Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe


This is a brief history of England in the 1600s –

1603 Elizabeth Tudor dies and the English Crown goes to James VI of Scotland
1605 Gunpowder plot (Guy Fawkes). Failed attempt by Catholics to kill James
1607– English colonies on the east coast of North America
1625 James dies, his son Charles becomes King. Espouses ‘Divine Right of Kings’
1642-1651 Civil War, Parliament vs King
1649 Charles I executed
1651 Charles II deposed, replaced by Parliament under Oliver Cromwell
1660 Restoration. Charles II King again, then his brother James, a Catholic
1665-66 Great Plague. Bubonic plague carried by rats
1666 Great Fire of London destroys the homes of 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants (and St Paul’s Cathedral)
1688 James II deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange (see Waverley).

Moll Flanders (1722) purports to be the autobiography of an (unnamed) English woman who after running through any number of husbands, lovers and customers, turns in desperation in her fifties to pickpocketing and shoplifting, and comes to be known by that name. The point being that her life, and therefore Defoe’s story, spans the years 1613-1683, and apart from the English colonies in America, none of the history above is mentioned or even hinted at, which I found disappointing.

The Author’s Preface begins: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances …”

This is surprising given that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, three years earlier, is often credited with being the first English novel, though we know better of course (see for instance my posts Mothers of the Novel and Aphra Benn (1640-1689)). There must have been more going on at this time in the world of fiction than is generally recognised.

It seems novels arose out of drama, but also out of biographies- Benn’s Oroonoko (1688), Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722) are all fictional biographies or autobiographies – and coincided with an increase in literacy in the general population. So for instance, way back here I noted: “In 1696 the Church [in Scotland] ordered the establishment of a ‘school in every parish’, and the result was widespread literacy, which [my Clacher ancestors] evidently shared.”

Of course the other important “first English novel” is Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) which I last read nearly 60 years ago. It was my maternal grandfather’s and unless mum still has it, is now lost. The other book of Grandad’s we boys read repeatedly was The Go Getter, a paean to muscular capitalism, which I’m pretty sure B2 has and he’s not letting it go. The importance of Pilgrim’s Progress to Moll Flanders is that Moll goes through cycles of sinning and seeking redemption until finally she is truly contrite and is reformed.

Moll Flanders as a Project Gutenberg/Librivox audiobook, which is how I read it, has a number of readers, mostly unobtrusive, and spans 15 or 20 hours, I forgot to check. I love having books that just go on and on as I ‘work’, but of course that doesn’t suit everyone. We’re at the dawn of the novel here, and there is quite a bit of first I did this, then I did this, but we’re also a century and a bit beyond Shakespeare, so perhaps a bit more drama could have been expected. Still, as lives go, it’s an interesting one, if relatively uninformative about the times.

If you want a proper synopsis I’m sure you can find one, but here is Moll Flanders according to wadholloway. The narrator – and no one in the novel is named – is born to a prostitute in Newgate prison, ends up with a loving foster mother, who trains her in needlework but also, I think, to read. The foster mother runs what is basically a sewing factory. Moll is a favourite and goes to a prosperous local family (in Berkshire, from memory) with two sons and two daughters as companion/servant. When she is of age, the older brother secretly takes her as his fiancee and lover. The younger brother, not knowing this, insists on marrying her. Soon after, he dies and she is a widow. The next husband leaves the country just ahead of his creditors and tells her to treat the marriage as null and void. At some stage she makes her way to London. If you’re wondering about children, she has them off and on throughout but they are all left with other people – even Moll wonders at one stage if this is another way of saying they are taken away and murdered.

I think she works as a genteel prostitute for a while, but the striking thing is just how middle class Moll is – literate, Christian, more often in funds than not. She marries a plantation owner from Virginia, they live happily for some years until, Spoiler Alert, here is the central drama of the novel, she discovers that his mother is also her mother, her husband is her brother. Her husband/brother is willing to overlook this but she insists on separation and returns to England.

Time passes. While waiting for her banker to divorce his ‘harlot’ wife and marry her, she tries living in Lancashire and is there scammed into marrying a con man, with both parties believing the other more well off than is in fact the case. They nevertheless discover a considerable affection for each other and have an enjoyable honeymoon, resulting in a pregnancy which Moll must conceal from the banker. Back in London, she is rescued by a midwife, whom she calls her “governess”, who runs a home for unfortunate women. We learn that children may only be born in a parish which is willing to accept them, which these parish fathers do on the understanding that the Governess will make sure the children are fostered out.

