Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel, Moll Flanders, was a hit not only for him as an author in need of income, but for the modern novel as a whole. The rogue character Moll intrigues readers like me still to this day. Why is that? Why do we love a good rascal?
Why the Preface?
Defoe makes a point of addressing his readers using his own narrative voice, rather than hiding behind Moll. Within this he recommends his book for the moral enlightenment it may give,
“All the exploits of this lady of fame, in her depredations upon mankind, stand as so many warnings to honest people to beware of them, intimating to them by what methods innocent people are drawn in, plundered and robbed, and by consequence how to avoid them.”
It is so ironic, that Defoe states himself that this is a warning to anyone who tries to live this life of schemes and indulgence but it only draws us in more. For the educated this was a life of adventure, danger and despair. One that you wouldn’t wish upon yourself but couldn’t help but wonder. What would you have done? Faced with a life expected for doom, she was literally an orphan born of Newgate Prison! Especially as a woman, Moll is one who definitely understands her power as a female and wields it accordingly to get what she thinks she wants.
Motivated by money, Defoe played on the mass crowds which the likes of public execution brought. Just two years after he published Moll Flanders infamous street robber Jack Sheppard found himself at the gallows bringing crowds of over 200,000 people. This included the criminal broadsides that were sold, the last testimony of the damned, just as popular as the hangings themselves. Seizing a gap in the market, or perhaps a gap in the human psyche, Defoe produced his novel to appeal to every person in every walk of life, so
‘That the meanest Reader may meet with no Difficulty in the Reading and may have no Obstruction to his searching the History of things by their being obscurely represented.’
(Cited by P. Backscheider, Defoe, 532)
What better way to sell copies? The ultimate formula; crime, danger, a sexually lucid woman and easy English. One of the first English novels truly made for the masses. Who is Moll? She could be anyone of us I would argue we all have that drive inside us, she is an exaggerated version of the naughty imp we all have inside us. The reason people went watched and couldn’t look away from public hangings. As Dickens wrote after witnessing the scene of an execution.
‘I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man’
(Charles Dickens, The Times, 1849.)
Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. London: Wordsworth, 1993
P. Backscheider, Defoe, 532
‘Mr Charles Dickens and the execution of the Mannings’, The Times, 13 November 1849