Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?: Further Puzzles in Classic Fiction

Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?: Further Puzzles in Classic Fiction

by John Sutherland



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780192838841
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date: 09/23/1999
Series: Oxford World's Classics Series
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.80(d)
Lexile: 1190L (what's this?)

About the Author

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College, London.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Daniel Defoe • Moll Flanders

* * *

Why is Moll's younger brother older
than she is?


As Ian Watt notes in The Rise of the Novel, the attentive reader will find an 'inordinate number of cracks' in the plot of Moll Flanders. Some, in fact, are less cracks than gaping fissures. There are, Watt goes on to observe, two possible lines on the inconsistencies in Moll's account of her life, We can read her narrative 'ironically'. In this mode of reading 'errors' are assumed to have been cunningly planted by Defoe to be picked up by the wideawake reader. Defoe designed such glaring anomalies as Moll's remembering to the farthing the value of gold watches she stole twenty years ago, but forgetting the names (and even, apparently, the number) of her children. These are to be taken 'ironically' as signs of her incorrigible callousness. Similarly ironic are such jarring pieties as her reflection, after stealing a little girl's gold necklace, that by her theft she had 'given the parents a just reproof for their negligence, in leaving the poor lamb to come home by itself, and it would teach them to take more care next time' (p. 194). Like the sadistic Victorian flogger telling his victim that 'this hurts me more than it hurts you', Moll is—if we follow this line of explanation—a double-dyed hypocrite.

    Ian Watt eschews this super-subtlety. He prefers a reading of Moll Flanders which sees Daniel Defoe as a hurried writer, catering forreaders who were not trained—as modern 'sleuthing' readers are trained—in the intricacies of detective fiction. The novel had not fully risen, nor had the skills of the novel's consumers. 'We take novels much more seriously today,' Watt claims. Defoe, in his day, was a hasty writer for unserious readers; an artist who worked 'piecemeal, very rapidly, and without any subsequent revision'. Watt calculates that Defoe put out 'over three thousand pages of print in the year that saw Moll Flanders' and, we may assume, blotted very few of those pages.

    There are, to the modern eye, some astonishing anomalies in the novel. Moll, for example, signs off on the last page in 1683, with the information that she is 'almost seventy Years of Age'. This means that during the 1640s—while Moll is swanning around Virginia—there is a civil war going on in Britain. The conflict was particularly savage in Colchester, where the heroine has deposited two of her (nameless) children. That momentous upheaval is never mentioned, any more than is the execution of King Charles (worth a parenthesis, one would have thought) or the Restoration. The 'Great Fire of London' ravages the capital without Moll, apparently, noticing. She does, however, tell us in some detail about a household fire in which she is bruised by a mattress thrown out of a top window by a desperate occupant.

    One can, of course, rationalize these oversights in terms of Moll's class origins. The great waves of history wash over the working classes without their noticing. When Winston Smith (in Nineteen Eighty-Four) tries to extract from the old man in the pub what life before the Revolution was like, he is absolutely frustrated by the old prole's inability to know what he remembers or remember what he knows:

A sense of helplessness took hold of Winston. The old man's memory was nothing but a rubbish heap of details ... They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the expression on a long-dead sister's face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago; but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones.

    So too with Moll. She remembers the mattress, but forgets all the great historical events of what Dryden called the 'Annus Mirabilis', 1666. The Great Fire of London, the Dutch invasion of the Thames, the Wren rebuilding of the capital all pass unobserved. Dryden is the laureate's history. Moll's is 'prole' history. Bicycle pumps and mattresses. Like the 'ironic' approach, it's another flattering way of reading Defoe's fiction—flattering both to him and to us. But Watt's analysis is more convincing, in my view, than subtle readings which cast Moll as an 'unreliable narrator' and her omissions as 'symptomatically' self-revealing. Even Kurt Waldheim's amnesia did not extend to forgetting there was a war going on in 1939-1945.

    Ian Watt concludes that Moll Flanders is not a 'work of irony' but it is an 'ironic object' (p. 135). By which he means we can read it more sophisticatedly than Defoe wrote it but should be careful about reading our sophistication into the novel. None the less, one of the striking things about Defoe is how, in some important aspects, his narratives hold together well. Moll's age, for instance, is accurately recorded throughout all the complex vicissitudes of her life and emblazoned on the 1721 title-page (see overleaf).