She marries the banker. She’s getting on now, but I think she still has a couple of kids who fail to impinge on the story, or on her life. He loses all their money and dies of shame. She returns to live with the Governess, who now combines midwifery with receiving and pawnbroking. So for a number of years she rebuilds her fortune by stealing lace, cloth and silver until at last she is caught, jailed, tried and sentenced to hang.

In Newgate she turns or returns to religion and her sentence is commuted to transportation. She finds her ‘Lancashire husband’, for many years a successful highwayman, in jail too, and together they are shipped to Virginia, where she has enough money to negotiate their release, and then to Maryland where they establish their own plantation with ‘servants’ – English convicts and African slaves (the only difference being that the convicts were released when they’d served their time).

She locates and visits her son who has taken over his father’s/her brother’s estates, discovers she has inherited plantations from her mother, retires to England and dies prosperous, happy, and virtuous.

If you have the time, read it for yourself. It’s not the bawdy romp we are led to believe. More the life of second generation feminist three centuries ahead of her time.


Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, first pub. 1722. Text and audio versions available from Project Gutenberg (here)



22 thoughts on “Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe

  1. Typically, when someone recommends a really old novel to me, I assume it’s not for me. I can’t handle another the-life-of-an-unremarkable-man-who-did-bad-things-and-has-a-teen-bride-he’s-pretty-much-raping novel. Then, all the male reviewers of the day write what a wonderful gem this author is, and how his book will go down in history as a masterpiece. Gag.

    But, you’ve really got my interest with this novel, Bill! Weirdly your synopsis of the book up until “prosperous local family” really sounds a lot like that memoir I just reviewed called Prison Baby. I just put a hold on Moll Flanders to have it sent to my closest library branch. I’m going to read it to my spouse after I finish Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Book.


  2. That’s great Melanie. I don’t think Moll ever has non consensual sex, but then it is written by a guy. And yes, she does pretty well for a prison baby. I think you’ll find sections that drag,which I probably got through by tuning out and concentrating on my driving for a change, but overall it will be worth the effort (I hope!).

    Of old novels have you tried Evelina by Fanny Burney. The young heroine seemingly avoids rape at every turn. i think those old time guys thought all non-rich women were fair game.

    Liked by 1 person

      • It is an amusing review. And if I were a student I would make a tally of how many babies she had and how often she says what happened to them. For instance, she had 3 with her brother. One died, one survived to the end of the book, but what happened to the third? In answer to that reviewer: Moll’s choice wasn’t between incest and crime. A. She left that marriage relatively well off; and B. She found the idea of incest so immoral that she would have chosen death if that was the only other option.


      • Ha! I somehow missed your comment, Lisa, but I’m glad I came back and saw it. I did end up reading Moll after I read Bill’s review. While the spelling and odd punctuation could throw a person for a wild ride, I will say that it almost encourages a skimming. Not skimming in the sense that you’re skipping over passages or reading them poorly, but more like you’re sliding down a hill with no breaks, and that’s for the best. One thing I found most disrupting was the choice of end notes over footnotes in the Penguin Classic edition that I read.

        While the funny review suggests that Moll wouldn’t have had to struggle had she remained married to her brother, the ending suggests that she had a brilliant time being a thief and taking on various husbands and lovers. She was a striking woman and oftentimes ended up with men much younger than she. When Moll’s last husband died, I was firmly of the belief that this is a woman who is a product of her time and just trying to keep her head above water, as the Goodreads reviewer says, but that misses out on the Lancashire husband/lover, manipulating people to steal their goods, the “Oh, I should reaaaaally stop!” but not following through (and you can’t help but think she doesn’t really mean it). Overall, I had fun with this read, though I felt the part after Moll leaves Newgate and is on the ship to be transported to America (but it’s not headed out to sea yet, for some reason — the tide, maybe?) dragged.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s great Melanie, that you enjoyed it. We all have this picture in our heads that early novels are difficult reads, but I think now that up till all those sturdy Victorians, novelists just set out to amuse (well maybe not Bunyan). There have been good story tellers for ever, so it was no great step to start putting stories on paper. I enjoyed Moll, I enjoyed The Vicar of Wakefield (already more than 100 years old when Jo read it for her own amusement in Little Women). And I enjoyed Fanny Burney’s Evelina. I’m hoping to find lots more.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Melanie, you asked some time in the past couple of weeks did I see your 2nd comment on Moll Flanders. I’m relieved to say I did and I answered it.

        (I’m in Melbourne. The amount of smoke blanketing the eastern states is unbelievable, and extends hundreds of kilometres inland from the fires.)


