In my campaign to re-read classics of English literature, I managed some time ago to pick up a copy of Moll Flanders that was reprinted from Daniel Defoe's original manuscript. Cheap.
(Yes. That Defoe. Author of Robinson Crusoe Defoe. I may now have to read that book for myself to see if it's really as racist as pop culture adaptations are, especially given what's been done to poor ol' Moll in pop culture.)
Now, I've seen various adaptations of Moll Flanders over the years, including the tremendously awful 1996 film staring Robin Penn Wright (which many of my friends sighed over as romantic) and the pretty okay ITV mini with Alex Kingston.
What all of them have in common is how Moll's ups-and-downs as late 17th century, early 18th century woman lead her to becoming a grifter. These grifter ways eventually lead her to crawling around in the muck as a prostitute/low-end pickpocket before she's hauled off to Newgate Prison where she's eventually sentenced to transportation to the Virginia colonies. It ends with the still-young and still-beautiful Moll looking to her transportation as a fresh start on a new, criminal-free life.
Y'know. A typical morality tale, while only touching on the awful truth that women in Moll's position pretty much had no good options, especially if they had her appallingly bad luck with men.
And then, there's the actual novel.
The actual novel where "poor Moll Flanders brought low by criminality" is actually, "Hi! I'm Moll Flanders! I can't hear you over the sound of My Awesome!"
Because Moll in the novel? Is Awesome, with a capital "Awe".
Compare and contrast with every single pop culture iteration of Moll Flanders that you can remember:
Moll is a tough-as-nails survivor. She knows that all of her options pretty much suck. She was born in Newgate, Mommy was transported to the Virginia colony when she was still a baby, as a child she was passed around like a cheap cat toy, and even at a young age managed to speak up and fight for herself so she wouldn't get sent into indentured servitude.
Okay, granted, Moll's taste in men was kind of questionable at times, and she had appalling luck at other times (like unknowingly marrying your own brother!), but she was a flipping survivor who managed to extricate herself time and time again using wit, verve, big brass ovaries, and, yes, playing up the I'm-a-poor-helpless-woman card.
One thing Defoe highlights throughout his novel is that Moll is smart. Hell, she's a genius at survival. One thing Moll knows is that society is never going to give her even the smallest benefit of the doubt if she doesn't have a well-off husband. And even with the well-off husband, she's still not going to get an even shot. The husband(s) are not the ticket to easy street, but are rather flotation devices that allow her to survive.
The indifferent luck on catching husbands runs out when Moll is 50. That's right. Fifty.
Have you ever seen a 50 year-old Moll in any of the pop culture adaptations?
In any case, that's when Moll turns full-time to the life of crime. Where before she was a bit of a con artist, using her looks, smarts, and her ability to lie without ever actually lying to catch herself a meal-ticket (read: husband), now she's an audacious pickpocket and thief.
Because she's too old to capture a husband, is utterly broke as a result of her last marriage, and has been left by society to shift for herself. She hooks up with a previous female acquaintance who teaches her the art of stealing which, when coupled with Moll's ability to sell ice to Eskimos and her ability to become the Woman (and sometimes the Man) Of A Thousand Disguises, makes her a highly successful.
How successful is she?
Moll Flanders (not her real name, she assures us) goes on to become one of the most successful con artists and thieves of her day, so successful that other thieves and con artists want to be her. So successful that whole legends spring up about her and her exploits. So successful that she's treated like a Queen in Newgate when she's finally caught.
Moll Flanders was successful at her work for 10 years. That's right. Ten years. She managed to amass between 800 and 1,000 pounds worth of money and goods. For at least half her career, she was no longer doing it out of necessity, but for the rush of it.
Moll is eventually caught because she got a little cocky and jumped the gun in activating her sticky fingers.
Do you want to know who took her down? Two female servants who caught her in the act red-handed. Not the owner of the house or his comfortably wealthy wife, but two honest, working class stiffs who refused to back down in the face of bribery, threats, and social pressure. Two women who stood their ground and employed their own smarts and stubbornness when faced with Moll's criminal friends.
Which, by the way, I think is pertinent to Defoe's point: Women are smart. Women are brave. Women are strong.
Yet, when it comes to women society is schizophrenic in the n-th degree. Women are treated like infants and expected to adhere to certain norms. When women act to have a better life, regardless of whether they just simply want something better or are simply trying to survive, society punishes them like they had all the choices in the world when in reality they have none at all.
Defoe is seemingly pointing to Moll as an example of just how stupid this is. Here's our heroine, a woman as capable as any man is — and in some cases even more capable than the men around her — Defoe seems to say. Yet, society has narrowed her options down so severely due to her accident of birth and further narrows her options due to conventions. She's forced as a matter of survival to con, cheat, and steal. Is it any wonder that even after Moll is well out of the realm of needing to do these things to survive she opts to keep going? Society does not accept her, and will not accept her, so what's the point of her conforming?
While many pop culture adaptations leave off with Moll's transport to the Virginia colony leaving viewers to wonder what the young, beautiful, poor, and absolutely broken Moll could do if society allowed her to be the woman she could have been, Defoe goes one better and tells us.
A 60-year-old, fabulously wealthy Moll would use her ill-gotten gains and her boy-toy, mostly childish husband (long story on that one) to become a genius businesswoman. She not only bribes her way and her husband's way out of the prisoner hold, but she also buys her way out of her punishment of indentured servitude. She then buys land, horses, equipment, servants and slaves, and starts running her own tobacco plantation while boy-toy husband farts around. She manages to continuously grow her estate, convince her long-abandoned Virginia son to give her a share of her late mother's estate, and, in short, becomes ridiculously rich in the space of another mere 10 years.
The book ends with her at age 70, back in England, living easy and free as as woman of means in London. And while she occasionally throws out some pious platitude for forms' sake about how sorry she is for her criminal past, you also get the sense that she's not sorry at all. In fact, she's rather proud of what she's accomplished through grit, determination, and smarts despite all the roadblocks in her way.
This Moll Flanders is the Moll Flanders you'd never see if you simply watched the pop culture translations of the novel. This Moll Flanders does not even exist in the popular imagination.
Yet, it's this novelistic Moll Flanders that I truly love. It makes the difficulty in reading the book (suffice to say that 1722 novel conventions and spelling bear zero resemblance to today's) totally and completely worth it.
So here's to Moll Flanders — long may she rock on!
And here's hoping that someone, somewhere, will let the pop culture consuming public see the real Moll in all her awesome glory.