    If, as Watt suspects, Defoe wrote at reckless speed he must surely have had a 'Memorandum' to hand to remind him of Moll's current age as he wrote. The narrative offers a chronologically coherent account of Moll's childhood until, at 'between seventeen and eighteen' (p. 18), she leaves the household where she has been seduced by one brother to marry the other. 'Betty' (as she is then called) is married five years, before Robin dies (p. 58). She promptly disposes of her two children to the care of their grandparents and, as a 23-year old widow, marries (after a few months' courtship) her gentleman draper. Their marriage lasts 'about two years and a quarter' (p. 62) before they part company (rendering Moll's subsequent 'marriages' bigamous—something that she conveniently forgets in her 'penitent' phase of life).

    At this point, Betty becomes 'Mrs Mary Flanders'—a handsome 25- or 26-year-old young woman of (apparent) means and respectability. After 'half-a-year's' interval (p. 66) in this character, Mary marries her American sea-captain. He takes her back as his new bride to his home in old Virginia, where they have three children; at which point, to her horror, she discovers that her husband is her half-brother.

    After eight years in America, Mary returns to Britain (p. 104), leaving her 'brother-husband' free to claim that she has died. He may thus marry again, if he wishes (she will, if she can). Moll is, she says, 'far from old' (p. 106) and must be, we calculate, around 34 when she migrates back to England. Although the years abroad have been hard on her, she is still a viable, if hardly nubile, commodity in the sex market. She now takes up residence in Bath, picking up (after a couple of seasons) with a wealthy man whose wife is insane. This arrangement lasts 'near two years', at which point. Mary must be 36 or 37.

    As her sexual charms wane she declines from 'friend' to 'whore'. 'Thief' is still to come, with menopause. Over the next 'six years' she bears three children (that we know about) to her 'protector' (p. 120.). As she now assesses her life, Moll ruefully notes:

I had the World to begin again; but you are to consider, that I was not now the same Woman as when I liv'd at Redriff [i.e. Rotherhithe]; for first of all I was near 20 Years older, and did not look the better for my Age, nor for my Rambles to Virginia and back again; and tho' I omitted nothing that might set me out to Advantage, except Painting, for that I never stoop'd to ... yet there would always be some difference seen between Five and Twenty, and Two and Forty. (p. 127)

     By Moll's own several accounts, we can confirm that she was indeed around 26 when she married her Virginian captain. He, we know, was born in the colony. As her 'mother-in-law' ('mother') tells Moll, when she (the older woman) arrived in Virginia, 'she very luckily fell into a good Family, where behaving herself well, and her Mistress dying, her Master married her, by whom she had my Husband and his Sister' (p. 88). We are told that this lady's son, Moll's husband, 'was above thirty' at the time of their arrival in Virginia—when Moll is, as calculated, 26-7. He is, therefore, some five years older than she (as a 'captain', he could scarcely be in his early twenties).

    There is a major problem here, created by Defoe's punctiliousness about his heroine's dates and chronology. If they were born to the same mother Moll must have entered the world in England at least five years before her mother can: (1) have emigrated to Virginia; (2) have worked as a servant until her mistress died; (3) have married her master; (4) have borne a son. That son (subsequently Moll's 'husband') must be significantly younger, not significantly older than his English sister.

    It could be one of the many 'cracks' in Defoe's narrative. But the anomaly usefully directs us back to Moll's brief, superficially clear, but actually very perplexing account of her origins. Her mother, as she says, was convicted of 'borrowing three pieces of fine Holland'. Of this crime, Moll says, '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' (p. 8). In the weeks while awaiting trial at Newgate, Moll's mother took the precaution of getting herself pregnant (by the gaoler, we assume). Hence the private joke in her later assumed name, 'Flanders'—three pieces of Holland procreated her.

