Book Review: Moll Flanders

I fully expected to enjoy this book. Among my favorites are so many of the classics: Wuthering Heights, Emma, Anna Karenina… you know, all that old stuff. And while I understand how this book made quite a sensation—because of subject matter, narrator choice, and even story set-up—I don’t see how it’s still clinging on to reading lists, these days. Maybe to make a point, or three points as referred to above. At the time, a male author presenting a story from the point of view of a strong female who basically slept around for financial security (because, really, what else was she going to do?) as well as committed countless robberies and (inadvertently) incest and the whole thing presented as a peek into her chronological life almost as if it were a journal: this is all super big stuff in the 1700s. I could hardly believe the book was that old. But it is, and we see that in the s-loooooow moving plot, the endless jabbering and details about nothing in particular (or about Moll’s thought process), the repetition, the repetition, the archaic language that is occasionally difficult to understand… We modern readers prefer a lot more money where the author’s mouth is, a lot more action and painting detailed internal images with fewer words, like poetry. For us, each scene and character must be razor sharp and pointed at one final thing. In the 1700s, they could just sit around a fire all night listening to the umpteenth reading of 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. (Yes, that is the entire, original title.)

Cuz here’s the thing: this novel was not an original story, and was always assumed to be based on the real life of one Moll something-or-other, an actual 17th century criminal. Apparently, criminal autobiographies were all the rage in the early 1700s, and Defoe, already famous for Robinson Crusoe (which is also based on the real story of Alexander Selkirk), was just capitalizing on this. Also, he had spent some time in Newgate Prison himself, where he took notes from his fellow inmates. Even so, Defoe had a whole lot of filling in to do, and it is said that his accounts of poverty, imprisonment, etc. are based on his own experiences with them. Other than those two novels, Defoe wrote other novels and many pamphlets and articles along the political bent. For the most part, he was a politician and businessman who also wrote, and he was everywhere on the spectrum from a merchant to destitute to a criminal.

And in the end, I still didn’t enjoy Moll Flanders. It was boring to me, and didn’t come together as a cohesive story, which I guess was because it was just the meandering tale of a woman who had been too much and seen too much and lived a really long time (for her time). Plus, I’m not shocked by her story: I already understand that desperate people are driven to desperate measures (though Flanders is partly just greedy, etc.) and that women, for much of history, have had to attach themselves to a man in order to survive, putting the matrimonial market in the male’s favor. Some of the Victorian classics are much more fun to read while they still highlight these inequalities. What I did find surprising was the consistent disregard Moll showed for the children she left peppered all over two countries, in both graves and random homes. While I don’t want to assume every woman is very maternal, the book gives no real thought to it, no explanation for it. Let’s be honest: most mothers are maternal, even fiercely so, which is why the word is maternal. But Moll seems to lament her good-for-nothing loves much more then her own flesh and blood, and, well, she’s all about numero uno.

That’s all I really have to contribute to the conversation on Moll Flanders. I read it. I thought it was a bit of a slog. Enjoyed the two notes in the margins from my mother-in-law’s college days more than I did the story, to be completely honest. There’s just not enough invested in the other characters, and not enough action or questions to make me want to read more. (There was also not chapter separation, which I always find difficult.) And I didn’t love Moll, though I could have found her interesting if she were written in a more modern voice, exploring her psychology without driving boring thoughts over and over into the page.


So, I was sucked into the first version of this movie that I could find, which is the 1996 version with Robin Wright, Morgan Freeman, and Stockard Channing. Do not be fooled! Though this movie is called Moll Flanders, it bears little to no resemblance to the novel by Daniel Defoe. Like, even worse than How to Train Your Dragon, it doesn’t follow even one thing about the book. Not one character (except Moll, but in name only, not in personality even). Not one scene. I was super confused until I finally googled it like halfway through and learned I should stop looking for similarities, full stop. The movie is okay, got decent reviews in its time, but be forewarned: not based on the book. (I bet plenty of teachers and professors get a good laugh when they get book reports on Moll Flanders because of this popular movie.)

I was kinda annoyed, so I looked a little further and came across a British TV series, Masterpiece Theater I think, from the same year (1996), titled The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders. Okay, so this one, starring the Dr. Corday of ER fame, follows the book so closely that they had to make it a rather long series of basically movie-long episodes. I did not watch them all because, like I said, I didn’t even enjoy the book and I was getting real tired of hanging out with Moll. This I know: it’s decently done, sticks very close to the story, and should you enjoy the book or want to study it further (or skip the book altogether) this is the version that you should get your mitts on.


One thought on “Book Review: Moll Flanders

  1. Enjoyed reading your review and especially loved that you were reading the copy of Moll Flanders that I read so many years ago. Makes me want to check it out again!!

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