Defoe’s Moll

January 27: On this day in 1722 Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders was published. Defoe’s title page offers one of literature’s longest come-hithers, and casts a wide net: “The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders &c who was born at Newgate, and during a Life of continued Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five time a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent.” Lest readers get too much of the wrong idea, Defoe follows this up with a preface in which we are told that the Penitent part of the story is uplifting, that the Whore-Thief part is instructional, that the author was “hard put to wrap it up so clean,” and that if some find the tale over-stimulating they should not blame the author for the bent of their own “gust and palate.”

Despite the winking tone, Defoe was no libertine, and some of his prolific writing is aimed at a very different market. He had previously published two manuals on good living, The Family Instructor and Religious Courtship, and would soon write a third — though perhaps the success of Moll’s story had an influence here, as it is titled Conjugal Lewdness or Matrimonial Whoredom, a Treatise concerning the use and abuse of the Marriage Bed. Like Moll, Defoe’s main motivation was money — he died while in hiding from creditors — and his roller-coaster life sometimes paused in similar places:

In the School of Affliction I have learnt more Philosophy than at the Academy, and more Divinity than from the Pulpit: In Prison I have learnt to know that Liberty does not consist in open Doors, and the free Egress and Regress of Locomotion. I have seen the rough side of the World as well as the smooth, and have in less than half a Year tasted the difference between the Closet of a King, and the Dungeon of Newgate.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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