The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders [Literary Excerpt]
Daniel Defoe's novel The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, published in 1722, is a useful historical text for examining the everyday lives of female children as well as the possibilities of girlhood in 18th-century British society. In many ways, Moll Flanders—the illegitimate daughter of a female felon—exemplifies the position of orphaned girls in early modern Britain. At the same time, Moll's character also reveals the range of possibilities utilized by girls who resisted confining social customs and refused marginalizing literary conventions. In this selection, what strategies does Moll use to defy the typical position of girls in society? What authority does Moll claim as the novel's narrator? Compare the figure of Moll to the treatment of other female characters in other novels from the period (such as Matilda in Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto) as well as girls in works published later.
Defoe, Daniel. The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders Project Gutenberg. A full-text version is available at Project Gutenberg, http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=370 (accessed February 23, 2001). Annotated by Miriam Forman-Brunell.
Primary Source Text
I was now in a way to be provided for; for though I was not a parish charge upon this or that part of the town by law, yet as my case came to be known, and that I was too young to do any work, being not above three years old, compassion moved the magistrates of the town to order some care to be taken of me, and I became one of their own as much as if I had been born in the place.
In the provision they made for me, it was my good hap to be put to nurse, as they call it, to a woman who was indeed poor but had been in better circumstances, and who got a little livelihood by taking such as I was supposed to be, and keeping them with all necessaries, till they were at a certain age, in which it might be supposed they might go to service or get their own bread.
This woman had also had a little school, which she kept to teach children to read and to work; and having, as I have said, lived before that in good fashion, she bred up the children she took with a great deal of art, as well as with a great deal of care.
But that which was worth all the rest, she bred them up very religiously, being herself a very sober, pious woman, very house-wifely and clean, and very mannerly, and with good behaviour. So that in a word, expecting a plain diet, coarse lodging, and mean clothes, we were brought up as mannerly and as genteelly as if we had been at the dancing-school.
I was continued here till I was eight years old, when I was terrified with news that the magistrates (as I think they called them) had ordered that I should go to service. I was able to do but very little service wherever I was to go, except it was to run of errands and be a drudge to some cookmaid, and this they told me of often, which put me into a great fright; for I had a thorough aversion to going to service, as they called it (that is, to be a servant), though I was so young; and I told my nurse, as we called her, that I believed I could get my living without going to service, if she pleased to let me; for she had taught me to work with my needle, and spin worsted, which is the chief trade of that city, and I told her that if she would keep me, I would work for her, and I would work very hard.
I talked to her almost every day of working hard; and, in short, I did nothing but work and cry all day, which grieved the good, kind woman so much, that at last she began to be concerned for me, for she loved me very well.
One day after this, as she came into the room where all we poor children were at work, she sat down just over against me, not in her usual place as mistress, but as if she set herself on purpose to observe me and see me work. I was doing something she had set me to; as I remember, it was marking some shirts which she had taken to make, and after a while she began to talk to me. 'Thou foolish child,' says she, 'thou art always crying (for I was crying then); 'prithee, what dost cry for?' 'Because they will take me away,' says I, 'and put me to service, and I can't work housework.' 'Well, child,' says she, 'but though you can't work housework, as you call it, you will learn it in time, and they won't put you to hard things at first.' 'Yes, they will,' says I, 'and if I can't do it they will beat me, and the maids will beat me to make me do great work, and I am but a little girl and I can't do it'; and then I cried again, till I could not speak any more to her.
This moved my good motherly nurse, so that she from that time resolved I should not go to service yet; so she bid me not cry, and she would speak to Mr. Mayor, and I should not go to service till I was bigger.
Well, this did not satisfy me, for to think of going to service was such a frightful thing to me, that if she had assured me I should not have gone till I was twenty years old, it would have been the same to me; I should have cried, I believe, all the time, with the very apprehension of its being to be so at last.
When she saw that I was not pacified yet, she began to be angry with me. 'And what would you have?' says she; 'don't I tell you that you shall not go to service till your are bigger?' 'Ay,' said I, 'but then I must go at last.' 'Why, what?' said she; 'is the girl mad? What would you be--a gentlewoman?' 'Yes,' says I, and cried heartily till I roared out again.
This set the old gentlewoman a-laughing at me, as you may be sure it would. 'Well, madam, forsooth,' says she, gibing at me, 'you would be a gentlewoman; and pray how will you come to be a gentlewoman? What! will you do it by your fingers' end?'
'Yes,' says I again, very innocently.
'Why, what can you earn?' says she; 'what can you get at your work?'
'Threepence,' said I, 'when I spin, and fourpence when I work plain work.'
'Alas! poor gentlewoman,' said she again, laughing, 'what will that do for thee?'
'It will keep me,' says I, 'if you will let me live with you.' And this I said in such a poor petitioning tone, that it made the poor woman's heart yearn to me, as she told me afterwards.
'But,' says she, 'that will not keep you and buy you clothes too; and who must buy the little gentlewoman clothes?' says she, and smiled all the while at me.
'I will work harder, then,' says I, 'and you shall have it all.'
'Poor child! it won't keep you,' says she; 'it will hardly keep you in victuals.'
'Then I will have no victuals,' says I, again very innocently; 'let me but live with you.'
'Why, can you live without victuals?' says she.
'Yes,' again says I, very much like a child, you may be sure, and still I cried heartily.
I had no policy in all this; you may easily see it was all nature; but it was joined with so much innocence and so much passion that, in short, it set the good motherly creature a-weeping too, and she cried at last as fast as I did, and then took me and led me out of the teaching-room. 'Come,' says she, 'you shan't go to service; you shall live with me'; and this pacified me for the present.
How to Cite This Source
"The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders [Literary Excerpt] ," in Children and Youth in History, Item #481, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/primary-sources/481 (accessed November 27, 2015).