Reviewed by: Hallie Rubenhold
Author: Sian Rees
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Price (RRP): £18.99
it goes without saying that writing ‘a life and times’ of a personality who never actually lived is going to present a few difficulties for a historian.
If the individual in question is Moll Flanders, the eponymous heroine of Daniel Defoe’s famous novel, and the subject of numerous television and film adaptations, the feat becomes even more of a challenge.
From a historical perspective, what is there to be said on the subject of a fictitious adventuress? A great deal, Rees argues in her fascinating and expertly researched new book.
As the author sets out to explain, most of what we think we know about Defoe’s creation is actually wrong. Somewhere between the early 18th century, when Defoe wrote his novel, and the 20th century, when Hollywood began to reinterpret it, much of the original story and its context has been lost.
When The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders first appeared in 1722, contemporaries viewed the book as everything from a spiritual biography to a work of political criticism, which took issue with the justice system and the status of women.
As Rees goes on to say, that which it wasn’t intended to be was an erotic text. Instead, it was later generations who came to view it as this, and to erroneously characterise Moll as a street walking whore, rather than “a woman who simply had sex outside of marriage”,
in order to secure her position.
While removing Moll from the clutches of the modern media, Rees firmly repositions Defoe’s work back in its appropriate context. We’re reminded that, in spite of its publication in the 18th century, Moll Flanders is a 17th-century tale, and its heroine, very much the product of a puritanical age.
Similarly, modern readers have forgotten that the story’s setting is as American as it is English, as, “Moll spends as much time in the tobacco fields as she does in the London underworld”.
With our bearings corrected, Rees sets off on a journey through the sordid corners and corrupt institutions, the convict ships and domestic rooms that made up Moll’s (or rather Defoe’s) existence.
It is here where Rees’s skill as a masterful researcher and a story teller truly shines. We are given a detailed tour of the workings and contexts of Moll’s world – taken from London to Virginia, and introduced to everything from the practices of midwifery to indentured servitude.
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Just as Defoe seeks to make clear the injustices of his time, so Rees’s focus is on telling the tales of the era’s dispossessed. The most remarkable of these are the stories that she recounts of the real women whom she believes inspired Defoe.
The brothel keeper Mary Frith, aka ‘Moll Cutpurse’, the bigamous thief and fraudster Mary Carleton, alias ‘Kentish Moll’, and Moll King, a notorious pickpocket who was transported to America, all had been the subjects of numerous ballads and publications during Defoe’s lifetime, and resonances of their histories can be found throughout his novel.
In her work, Sian Rees has succeeded in painting an almost three dimensional context for Defoe’s celebrated novel. Moll Flanders is merely the peg on which she hangs a thoroughly engrossing study of 17th-century life.
Hallie Rubenhold is a social historian and the author of Mistress of My Fate: The Confessions of Henrietta Lightfoot (Doubleday, 2011)