Moll: The Life and Times of Moll Flanders

Written by Sian Rees
Review by Doug Kemp

The eponymous heroine of Daniel Defoe’s novel, first published in 1722, is a well-known icon of female depravity. Moll was a serial bigamist and a thief, but of the social crime for which she is most notorious – that of being an inveterate prostitute – she cannot be justly accused. Sian Rees take a dual approach to this account: while summarising Moll’s action-packed life, she also puts it into the context of the 17th century times in which she lived, both in England and in Virginia, where she was a planter on two separate occasions. This provides an interesting context to Moll’s life, though much of the history is a superficial commentary on events such as the English Civil War and the London in the 1660s. Defoe’s novel is a first-person narrative, as if written by Moll herself and in the novel she shows very little appreciation of or acknowledges the political, social and economic developments and uncertainties that dominated the 17th century. Consequently, the historical context as rehearsed by Rees does seem a little forced and nugatory. But Rees does provide fascinating detail with the biographies of female criminal contemporaries of Moll who may have inspired Defoe, and also the setting the context of the American plantation settlers to show just how unremittingly harsh were their early lives.