    Moll's mother 'pleaded her belly' to escape, got herself a seven-month reprieve (she must have just made it), and subsequently had her sentence commuted to transportation. At six months, young Moll was consigned to the 'bad Hands' of 'some Relation of my Mothers' (p. 8), Her first conscious recollection is as a 3-year-old child among a nomadic company of Gypsies, to whom she was sold—evidently to be used as a child beggar or whore. Luckily, she somehow got away from this gypsy band, and found herself in Colchester—where her next fifteen years were to be spent.

    There are a number of oddities in this account. Clearly Moll knows her true name—although we never do. It is by this name that she identifies her mother, a quarter of a century later in Virginia. How does she know her name? The gypsies would surely have renamed her, to protect themselves. She can hardly have been baptized. Who was it who told her the circumstances of her mother's arrest and trial, 'so many Ways' that she cannot be sure 'which is the right Account'?

    If her unnamed maternal relatives told her, a 2-year-old girl at the time, the account would surely have fallen on uncomprehending ears. Who were these relatives of her mother, anyway? How did the gypsies come by her? And why—if the gypsies bought or abducted her—did they simply let her go? As a 3-year-old child, Moll can, by her own account, have known nothing of her origins—certainly not enough to fill in, as she does, missing parts of her mother's recollections many years later. It is difficult, on the narrative evidence, to see how she could even have known her own name.

    'Gypsy abduction' is a favourite childish fantasy. In order to make sense of the gross disparity of age between the heroine and her Virginian husband (more so given Defoe's accuracy elsewhere about this aspect of his plot), one is driven to assume that Moll is lying. She was more than 3 when she arrived in Colchester, and there is some prehistory which we do not know about. Moll, we deduce, is some years older than she claims and is clumsily masking what she knows of her birth and that disreputable 'Relation of my Mothers'. Whores' penitential confessions are, by their nature, suspect documents. By opening with a precise, but so easily exploded (and arguably romantic), account of her origins, Moll brands herself as untrustworthy, but not for that reason entirely unsympathetic. Who, with Moll's past, would not tell a few fibs about her childhood?

The Oxford World's Classics Moll Flanders is edited by G. A. Starr.

Table of Contents

Introduction and Acknowledgementsix
Why is Moll's younger brother older than she is? 1
Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders (1722)
Who has Susan been talking to? 9
Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (1749)
Who betrays Elizabeth Bennet? 17
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
What do we know about Frances Price (the first)? 23
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)
Apple blossom in Jane—again 28
Jane Austen, Emma (1816)
How old is Frank? 34
Walter Scott, Rob Roy (1817)
Why is the monster yellow? 39
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)
Does Dickens lynch Fagin? 44
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (1837-8)
How do the Cratchits cook Scrooge's turkey? 49
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)
How many siblings has Dobbin? 55
W. M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1847-8)
Heathcliff's toothbrush 67
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847)
Does Carker have false teeth? 78
Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (1846-8)
Lucy Snowe, cement-mixer 87
Charlotte Brontë, Villette (1853)
Is Betsey Trotwood a spinster? 90
Charles Dickens,David Copperfield (1849-50)
How does Ruth end up in Wales? 102
Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth (1853)
What is Henry Esmond's `great scheme'? 108
W. M. Thackeray, Henry Esmond (1852)
What kills Lady Dedlock? 115
Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852-3)
What are Mr Hale's `doubts'? 128
Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South (1854-5)
Name Games139
Where does Sydney Carton get his chloroform? 149
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Why doesn't Laura tell her own story? 161
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (1859-60)
Why was Pip not invited to Joe's wedding? 168
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1860-1)
Should we change the end of the The Mill on the Floss? 175
George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (1860)
How long is Alice in Wonderland for? 182
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
Does Dickens know his train signals? 185
Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1864-5)
Is Franklin Blake a thief and a rapist? 191
Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868)
Elms, limes, or does it matter? 197
George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871-2)
How criminal is Melmotte and when is he criminalized? 202
Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (1875)
Jules Verne and the English Sunday 211
Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days (1872)
What happens to Jim's family? 215
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn (1884)
What English novel is Anna reading? 219
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
Why are there no public conveniences in Casterbridge? 224
Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
Cabinets and detectives 232
A. Conan Doyle, `A Scandal in Bohemia' (1892)
Why isn't everyone a vampire? 238
Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)

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