Moll Flanders: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (Penguin Classics) - Daniel Defoe, David Blewett

In full, the title page of this novel reads The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times 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. Written from her own Memorandums. This plot summary doesn't indicate the most interesting part of the novel, namely how Moll did all these things. The other appeal of the book, of course, is the panorama it presents of the social relations of the time.

I note that Moll almost always manages to present herself as a gentlewoman, although she is not one, neither by birth nor by legitimate marriage. She takes pains to maintain certain standards of appearance, speech, and manners, which stands her in good stead many times over, and at last enables her to buy her freedom in the Colonies and pass there as a respectable citizen. This seems to be Defoe's commentary on the difficulty of knowing anyone's true background in the changing, enterprising society of his time; indeed there are many people in this story who put up a front of more respectability than they can honestly claim, or who seem more prosperous than they really are. In the Colonies, Moll finds lasting prosperity and durable reputation; Defoe apparently regards it as a place where the past is washed away, origins count for little or nothing, and appearance really is substance.

Much of the important substance of the book is composed of the various delicate negotiations Moll must undertake in order to find and secure a husband or a lover, to extract as much material security as possible from the relationship, and on occasion to get out of it if it's troublesome. These connections are nearly her only means of making a living, yet Moll doesn't see her dependent economic position as meaning she must sacrifice her own goals (which she constantly seeks means to pursue), nor cease from having her own thoughts and keeping secrets as she sees fit. (Interestingly, her last and most loving marriage is with a man who is clearly dependent on her: she's saved her highwayman's life twice, she's richer than him, and he constantly needs her advice as to how to make a living in the Colonies -- which he's humbly aware of.) Moll does always make it a point of honor to stay faithful to a relationship as long as it lasts. It's only when, at the age of 50, she sees no prospect of getting another man, that she turns to theft.

At that point, she's part of a mutually-aiding society of other thieves, mostly women. This companionship would be a good thing if only it weren't under the shadow of the gallows. She's honestly distressed any time any of her companions come to a bad end. Even before that, women had sometimes helped her in her affairs, and she had returned the favor (as with the woman whose supposed fortune she talked up to allow her to marry well).

Like every other modern reader I wondered whether the cavalier, plot-driven way that Moll's children appear and disappear in this book is due to the author being a man. More seriously, I was displeased by Defoe's crass morality that lasting material prosperity is the result of piety, whereas misfortune is the result of sin -- at least that is what he seems to be saying. However, aside from that, I liked this book very much.