Moll Flanders (Modern Library Series)

Moll Flanders (Modern Library Series)

3.6 126
by Daniel Defoe

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Moll Flanders is, according to Virginia Woolf, one of the "few English novels which we can call indisputably great." Written by Defoe in 1722 under a pseudonym so his readers would think it an actual journal of the ribald fortunes and misfortunes of a woman in eighteenth-century London, the book remains a picaresque novel of astonishing vitality. From her birth


Moll Flanders is, according to Virginia Woolf, one of the "few English novels which we can call indisputably great." Written by Defoe in 1722 under a pseudonym so his readers would think it an actual journal of the ribald fortunes and misfortunes of a woman in eighteenth-century London, the book remains a picaresque novel of astonishing vitality. From her birth in Newgate Prison to her ascent to a position of wealth and stature, Moll Flanders demonstrates both a mercantile spirit and an indomitable will. This vivid saga of an irresistible and notorious heroine--her high misdemeanors and delinquencies, her varied careers as a prostitute, a charming and faithful wife, a thief, and a convict--endures today as one of the liveliest, most candid records of a woman's progress through the hypocritical labyrinth of society ever recorded. "Defoe seems to have taken his characters so deeply into his mind that he lived them without exactly knowing how," wrote Virginia Woolf. "Like all unconscious artists, he leaves more gold in his work than his own generation was able to bring to the surface."

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MY TRUE NAME is so well known in the records or registers at Newgate, and in the Old Bailey, and there are some things of such consequence still depending there, relating to my particular conduct, that it is not to be expected I should set my name or the account of my family to this work; perhaps, after my death, it may be better known; at present it would not be proper, no, not though a general pardon should be issued, even without exceptions and reserve of persons or crimes.

It is enough to tell you, that as some of my worst comrades, who are out of the way of doing me harm (having gone out of the world by the steps and the string as I often expected to go), knew me by the name of Moll Flanders, so you may give me leave to speak of myself under that name till I dare own who I have been, as well as who I am.

I have been told that in one of neighbour nations, whether it be in France or where else I know not, they have an order from the king, that when any criminal is condemned, either to die, or to the galleys, or to be transported, if they leave any children, as such are generally unprovided for, by the poverty or forfeiture of their parents, so they are immediately taken into the care of the Government, and put into an hospital called the House of Orphans, where they are bred up, clothed, fed, taught, and when fit to go out, are placed out to trades or to services, so as to be well able to provide for themselves by an honest, industrious behaviour.

Had this been the custom in our country, I had not been left a poor desolate girl without friends, without clothes, without help or helper in the world, as was my fate; and by which I was not only exposed to very great distresses, even before I was capable either of understanding my case or how to amend it, but brought into a course of life which was not only scandalous in itself, but which in its ordinary course tended to the swift destruction both of soul and body.

But the case was otherwise here. My mother was convicted of felony for a certain petty theft scarce worth naming, viz. having an opportunity of borrowing three pieces of fine holland of a certain draper in Cheapside. The circumstances are too long to repeat, and I have heard them related so many ways, that I can scarce be certain which is the right account.

However it was, this they all agree in, that my mother pleaded her belly, and being found quick with child, she was respited for about seven months; in which time having brought me into the world, and being about again, she was called down, as they term it, to her former judgment, but obtained the favour of being transported to the plantations, and left me about half a year old; and in bad hands, you may be sure.

This is too near the first hours of my life for me to relate anything of myself but by hearsay; it is enough to mention, that as I was born in such an unhappy place, I had no parish to have recourse to for my nourishment in my infancy; nor can I give the least account how I was kept alive, other than that, as I have been told, some relation of my mother's took me away for a while as a nurse, but at whose expense, or by whose direction, I know nothing at all of it.

The first account that I can recollect, or could ever learn of myself, was that I had wandered among a crew of those people they call gypsies, or Egyptians; but I believe it was but a very little while that I had been among them, for I had not had my skin discoloured or blackened, as they do very young to all the children they carry about with them; nor can I tell how I came among them, or how I got from them.

