You may have made assumptions about the old thief in Newgate; you might guess correctly she worked as a prostitute but you might never guess that she had several impressive marriages, including one to her own brother, had been at various times worth hundreds of pounds, and had been a successful colonist in Virginia and come back to England. But such is the tale promised on the cover of Daniel Defoe's 1722 novel Moll Flanders. This is a delightful tour of 17th/18th century English society and underworld with a fascinating narrator.
I say "17th/18th century" because although it was written in the 18th, it's set entirely in the 17th century, being, like many 18th novels, a fictional biography, sold as a true one. It has many characteristics I'm coming to recognise of the 18th century novel. Its story is episodic and free-wheeling; the Moll Flanders who is a servant torn between the affections of two brothers has little connexion to the Moll Flanders who becomes an expert pick pocket, yet it's all part of one continual, streaming narrative. She does occasionally run across people from other parts of her life but mostly each segment is almost entirely self-contained. One could say this is like a real biography except every stage of Moll's life is in some way extraordinary and involves incredible luck, good or bad.
Something else that reminded me of Roderick Random is that Moll Flanders involves a lot of people posing as upper class in the hopes of luring a rich person into marriage. A lot of the schemes and plots are very complicated with each party employing a lot of subtlety, as when Moll presents herself in such a way as to make her land lady suggest to a man that she has a good fortune, even though she hasn't got one, and doesn't say she has directly--so has plausible deniability later. I bet a lot of the things in this book inspired some paranoia, particularly in Moll's several detailed descriptions of her shoplifting and pickpocketing where she uses the kind of credible techniques to rival the ones shown in Michael Mann's movie Thief that landed the film in hot water. Moll's technique of diverting attention from herself when it seems she might be caught by being the first one to yell out "Thief!" is particularly insidious. The story might make people believe that thieves have eyes in the backs of their heads, too, as when Moll is grabbed by a man just as she's about to enter an apparently empty shop. She relates explaining to the alderman who arbitrates the case:
That seeing nobody I the shop, I knocked with my foot very hard to make the people hear, and had also called aloud with my voice; 'tis true, there was loose plate in the shop, but that nobody could say I had touched any of it, or gone near it; that a fellow came running into the shop out of the street, and laid hands on me in a furious manner, in the very moments while I was calling for the people of the house; that if he had really had a mind to have done his neighbour any service, he should have stood at a distance, and silently watched to see whether I had touched anything or no, and then have clapped in upon me, and taken me in the fact. 'That is very true,' says Mr. Alderman, and turning to the fellow that stopped me, he asked him if it was true that I knocked with my foot? He said, yes, I had knocked, but that might be because of his coming. 'Nay,' says the alderman, taking him short, 'now you contradict yourself, for just now you said she was in the shop with her back to you, and did not see you till you came upon her.' Now it was true that my back was partly to the street, but yet as my business was of a kind that required me to have my eyes every way, so I really had a glance of him running over, as I said before, though he did not perceive it.
This sort of thing must have led to innocent people being apprehended more than once, as indeed Moll is at another occasion.
While hardly being on the level of the Marquis de Sade, Moll Flanders is also impressive, particularly compared to Victorian novels, in its depiction of a woman who doesn't only tolerate sex but seems to quite enjoy it sometimes. She seems only to feel amusement and some pity for the Baronet who "did what he pleased" with her later in the novel, when she's in her 50s.
This was an adventure indeed unlooked for, and perfectly undesigned by me; though I was not so past the merry part of life, as to forget how to behave, when a fop so blinded by his appetite should not know an old woman from a young. I did not indeed look so old as I was by ten or twelve years; yet I was not a young wench of seventeen, and it was easy enough to be distinguished. There is nothing so absurd, so surfeiting, so ridiculous, as a man heated by wine in his head, and wicked gust in his inclination together . . .
In the novel's first episode, though she couches it in polite language, Moll describes enjoying frequent sex with her first boyfriend. There's the quality of an unreliable narrator in all the manners Moll takes pains to show, refraining from writing explicitly those things "which are not so proper for a woman to write."
The manners are for me the best part of the book. From the various landladies, merchants, and seaman, working their way through life for food, sex, and shelter with reputations crafted through seeded rumours and stolen clothes and watches: this floating world, to borrow a Japanese term, is there to delude everyone even as everyone seems aware it's an illusion.