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)



Aphra Behn


For some reason the writers of my childhood, all British of course, all regarded being ruled by Kings as natural, desirable and romantic and being ruled by themselves as unthinkable, and this was particularly the case in relation to the English Civil War (1642-1651). I’m thinking of Children of the New Forest, all those Bonnie Prince Charlie stories, and the execrable Scarlet Pimpernel, which we were expected to read (uncritically!) in high school. I’m proud to say that I was an unnatural child and took the side of Cromwell and Robespierre, and of even more obscure figures like Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers.

Which is by way of coming to Aphra Behn (1640-1689) who was a novelist, a feminist and, sadly, a royalist.

I am of course slowly(!) making my way through Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel. At this rate WG will be able to start her reading some time next year and still beat me to the end. Spender writes that when she started Mothers she thought she would find that Behn was the first woman writer, but as we saw in an earlier post she was able to push that honour back another half century, to Mary Wroth and Margaret Cavendish. Spender still claims that Behn was the first woman to earn her living by writing, but she also makes that claim for Wroth.

Excesses of all kinds were forbidden during the Commonwealth, but the opposite was true under Charles II following the Restoration in 1660. Theatre flourished –

The popularity of the stage and the revitalisation of drama – and ‘immoral’ and bawdy drama at that – reflected the shift in interest and taste, and suggested new realms of literary possibility.

Aphra Behn’s writing reflects these times and mores, but Spender argues that ‘immorality’ also gave the male literary establishment the fig leaf it needed to ignore her. So, despite her 13 novels (and reams of plays and poetry), Daniel Defoe who wrote Robinson Crusoe 30 years later, is generally credited with the invention of the novel. Behn was also accused of having no Latin or Greek, but as she herself pointed out, neither did Shakespeare.

Behn’s early life is unknown but it seems she sailed to Suriname in the West Indies – the setting for her most famous work, Oroonoko – in the late 1650s or early 1660s; returned to London in 1664; married Mr Behn, a merchant who died or departed soon after; was a spy for Charles in the Netherlands in 1666; incurred debts for which she was briefly imprisoned; began writing poetry and then comic verse plays, the first of which, Forc’d Marriage was produced in 1670.

She turned to writing novels after wearing out her welcome in the theatre – her plays often attacked prominent Whigs (politicians seeking to impose limits on the power of the King). Spender says this was a natural progression as there were only two playhouses in London, so limited opportunities for production, and dramas were often circulated as scripts.

This meant that Aphra Behn was quite used to thinking of the presentation of her dramatic stories in printed form. It also meant that the reading public had been prepared for prose stories in print through their familiarity with published plays.

Behn was a successful professional writer who both anticipated the desire of her public for bawdy romantic comedies and was still able to present the issues that interested her – the abolition of slavery, the lives of ordinary people, and a woman’s perspective on relationships rather than deeds.

 With her representation of the world which is distinctly not that of the dominant sex, Aphra Behn symbolises the nature and extent of the omissions while women are excluded from the literary canon. In her choice of subject matter, her commentary, and her style, she illustrates some of the differences in outlook between women and men; even her sense of humour – which frequently makes men the butt of the joke – contrasts markedly to the forms to which we are accustomed, and in which it is the humour of men that prevails.

Spender gets angry a lot. Justifiably I know, but wearing.

… when Aphra Behn became the first woman to seek commercial publication, she plunged right into the problem that has plagued women writers ever since. The problem of having to obtain the approval of men.

Behn believed and wrote “that justice called for a single moral standard for both sexes”, but remained aware that men’s occupation was obtaining a paid place in the world, while women’s was obtaining a man who could support them. Spender does not say “Behn’s first novel was …” but provides a list of works by and about her which goes on for two and a half pages. From it I gleaned that her novels were –

The Adventures of the Black Lady (1684)
Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave, a True History (1688)
Agnes de Castro, or The Force of Generous Love (1688)
The Fair Jilt, or The History of Prince Tarquin and Miranda (1688)
The Unfortunate Bride, or The Blind Lady a Beauty (1688)
The Lucky Mistake (1689)

The Novels of Aphra Behn (1905) includes all the above plus –

The Nun
The Lover’s Watch
The Case for the Watch
The Lady’s Looking Glass to Dress Herself By
The Lucky Mistake
The Court of the King of Bantam

That’s twelve novels, Britannica adds –

Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister (1683) an epistolary novel of which Spender writes “Attributed to Aphra Behn, but not included in her ‘Works'”.

The first Collected Novels (with a Life) came out in 1696 and others subsequently in 1771, 1886 and 1905, so I’m not sure how Behn managed to be omitted from the canon. Wilful blindness probably, as in Australia with Spence, Praed, Cambridge, Martin. Vita Sackville West wrote a biography in 1927 – Aphra Behn, The Incomparable Astrea – and Virginia Woolf wrote glowingly of Behn in A Room of Ones Own (1928).

The Nun may in fact be two novels – The Nun, or The Perjured Beauty and The Nun, or The Fair Vow-breaker – they, along with The Fair Jilt, portray convents as little more than brothels and are, according to Spender, laugh out loud funny.

Oroonoko, a short novel which was also made into a popular play, draws on Behn’s experience of Suriname (sometimes disputed but almost certainly genuine) with detailed descriptions of flora, fauna and scenery. Oroonoko had been a prince in Africa, he and his wife are enslaved and transported. He escapes, kills his wife rather than allow her to be tortured, is captured and hacked to death (So no happy ending, then!). Sackville-West suggested, “Oroonoko resembles those seventeenth century paintings of negroes in plumes and satins, rather than an actual slave on a practical plantation.” But,” Spender writes, “nonetheless we are provided with a horrific portrayal of slavery. There is no doubt we are intended to deplore its practices.”

Project Gutenberg (here) has the works of Aphra Benn in six volumes plus Love Letters. Looking on Goodreads, Penguin Classics has published at least Oroonoko and Love Letters.


Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel, Pandora, London, 1986