Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Book Review "Moll" By Sian Rees



Moll Flanders is a great big book. My Mum read it in hospital while waiting my sister's arrival. "Be careful," said the midwife, "You might finish it."

It has of course been turned into films and TV series usually as bawdy restoration comedy. None of them especially faithful to the original. Sian Rees rectifies that by setting it in its correct period. Defoe mentions dates - not all of them accurate - but pretty much ignores the events of the period.  These include the plague and Great Fire of London, the first settlements in America, the (British) civil war, and the Glorious Revolution.

What Ms Rees has done is put Moll in her correct historical period and explains in great detail the how and why of the plot. It is based on not one but a series of Molls and contemporary records mostly the interviews with the Ordinary of Newgate prison including the last words of the condemned on the gallows. The British of this time were very keen on the death penalty but then as now it did little to reduce crime. Defoe was an advocate of transportation of criminals to the colonies to reduce incidence of crime and also provide cheap labour for His Majesty's Plantations.  Defoe thought that instead of wasting human potential in a system entirely concerned with punishment, a new start in the colonies would be possible for those willing to work. While there is some truth to that the reality for most was very different.

The fictional Moll crosses the Atlantic more than once and Rees produces evidence that this was not unknown,  even though the penalty for returning before the end of the sentence (and for many that meant life) was death. She does indeed make her fortune as a tobacco planter but her life is a series of ups and downs and naturally she loses it. While the popular view of Moll is a strumpet, Rees views her more as an independent woman relying on her wits in a society that despite its professed Christianity is remarkably cruel. 

I am not sure that most people tempted to read this book will be totally ignorant of history, but even so there will be many moments when the realisation will dawn that Moll and her contemporaries had very limited choices and down on their luck will resort to crime. Poverty is the great aid to the Devil who does indeed make appearances on these pages. The puritans get quite a hard look too - as do the settlers who mostly seem to be too incompetent to adapt to their new surroundings.

I not only downloaded "Moll" but I also got one of the many editions of Defoe's book. It was a great deal quicker to read Rees than it will be to tackle the original but that now seems more likely. And I will better understand Defoe's sometimes quaint English.

"Moll" by Sian Rees was published in North America on 20 September 2017 but appeared first in the UK in June of 2011 - and it is from that edition that I have copied the picture of the cover.

And, just to be clear, Sian Rees is not related to me.    

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