It was at Colchester, in Essex, that those people left me; and I have a notion in my head that I left them there (that is, that I hid myself and would not go any farther with them), but I am not able to be particular in that account; only this I remember, that being taken up by some of the parish officers of Colchester, I gave an account that I came into the town with the gypsies, but that I would not go any farther with them, and that so they had left me, but whither they were gone that I knew not, nor could they expect it of me; for though they sent round the country to inquire after them, it seems they could not be found.

I was now in a way to be provided for; for though I was not a parish charge upon this or that part of the town by law, yet as my case came to be known, and that I was too young to do any work, being not above three years old, compassion moved the magistrates of the town to order some care to be taken of me, and I became one of their own as much as if I had been born in the place.

In the provision they made for me, it was my good hap to be put to nurse, as they call it, to a woman who was indeed poor but had been in better circumstances, and who got a little livelihood by taking such as I was supposed to be, and keeping them with all necessaries, till they were at a certain age, in which it might be supposed they might go to service or get their own bread.

This woman had also had a little school, which she kept to teach children to read and to work; and having, as I have said, lived before that in good fashion, she bred up the children she took with a great deal of art, as well as with a great deal of care.

But that which was worth all the rest, she bred them up very religiously, being herself a very sober, pious woman, very housewifely and clean, and very mannerly, and with good behaviour. So that in a word, excepting a plain diet, coarse lodging, and mean clothes, we were brought up as mannerly and as genteelly as if we had been at the dancing-school.

I was continued here till I was eight years old, when I was terrified with news that the magistrates (as I think they called them) had ordered that I should go to service. I was able to do but very little service wherever I was to go, except it was to run of errands and be a drudge to some cookmaid, and this they told me of often, which put me into a great fright; for I had a thorough aversion to going to service, as they called it (that is, to be a servant), though I was so young; and I told my nurse, as we called her, that I believed I could get my living without going to service, if she pleased to let me; for she had taught me to work with my needle, and spin worsted, which is the chief trade of that city, and I told her that if she would keep me, I would work for her, and I would work very hard.

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Virginia Woolf
Moll Flanders has a spirit that loves to breast the storm. She delights in the exercise of her own powers.

Meet the Author

Daniel Defoe--arguably the most prolific writer in the English language and considered by many the father of the novel and the founder of modern journalism--was born at St. Giles, Cripplegate, in the heart of the City of London, probably in the fall of 1660. He was the third child and only son of James Foe, a prosperous tallow chandler of Flemish ancestry, and his wife, Alice. (The author assumed the more genteel name of Defoe when he reached the age of thirty-five.) Two years later, in 1662, the family left the Church of England to become Presbyterian Dissenters, who were barred from universities and from civil and military service. Consequently, young Defoe studied for the Presbyterian ministry at the Reverend Charles Morton's highly respected Academy for Dissenters at Newington Green north of London.

In 1682, however, Defoe decided against a career in the Nonconformist church and soon established himself as a merchant in Cornhill, near the Royal Exchange. In 1684, he married Mary Tuffley, who brought with her a sizable dowry. During their lifetime together she bore him eight children, six of whom lived to adulthood. After serving briefly in the Duke of Monmouth's ill-fated rebellion against the soon-to-be-deposed James II, Defoe bought a pardon from the government, became a successful tradesman in various commodities, traveled extensively in England and on the Continent, and published several political tracts. Yet by 1692, reckless investments forced him to declare bankruptcy for ú17,000, then the equivalent of a small fortune. He eventually paid his creditors but was never entirely free from debt again.

It was perhaps inevitable that Defoe--an outspoken "freeman" of the City of London as well as a Puritan with a mission to print the truth even if it often meant satirizing the hypocrisies of church and state--would eventually find his calling as a prodigious pamphleteer during one of the most tumultuous periods in English history. His first significant publication was An Essay upon Projects (1697); the book (which exerted a lasting influence on Benjamin Franklin) advocated a number of imaginative economic and social reforms, including a system of national relief for the poor and education for women.

