The advertisement for The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Mol Flanders, &c. told of a woman,
"Who was born in NEWGATE,
In fact, this synopsis takes on entirely the idea of the edited journal as entirely honest and thus enters the fiction as much as does the preface, in which Defoe poses as an editor of the story of Moll Flanders, forced to alter the tale "in modester Words" than it was first spoken, "the Copy which came first to hand, having been written in Language more like one still in Newgate than one grown Penitent and Humble, as she afterwards pretends to be". David Blewitt, editing the Penguin Classics edition of the book, footnotes the word 'pretends' thus, "professes, aspires (not necessarily with a sense of feigning)". Yet the ambiguity is present and to pretend otherwise robs a sense of literary value from the works of Defoe; a man after all, who spent 5 years over one poem (Jure Divino, see Backscheider -Daniel Defoe, His Life, p. XX for details) so concerned was he with literary matters.
The contemporary usage of 'pretend' may perhaps be best ascertained by Dr. Johnson's Dictionary (1755), around 30 years after the first publication of Moll Flanders, as being, "To put in a claim truly or falsely. It is seldom used without shade of censure". Rather than accepting the tale as it is placed before the reader, questions should be forming, about the story itself, which is presented falsely as a 'history', about the role of Defoe within the fiction, presenting himself as 'editor' rather than author, and thus about the story we are told, the repentance we are told the protagonist feels, the 'penitent' she 'pretends' to be. Retuning to the title page of the original edition, as reproduced above, we must question the truth of its statements if we are, as advised by the 'editor', to be one of those "who know how to read it [the story]".
One aspect of the novel which is conveyed well in the advertisement is the almost picaresque nature, as Moll takes on a series of different identities, leads a series of different lives (see literary background for more on the picaresque). Her early life is told in very little detail and the first we really know of Moll is her aspiration to be, "a Gentlewoman". What Moll means by 'gentlewoman' is simply the ability to earn her own bread and the woman she chooses to name as a role model is one who "mended Lace and wash'd the Ladies Lac'd-heads". Known as 'Madam', this woman clearly earns money from the oldest profession, as, says Moll's nurse, "she is a Person of ill Fame, and has had two or three bastards". From the beginning, what Moll thinks she is and thinks she aspires to is a very different matter from that which she actually is. "Moll," argues John Mullan, "makes herself by the process of telling her story". Certainly, if Defoe was a great liar, Moll surpasses her creator by far. That is to say, Defoe's fiction involves the taking on of a role to the extent that he pretends it is not fictitious, that he really is the editor of the history of a woman called Moll Flanders. In turn, the character who creates the name Moll Flanders for herself and who refuses to reveal her true identity, even when telling her story as a supposed penitent, plays the part to the extent that she appears to believe it is real. A case in point is the theft of a necklace from a young child (p.257 in the Penguin Classics edition). As Molls leads the child through an alleyway and takes her necklace, without the child noticing, the idea comes upon her to kill the child, "Here, I say, the Devil put me upon killing the Child in the dark Alley, that it might not Cry; but the very thought frighted me so that I was ready to drop down, but I turn'd the Child about and bade it go back again... ". Two points are clear: firstly that Moll does not take responsibility for her actions, it is always the devil tempting and encouraging; secondly that the idea of a worse crime surpasses the actual crime. Moll goes so far as to give, "the Parents a just Reproof," (in her mind), "for their Negligence" and so her actions are justified, "the poor Baby wandred till it fell into my Hands". However, I did the Child no harm; I did not so much as fright it... ". So the lesser, actual crime, is forgotten in place of the more serious crime which did not happen. The idea of pretending, in both the sense of aspiring and of feigning, is crucial to an understanding of Defoe's novel.
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