on 17 August 2011
Rees' writing is fluid, witty and concise. She packs this book with fascinating detail while never becoming dry. I learned about a surprisingly unfamiliar period in British history, and (entirely new to me)about transportation to - and colonisation of - Virginia and Maryland. The London parts are especially gripping, at least to an English reader. Any modern fraudster would be impressed by the stolen goods exchange: your silver candlestick might be filched (often to order) by a lowly employee of the 'exchange' but you could always get it back in return for a fat fee paid to the helpful and astonishingly well informed exchange owner!
Rees conjectures about the possible historical models for Defoe's Moll Flanders and her family, friends and enemies. She paints a vivid picture of Defoe, deeply interested in recent history and making imaginative use of it as rich source material. As far as I (the layman)can tell, her ideas about these models come from thorough research, and her conclusions seem more than likely. A few reviewers have questioned the book's structure. It weaves around the fiction of Moll Flanders (in the present tense) the documented background and real-life characters (in the past tense). It did take me a chapter to adjust to the device, but once on track I simply loved the ride! My store of knowledge (not least the domestic and political titbits that are a Rees speciality) is now large. And if Daniel Defoe didn't sit with the accounts of those real desperate women, petty criminals and other 17th figures beside his ink well, then it doesn't really bother me.
on 18 October 2014
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 the social crime for which she is most notorious, that of being an inveterate prostitute, she cannot be justly accused of. Sian Rees take a dual approach. While summarising Moll’s action-packed life, she also puts it in to the context of the 17th Century times in which she lived, both in England and in Virginia, where she lived as 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 where Rees does provide fascinating detail is with the biographical details of female criminal contemporaries of Moll who may have inspired Defoe, and also the context of the American plantation settlers and transportation to America, to show how unremittingly harsh their early lives were.
on 18 July 2011
This book was, quite simply, a huge pleasure to read. It's clear from the start that you are in the hands of someone who not only knows their history (you'd expect that) but who has a real relish for the quirks, inconsistencies, and oddities of life. The book will, I'm sure, be of great interest to anyone who ever fell in love with Defoe's Moll Flanders or who has any interest in the early colonisation of America. I loved the book because Rees uses Moll's story as a way of exploring everyday life in the 17th and early 18th centuries.
Well, this being Moll's life, it's not entirely everyday: seduction, honour and savagery among thieves, highwaymen, births (legal and illegal), marriages (for respectability, for companionship, for sheer fun, and for love) transport to and life in the colonies, slavery, the profits of tobacco and the value of different human bodies, puritanism and license, the shifting sands of class, and a spot of unknowing incest and very knowing prostitution. All sorts of historical figures walk through the scenes but Rees is always most interested in the lives of ordinary folk, and the more gifted, upbeat and criminal, the more the narrative warms.
This is what they call a "rollicking read", but that doesn't really do it justice; it's also witty and wise, its heart always beating on the side of those who sail closest to the wind, the adventurers and adventuresses who try to (and, in literature at least, really do) get away with it.
on 23 July 2011
Sian Rees is a gifted social historian and her book is an entertaining historical and cultural account of early modern women criminals. If her tale had been limited to this every reader would applaud her. However, she has traded on a fictional heroine of Defoe's, Moll Flanders, without really understanding her biographical meaning or adding to it in any way. This is akin to a plug for hamburgers by stealing a McDonalds brand. All Defoe's fiction is heavily autobiographical. Moll Flanders is a heady mix of his own incredible life and that of his sister Mary(Moll) King. Thus it mixes biography with fiction. Sian Rees is uncertain about the genre she is writing into: is her book social or cultural history or is it biography? These distinctions are important because although biography and fiction are works of the imagination all biography is to some ectent absolute: all men get born, make their way in the world and die. The suspicion here is that Sian Rees is sexing up social history by mis-reading fiction.