In The Life & Times of Moll Flanders, Sian Rees retraces the story of one of fiction’s most infamous, intriguing and oft-misrepresented heroines to reveal how thin the line between fiction and reality can really be.
It’s 20 years (eek) since I read Moll Flanders during the summer holiday between GCSEs and A-levels. It has always stuck in my mind as a madcap adventure which swept me away from my teenage worries about results envelopes and how to make the most of the Sixth Form non-uniform policy in order to impress my various (mostly uninterested) love interests. But as much as I enjoyed it, it all seemed a bit absurd. In particular I remember thinking that surely only East Enders characters accidentally end up marrying their half-brothers, and that only women as fabulous as Liz Taylor have that many husbands, and if this wasn’t the case, well then adulthood could be an even more treacherous world of trouble than I had previously considered.
Now you will all be reassured that the more Heat-magazine-worthy elements of Moll’s personal life remain, after Rees’ analysis, more typical of one of those Channel 5 shows about Kerry Katona than anything most of us may hope to experience in real life. However, in setting each stage of Moll’s dramatic life in its historical context Rees shows that the story I thought was beyond madcap when I was 16 – the Newgate birth, life in the colonies, the criminal underworld, et al – was actually closer to historical reality than I dared think.
Rees’ book is essentially a ride through some key parts of Jacobean history using Defoe’s story as the hook. We learn about 17th century female criminality and the ‘Newgate wags’ who, like Moll’s ma, used pregnancy to escape capital punishment. The early history of the American colonies shows that criminal transportation was not the only method used to populate these new outposts of the realm – a veritable cattle market in wives at best, and the theft of poor children from Cheapside at worst, was also considered fair game. The stories about the London criminal underworld that Moll navigates so skillfully make most things you’ve seen on Crimewatch seem rather tame, and the section on 17th century childbirth will make anyone who has paid a few hundred quid for a National Childbirth Trust course potentially feel swindled when they read that midwives were banging on about things like perineal massage over 300 years ago and between then and now we’ve somehow lost the bloomin’ memo. (#yepjustintroducedtheperineumintoapostaboutMollFlanderswhatofit?)
Rees also sheds some light on the mysterious Mr Defoe (turns out he was a bit of a ‘one’) and posits some potential real life Molls through some exhilarating stories of female ruffians. I particularly enjoyed the tale of Mary Frith, a Proper Gangsta Lady who had previously been one of the ‘roaring girls’ who:
…frequented taverns, fought, swore, appeared illegally on stage in men’s apparel to tell dirty jokes and sing suggestive songs…
Now there’s a gang I could have got behind.
The Life & Times of Moll Flanders: a great way to revisit a classic and get schooled in some fascinating history into the bargain.