But it was not until the appearance in 1701 of The True-Born Englishman, a bestselling satirical poem ridiculing the opponents of William III, whom Defoe served as a propagandist, that he achieved fame. Notoriety soon followed, however, with "The Shortest Way with the Dissenters" (1702), an ill-timed mock-sermon lampooning High Church intolerance, which resulted in his arrest for seditious libel in 1703. Imprisoned and sentenced to stand in the pillory, the author won over the mob by distributing copies of "A Hymn to the Pillory" (1703), a poem declaring the inability of such a punishment to injure an honest man. As Defoe later wrote: "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."

Released through the intervention of Robert Harley, a moderate Tory minister, Defoe was soon pressed into service as a spy (he traveled throughout England and Scotland, actively promoting their union) and political journalist. From 1704 to 1713 he nearly single-handedly wrote the Review, a pro-government newspaper that was, nevertheless, the liveliest tabloid to appear in England up to that time. Eventually published thrice weekly, it even featured a modern "advice" column, and many of the articles still make entertaining reading.

A prolific and versatile writer, Defoe produced hundreds of works on every conceivable subject: politics, geography, crime, religion, economics, marriage, psychology, and even superstition. In 1715 he brought out The Family Instructor, the first of his bestselling books on personal conduct. After the accession of George I to the English throne in 1714 (and the fall of Harley), Defoe was once again arrested for debt, and his satirical pamphlets were judged treasonable. However, he was released through official influence and soon began editing the journal Mercurius Politicus from 1716 to 1720 on behalf of the Whig ministry. Afterward, in perhaps his most famous "collaboration," Defoe wrote for the Weekly Journal, or Saturday's Post, which enjoyed a circulation of some 10,000 copies a week, and later contributed to Applebee's Original Weekly Journal.

Then, in 1719 at the age of fifty-nine, Defoe turned to fiction, writing Robinson Crusoe. Partly based on the memoirs of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor, and others, the landmark book was published as autobiography, with the intention of preaching a sound moral and shaping public opinion. Likewise, his subsequent novels--Captain Singleton (1720), Moll Flanders (1722), A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Colonel Jack (1722), and Roxana (1724)--were brought out as diaries or autobiographies of supposedly real people. Nevertheless, as Virginia Woolf noted, Defoe had indeed "shaped the novel and launched it on its way." And James Joyce observed, "Defoe was the first English author to write without imitating or adapting foreign works, to create without literary models and to infuse into the creatures of his pen a truly national spirit, to devise for himself an artistic form which is perhaps without precedent."

In his final years, Defoe's writing focused on the direct treatment of subjects that had always interested him--travel, economics, geography, and the social problems of England. His works during this period included the three-volume guide A Tour Thro' the whole Island of Great Britain (1724-26), The Complete English Tradesman (1726), The Political History of the Devil (1726), "Augusta Triumphans: Or, The Way to Make London the Most Flourishing City in the Universe" (1728), A Plan Of The English Commerce (1728), An Effectual Scheme for the Immediate Preventing of Street Robberies, and Suppressing All Other Disorders of the Night (1731), and The Complete English Gentleman (not published until 1890).

Daniel Defoe was still dodging creditors when he died of a stroke on April 24, 1731, at his lodgings in Rope Makers' Alley, not far from the area of London where he had lived as a child. He was buried two days later in the Dissenters cemetery at Bunhill Fields.

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Moll Flanders (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 126 reviews.
Kiwikay More than 1 year ago
After watching an old BBC mini-series ( with a young Daniel Craig no less!) I decided to re-read Moll Flanders. I had forgotten the biting wit and social commentary of Daniel Defoe. Almost three centuries later it still seems relavent. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Takes some commitment to get through the somewhat pendantic writing style of the era but well worth it. If you once read Moll Flanders because you had to, try it again. Like me you may find it enjoyable this time.
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Really enjoyed this book. I could not put it down.
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Another great classic.
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AnnieBM More than 1 year ago
A poet friend got me this book because it was one of her favorites. I admit it took me a bit to get into it. But it is quite a story and bears a lot of reflection. I really enjoyed the story -- all the challenges in life that Moll has and meets. A resourceful, wise, and practical woman can survive anything. I highly recommend this to all women.
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