Thursday, 20 December 2012

Did Daniel Defoe Invent Misery Lit?

Then it occurred to me, What an abominable creature am I! and how is this innocent gentleman going to be abused by me! How little does he think, that having divorced a whore, he is throwing himself into the arms of another! that he is going to marry one that has lain with two brothers, and has had three children by her own brother! one that was born in Newgate, whose mother was a whore, and is now a transported thief! one that has lain with thirteen men, and has had a child since he saw me! Poor gentleman!' said I, 'what is he going to do?' After this reproaching myself was over, it following thus: 'Well, if I must be his wife, if it please God to give me grace, I'll be a true wife to him, and love him suitably to the strange excess of his passion for me; I will make him amends if possible, by what he shall see, for the cheats and abuses I put upon him, which he does not see.

Daniel Defoe took to writing novels when he was almost sixty and today he’s considered the father of the English novel. His first and most popular novel, Robinson Crusoe, is one of the hallmarks of the medium and a continuous source of inspiration. Defoe was interested in how fiction could seem real enough to fool people and in how the appearances of reality could mask fiction. His novels tended to revolve around this: Robinson Crusoe is the fictional autobiography of a shipwrecked man. A Journal of the Plague Year takes the form of a diary and novels like Moll Flanders and Memoirs of a Cavalier pretend to pass off as memoirs too. As such the matter of realism became an inescapable preoccupation of the British novel. Novelists like Samuel Richardson continued to develop this trend with epistolary novels that explored the introspectiveness of characters. Others like Jonathan Swift rebelled against realism and went back to the earlier sources of Cervantes and Rabelais; in parts Gulliver’s Travels is a parody of Robinson Crusoe.

This is all just to say that Daniel Defoe is an important writer in the history of the novel. He wrote the oldest first-person singular novel that I know of; his incursions in stretching the credibility of fiction to its limit have turned into elaborate hoaxes that are now a staple of literature, from Jorge Luis Borges to Michael Crichton everyone creates these literary forgeries; he also wrote the first female-centric novel that I know of, drawing praise from Virginia Woolf herself for his treatment of women. So I don’t think his reputation has anything to fear from my not liking Moll Flanders very much.

Robinson Crusoe is a great novel. Moll Flanders certainly has its exceptional qualities but I found it a tad duller. And it’s not because of lack of plot. The story of Moll Flanders is just action, action, action, and bawdy to boot. The tribulations of Crusoe on the island suffered nothing in fascination because of his loneliness, but Moll Flanders, entrenched in the daily bustle of London, fails to ignite the same spark of interest. It’s not that the story isn’t interesting, but it becomes repetitive. By now everyone knows the story of Moll Flanders: born in the Newgate prison, raised by a goodly foster family, seduced by rakes who didn’t marry her, then forced to use her feminine wiles to catch a good husband, several times married, including with her own brother, then a kept mistress and thief, before settling down with a respectable husband and a good annual income. I’m not spoiling anything that isn’t in the original title of the novel.

This novel strikes me as an elaborate joke about morals, written under the pretence of telling the life story of a wicked woman who discovered repentance in old age:

To give the history of a wicked life repented of, necessarily requires that the wicked part should be make as wicked as the real history of it will bear, to illustrate and give a beauty to the penitent part, which is certainly the best and brightest, if related with equal spirit and life.

The wickedness is very convincing, the repentance less so. Defoe regales the readers with a list of crimes, sins, debauchery, greed and deceit. This novel is as bawdy as the 18th century is reputed to be, the word whore is liberally thrown around; John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, a classic of erotica, is prim compared to this novel. Incest, thievery, con tricks, and general ruthlessness characterize the life or Moll Flanders, legendary amongst the criminal underworld. Flanders only knows misery and treachery in the world. Reviewing her childhood, she complains she didn’t have any chances in her life, which is not true, making her perhaps also the first unreliable narrator:

I have been told that in one of neighbour nations, whether it be in France or where else I know not, they have an order from the king, that when any criminal is condemned, either to die, or to the galleys, or to be transported, if they leave any children, as such are generally unprovided for, by the poverty or forfeiture of their parents, so they are immediately taken into the care of the Government, and put into a hospital called the House of Orphans, where they are bred up, clothed, fed, taught, and when fit to go out, are placed out to trades or to services, so as to be well able to provide for themselves by an honest, industrious behaviour.

