The Life and Times of Moll Flanders

Author(s): Sian Rees
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Pages: 240
ISBN: 9780701185077
ASIN: 0701185074
Release Date: 7th July 2011


Over the years Daniel Defoe's creation Moll Flanders has had bad press. Film and television adaptations have sensationalised and romanticised her exploits. The BBC's 1995 version starring Alex Kingston had Moll as an amoral prostitute with heaving bosoms and lesbian tendencies. Such broadcasts have skewed the public's perception. Whilst Moll may be imbued in the public's psyche, very few will have picked up the book and actually read it and formed their own judgement. Of course the BBC's addition of girl/girl scenes was pandering to the male audience, whilst the bordello settings would be because Moll termed herself a 'whore'. In reality, 'whore' in the seventeenth century referred to a woman who had sex outside of marriage, and not those who were selling their bodies.

Daniel Defoe has been the subject of many biographies and yet despite the research, he remains an elusive and shady figure. He was at times a merchant and a bankrupt, a government soldier and spy, member of a banned religious sect, pamphleteer and jobbing journalist. It is presumed he turned to writing Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe to pay for the upkeep of his family after various business failures. The exploits of his literary heroes were drawn from his experiences, and from the events of the times to which he was ideally positioned to use. Sian Rees' The Life and Times of Moll Flanders merges this strand into others – the book is part Defoe biography, part Moll Flanders biography / deconstruction and part social history. She flips effortlessly between present tense when discussing the life of Moll, and past tense when the subject is Defoe and the times in which he lived. Whilst this mechanism may on the face of it appear clunky and jarring, in reality the reader won't have any difficulty in inhabiting the space to which Rees intends.

Rees has researched her book extensively and references scholarly works that place context upon Moll's deeds. For instance, as a teenager Moll was employed as a maid in a well-heeled family; she had an illicit affair with her employers' eldest son and became pregnant. Rees quotes the work of Lawrence Stone, a well respected chronicler of family life in those times. She explains that the practice of bundling was commonplace – parents would manufacture the circumstances where a courting couple could be left alone to 'kiss and cuddle – the practice now unattractively known as heavy petting' which of course could lead to pregnancy should ardour escalate. This is a rare slip from Rees – kissing and cuddling is not the same as heavy petting, and in fact the phrase 'heavy petting' is not common currency, tending merely to be used by the middle aged – I.e. Rees herself.

Pregnancy outside wedlock was to be avoided in an era mired with religious hypocrisy and lack of tolerance. A magistrate had the power to inflict severe penalties for the offence of incontinence - a catch-all phrase for fornication, adultery and illegitimacy. Moll, a young lady born to a mother who had escaped the gallows only to be transported to Virginia, and who had been weaned inside a prison, was thus in a vulnerable position having conceived a child. From that point hence, Moll's debauched adventures begin as she works her way through numerous marriages, gives birth to many children who are quickly discarded, becomes a bigamist, unintentionally marries her own brother, and ends her day as an accomplished thief in the foetid slums of London.

Rees' work is astonishingly detailed and thorough and marks her as a leading historian. It would have been useful for her to speak more of the scale of the inner city deprivation in terms of numbers of those forced to make a living illegally. The penalty for theft of any object with a value of more than one shilling was death; in many instances this would be commuted to colonial exile. Regardless of this with such severe penalties one would assume low crime rates yet Rees neglects to inform the reader whether this was the case. Of course with no welfare state and no pensions, an income was always needed until death which must have forced many to a life of crime. Notwithstanding these concerns, this is an entertaining read and who knows? It may just prompt a few to read the original text.