  3. I don’t think I’ve ever read this, even though I have my English degree and all that stuff. The bit about “all the novels” is weird, isn’t it. Unless there are loads of lost ones, of course …


    • The Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say about ‘novel’: “fictitious prose narrative,” 1560s, from Italian novella “short story,” originally “new story, news,” from Latin novella “new things” (source of Middle French novelle, French nouvelle), neuter plural or fem. of novellus “new, young, recent,” diminutive of novus “new” (see new). Originally “one of the tales or short stories in a collection” (especially Boccaccio’s), later (1630s) “long prose fiction narrative or tale,” a type of work which had before that been called a romance.

      So by Defoe’s time the word – as it relates to books – had been around in English for a century or more. It would be interesting to identify the first usage (and another 100 years later, Walter Scott’s time, action novels at least were still being called ‘romances’)

      Walter Allen in The English Novel: a Short Critical History (1951) writes “The comparatively sudden appearance at the turn of the seventeenth century of the novel as we know it was a manifestation of a marked change in men’s interests.” (quoted by Dale Spender)

      This implies that there was a rush of what we now call “novels” in the years of and preceding Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, which Defoe appears to confirm.

      [Sorry! Your comment coincided with me sitting idle at the computer with a glass of wine].

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I read this back in the 1970s at university and remembered surprising myself by enjoying it – but I can’t remember the details. I would say though that it surely is a lot about the times – it’s just not about the political events of the times. Why do people seem to insist that writers white about the politics/ the big events of the times, and think that stories that tell how ordinary people lives – their cares, their values, their attitudes – are not worth much? The same criticism as you know is regularly levelled at Austen, but I don’t think you feel the same about her?


    • I wasn’t criticising Defoe for writing about ordinary people (which is more than Jane Austen did) or for ignoring politics, which wouldn’t have impinge on Moll. But Defoe completely ignored 4 years of civil war and the Great Fire. Do you think an inhabitant of Dresden in 1945 might have noticed/mentioned the war and the fires?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fair enough, Bill, probably not. I guess the question then is, why did Defoe who punished it in 1722, set the novel in the past. Is it the first historical fiction? Not Waverley?

        Wikipedia suggests it was based on the life of Moll King who was born in 1696, and whom Defoe met. If this is the case, she didn’t live through the times in which the novel is set. Is this why he doesn’t really mention them? Curiouser and curiouser.


      • First, I think Moll King is a furphy, she was barely 20 when the novel was being written, if her birthdate is correct – don’t you like the disclaimer at the beginning of her entry.

        I wouldn’t call MF Hist.Fic precisely because it contains almost no historical events. Interestingly Defoe was born after the Civil War, and was only 6 for the Great Fire. He could with no alteration to the plot have had MF born a quarter of a century later, 1635-40.

        I have another theory, and that is that MF was written by a woman. It reads like it was, and Defoe wasn’t credited as author until some years after his death.


  5. You’ve inspired me to go find my copy to see if it had an intro, which it does, although as far as I can work out the person who wrote the intro died in 1917! Anyhow, he talks a little about the possible inspirations and concludes that while it was “probably taken from the life of some real criminal” and that this person may some day be traced, we should “consider the tale merely as a work of fiction” and that it’s “evident that the whole books was written by Defoe, and that he did not merely revise the narrative told be the woman herself.” He then goes on to say that “the book is one of the most remarkable examples of true realism in the whole range of fiction”. Hmm a big call, even given he wrote this before 1917.

    Anyhow, he says, given the popularity in France of Zola, it’s not surprising that a translation of Moll Flanders was “one of the most successful books of the last season.” (I’m not sure what season he’s referring to.) The interesting point he makes is that although the book is set in the 17th century, its details, really, belong to the 18th century. He says that “not the least interesting aspect of the book is the excellent view it gives us of the manners of the middle classes under Queen Anne, and of the state of the Mint and Newgate, wit their glaring bribery and corruption.”

    So, not historical fiction on those grounds. However, I disagree with your definition of historical fiction. For me, and most definitions I’ve read, historical fiction is fiction set in the past and that conveys the lifestyle, customs, ideas of that past period. It does not have to be about specific historical events and/or people, though it often is.

    As for your theory about who wrote Moll Flanders. Who knows? Many books written in the past as you know – Austen’s included – didn’t identify the author’s name. I presume there’s real evidence linking Defoe to this but I don’t know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for all that work. I think your intro guy removes any thought of hist.fic because, despite the dates he attaches to MF, he has set her life clearly in his own times. But we all have our own theories!


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