Had this been the custom in our country, I had not been left a poor desolate girl without friends, without clothes, without help or helper in the world, as was my fate; and by which I was not only exposed to very great distresses, even before I was capable either of understanding my case or how to amend it, but brought into a course of life which was not only scandalous in itself, but which in its ordinary course tended to the swift destruction both of soul and body.

She writes this before she explains how she was an orphan brought up in a parish until she was old enough to enter into a family’s service and work for a living. Being old enough back then meant being eight years old. A reasonable age considering people entered college around the age of thirteen. But terrified of working, young Flanders manages to postpone her leaving the parish and then she becomes a sort of mascot for a well-to-do family. And after she’s no longer kept by ‘public allowance’ she starts making a living with her own needle work. Her chances were no different than others at a time, so her path into crime and vice is wholly her own matter, even if she blames others. More ironically, her criminal life eventually turns her into the ‘gentlewoman’ she was dreaming about becoming since childhood.

Now given that this novel pretends to be the autobiography of a real woman, and given that its theme is her triumph over all her life’s abuse, and given that, the repentance angle aside, the real popularity of this novel is owed to the sordid details and voyeuristic pleasure of her moral degradation, can’t we say that, besides his many other great pioneering efforts, Daniel Defoe is also the grandfather of misery lit? I think this is something well worth someone’s time to study.

Reading Moll Flanders has the added pleasure of watching something new being tried out. Reading novels was certainly a popular activity when he wrote this, otherwise the opening sentence would make no sentence: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances, that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine, where the names and other circumstances of the person are concealed, and on this account we must be content to leave the reader to pass his own opinion upon the ensuing sheet, and take it just as he pleases.” It can’t be said that Defoe was creating a new type of reader, the reader of novels, but he was certainly refining him. In any event this novel feels fresh to 21st century eyes. I’m fascinated by the sensuousness of the world. There’s no introspection, the world is physical, made of shapes, sounds, movements. Even when she wants to write of the horror of being locked up in Newgate, all Flanders can do is describe the place:

I was now fixed indeed; 'tis impossible to describe the terror of my mind, when I was first brought in, and when I looked around upon all the horrors of that dismal place. I looked on myself as lost, and that I had nothing to think of but of going out of the world, and that with the utmost infamy: the hellish noise, the roaring, swearing, and clamour, the stench and nastiness, and all the dreadful crowd of afflicting things that I saw there, joined together to make the place seem an emblem of hell itself, and a kind of an entrance into it.

It’s a novel of incidents, actions, gestures, voyages that occur between pages without the customary details that go into world-building. There’s no sense of turning up beautiful sentences with that Flaubertian rigidity of the mot juste, the words just flow as the purpose requires it. Flander’s horror of becoming a thief is never believable, but the methods she uses to rob people are. Moll Flanders is a study about the creation of a criminal, more concerned with social circumstances than inner states, and the idea that the protagonist repents is certainly debatable. The fact that her repenting is to be reserved for a second volume that never sees the light of day is certainly part of the elaborate joke I said I consider this novel to be, a dark comedy about how crime does pay after all.

I read this novel for the European Reading Challenge.


  1. This review made me think of how much Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair owes to Moll.
    My favourite Defoe is Journal of a Plague Year which is the one I reread.

  2. Journal of a Plague Year is wild book. A deceptive book. But so is Moll Flanders, as Miguel demonstrates. I agree with your ending, that this is a comedy in disguise.

    I believe you need to look earlier for the inventor of misery lit and first-person narrators, to the Spanish picaresque tradition, beginning with the 1554 Lazarillo de Tormes.

    Actually, The Golden Ass is first-person, I believe.

  3. Though I have not read Defoe he sounds very innovative.

    In regards to Moll Flanders influencing Misery Lit, is amazng how so many currently popular trends in books and litereture have such long histories.

  4. Séamus, I have yet to read Vanity Fair. It'll be interesting comparing both novels.

    Tom, alas, I'm woefully ignorant of those books, as you can now see :)

    Brian, I agree. So many things date back to the Greeks and Romans, and before them even.