates me.

I had a similar experience when reading Robinson Crusoe that I am still bitter about to this day – how he wrote a detailed account of how he built his raft, approached his shipwreck a specific number of times, listed every single item he gained from his raids and how they helped him subsist – and then much much later in the book adds as an afterthought (oh yeah, and this whole time I had a cat which came off the boat with me but I conveniently forgot to mention it when I was doing my meticulous stocktake and inventory. And although I made much of the fact that I was completely alone with no companions I actually had this cat to keep me company. And also there were parrots and I taught them how to talk to me. NO BIG DEAL).

As I say, I’m bitter from the experience.

However, as a whole, the book is enjoyable and a good yarn – although I would only recommend it to skilled readers. And I really wish someone would make a game using the concepts.

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