Moll: The Life and Times of Moll Flanders

Moll: The Life and Times of Moll Flanders
Siân Rees
Chatto and Windus  288pp  £18.99
ISBN 978 0701185077

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If you thought Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders was the 18th century’s Belle de Jour then prepare to stand corrected. Most often portrayed as a bodice-ripping wench sexing up the Georgians, of all fiction’s heroines Defoe’s Moll has perhaps been done the greatest disservice in dramatised adaptations. As Siân Rees’ new book reminds us, Moll was, in fact, not really conceived as an 18th-century gal at all. Although the novel was published in 1722, Defoe imagines his heroine putting pen to paper to recount ‘her’ tale in the late 17th century. By then she is looking back on a long life lived among befrilled Jacobeans and penitent Puritans rather than amid the boisterous and bewigged Hanoverians. Nor was mistress Moll that much of a wench, or at least not in the way subsequent scriptwriters have imagined. To be sure Defoe uses a lengthy subtitle to brand her as ‘twelve years a whore’ – condemning Moll to an inevitably fleshy cinematic fate – yet he also adds that she was ‘five times a wife’. It does not make for such good telly, but it was sex and love within marriages and misfortunate affairs (not procured, prostituted sex) that Defoe featured in Moll Flanders.

Rees’ book rescues Moll from her modern re-invention as a naughty Georgian pin-up and restores her to the 17th-century context of Defoe’s original tale. While following Moll’s fictionalised adventures, Rees is concerned with the broader ‘life and times’ of Moll, reconstructing the historical realities of the international places, crooked figures and tumultuous experiences that are encountered by Defoe’s heroine. Making clever use of the online Old Bailey records and the plethora of best-selling criminal biographies from the 17th and 18th centuries, Rees uncovers all manner of entertaining stories. Defoe’s Moll, for example, was literally a woman of the world, transported as penal punishment but also travelling through free choice to the American colonies. Her fate, Rees finds, was shared by many tried for a capital crime but spared the gallows to populate the new lands of Virginia. Tilling land, bearing children and fighting the indigenous people were the likes of Ralph Rookes (indicted in 1618 for ‘incorrigible vagabondage’), Jan Goodwyn (convicted in 1619 for pinching a petticoat) and William Hill (charged in 1621 with stealing a bull), all ‘respited to Virginia’ for their crimes.

Back in Britain Rees discovers whole casts of colourful characters who had something of Defoe’s Moll and her associates about them: ‘Kentish Moll’, one Mary Moders, fraudulently snared gullible man after gullible man into bigamous wedlock; while Mary Frith (alias ‘Moll Cutpurse’) was an infamous 17th-century thief who cut pockets and purses from the clothing of their owners and later enjoyed a lucrative career receiving stolen goods and repatriating them to their owners in exchange for a handsome reward. Her exploits, Rees notes, mirror those of ‘Mother Midnight’, who managed the scurrilous world of thievery into which Defoe’s Moll is temporarily drawn. Then there was the notorious Moll King, a sophisticated pickpocket who carried a pair of false arms which she posed in prayer to distract churchgoers from the fact that her real hands were pilfering their pockets.

Could these real life rogues be the inspiration for Defoe’s Moll, Rees wonders? Quite possibly. Their histories, as well as those of the lesser-known figures Rees recounts in her book, certainly reveal something of the realities of the world Defoe crafts in his novel. Foregrounding riveting historical fact to colour Defoe’s famous fiction, Rees offers a lively 17th-century history with the misfortunate Moll Flanders as its inspiration.

Hannah Greig is Lecturer in British History at the University of York

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