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The advantages and vanity of Moll Flanders

On 31 July 1703, Daniel Defoe was placed in a pillory for the crime of seditious libel. A bold businessman, political satirist, spy, and (most importantly) writer, he had a sympathetic crowd who threw flowers instead of rocks or rotten fruit. We’re celebrating this act with an excerpt from another bold soul, this time from Defoe’s imagination. In a tour-de-force of writing, Moll Flanders tells her own story, a vivid and racy tale of a woman’s experience in the seamy side of life in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England and America. Let’s hear from Moll on her advantages and vanity.

By this means I had, as I have said above, all the Advantages of Education that I could have had, if I had been as much a Gentlewoman as they were, with whom I liv’d, and in some things I had the Advantage of my Ladies, tho’ they were my Superiors; but they were all the Gifts of Nature, and which all their Fortunes could not furnish. First, I was apparently Handsomer than any of them. Secondly, I was better shap’d, and Thirdly I Sung better, by which I mean, I had a better Voice; in all which you will I hope allow me to say, I do not speak my own Conceit of myself, but the Opinion of all that knew the Family.

I had with all these the common Vanity of my Sex. That being really taken for very Handsome, or if you please for a great Beauty, I very well knew it, and had as good an Opinion of myself, as any body else could have of me; and particularly I lov’d to hear any body speak of it, which could not but happen to me sometimes, and was a great Satisfaction to me.

Thus far I have had a smooth Story to tell of myself, and in all this Part of Life, I not only had the Reputation of living in a very good Family, and a Family Noted and Respected every where, for Vertue and Sobriety, and for every valuable Thing; but I had the Character too of a very sober, modest, and virtuous young Woman, and such I had always been; neither had I yet any occasion to think of any thing else, or to know what a Temptation to Wickedness meant.

But that which I was too vain of, was my Ruin, or rather my vanity was the Cause of it. The Lady in the House where I was, had two Sons, young Gentlemen of very promising Parts, and of extraordinary Behaviour; and it was my Misfortune to be very well with them both, but they manag’d themselves with me in a quite different Manner.

The eldest a gay Gentleman that knew the Town, as well as they Country, and tho’ he had Levity enough to do an ill natur’d thing, yet had too much Judgment of things to pay too dear for his Pleasures; he began with that unhappy Snare to all Women, take Notice upon all Occasions how pretty I was, as he call’d it; how agreeable, how well Carriaged, and the like; and this he contriv’d so subtilly, as if he had known as well, how to catch a Woman in his Net, as a Partridge when he went a Setting; for he wou’d contrive to be talking this to his Sisters when tho’ I was not by, yet when he knew I was not so far off, but that I should be sure to hear him: His Sisters would return softly to him, Hush Brother, she will hear you, she is but in the next Room; then he would put it off, and Talk softlier, as if he had not known it, and begun to acknowledge he was Wrong; and then as if he had forgot himself, he would speak aloud again, and I that was so well pleas’d to hear it, was sure to Lissen for it upon all Occasions.

After he had thus baited his Hook, and found easily enough the Method how to lay it in my Way, he play’d an opener Gamel and one Day going by Sister’s Chamber when I was there, doing something about Dressing her, he comes in with an Air of gayty, O! Mrs Betty said he to me, How do you do Mrs. Betty? don’t your Cheeks burn, Mrs Betty? I made a Curtsy, and blush’d, but said nothing; What makes you talk so Brother, says the Lady; Why, says he, we have been talking of her below Stairs this half Hour; Well says his Sister, you can say no Harm of her, that I am sure, so ‘tis no matter what you have been talking about; nay, says he, ‘tis so far from talking Harm of her, that we have been talking a great deal of good, and great many fine Things have been said of Mrs. Betty, I assure you; and particularly, that she is the Handsomest young Woman in Colchester, and, in short, they begin to toast her Health in the Town.

Moll Flanders, whose real name we never discover, cleverly defies the traditional depiction of women as helpless victims. First published in 1722, and one of the earliest novels in the English language, its account of opportunism, endurance, and survival speaks as strongly to us today as it did to its original readers. This new edition offers a critically edited text and a wide-ranging introduction by Linda Bree, who sheds light on the circumstances out of which the novel grew, its strengths and weaknesses as fiction, and the social and cultural issues examined in the novel. Daniel Defoe was a prolific writer of pamphlets, journals, and books, including some of the earliest novels. Read a previous post on Daniel Defoe and the Journal of the Plague Year by David Roberts, Professor and Head of English at Birmingham City University.

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