Criminal Girlhood in Moll Flanders

Criminal Girlhood in Moll Flanders:
The Malcontent

Criminal Girls: Moll Flanders

The heroine of Moll Flanders is arguably the most influential of the eighteenth century’s female criminals, even though she is fictional. Published in 1722, Daniel Defoe’s prototypical novel styles itself as Moll’s criminal biography. Even though she does not officially enter into crime until adulthood, the text explores her girlhood in some detail, and Defoe takes care her path to future crime is inevitable. Combined with a healthy dose of fate, dissatisfaction characterizes Moll’s early years. Her upstart attitude as a girl warns how a woman who dares not to settle for less creates for herself an inescapable downward spiral of criminal activity.

“All the exploits of this lady of fame, in her depredations upon mankind, stand as so many warnings to honest people to beware of ’em, intimating to ’em by what methods innocent people are drawn in, plundered, and robbed, and by consequence how to avoid them.” ~ Moll Flanders, Preface, vii




Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe (Image Source)

Fate itself supplies an initial source of Moll’s criminal nature. Moll sees her criminal activity as inevitable and out of her control since her birth to a convict mother in the prison of Newgate (Defoe 1). She bemoans the fact that, under England’s poor laws, she was abandoned as an orphan without a parish to call home and apply for relief (2). (See timeline for more on the Settlement Act.) As a result she “was not only exposed to very great distresses even before [she] was capable either of understanding [her] case or how to amend it, but brought into a course of life scandalous in itself and which in its ordinary course tended to the swift destruction both of soul and body” (1).

Yet things do not seem to go all that bad for Moll at first. After a stint with a band of gypsies, and even though she has no parish of her own, “compassion moved the magistrates of the town to take care of [her]” (2). She ends up with a woman who takes in orphans, presumably to earn poor relief herself (2). So fate may not have doomed Moll entirely. Instead, Moll is driven to crime through a heady combination of poverty, vanity, and naivety.

This woman is kind to Moll and provides the orphans with basics sustenance and a little education until they are ready to be apprenticed or go into service at about age eight (3). But Moll “had a thorough aversion to going to service” and begs her nurse to let her stay with her as a needle worker and spinner (3). Her nurse agrees. Rather than serve anyone, Moll only wishes to earn her living by her own hands. But opportunities for financial independence for women were practically nonexistent (see “Work” for more), and the novel does not allow Moll to be any exception.


Moll gets it into her head that she will be a “gentlewoman.” And, as happens when the town magistrates agree to support her, luck smiles on Moll again. The wife and daughters of the mayor come on a charity visit, and they are quite taken by the precocious Moll. They continue to “come and see [her] and ask where the little gentlewoman was” (6). Unfortunately, this seeming advantage proves just the next step toward destruction, for, as Moll reports, “I was now about ten years old and began to look a little womanish, for I was mighty grave, very mannerly, and as I had often heard the ladies say I was pretty and would be very handsome, you may be sure it made me not a little proud. However, that pride had no ill effect upon me yet” (6).

The favor of the mayor’s family continues, and they go so far as to bring the teenaged Moll into their home as a companion for the daughters. Moll says, “I thought it was fine to be a gentlewoman now indeed, for I had quite other notions of a gentlewoman now than I had before; and as I thought that it was fine to be a gentlewoman, so I loved to be among gentlewomen, and therefore I longed to be there again” (8). Moll suffers from what writer and lawyer Henry Fielding identified as “the vast Torrent of Luxury which of late Years hath poured itself into this Nation” (6). Luxury, vanity, and voluptuousness grease the impoverished and slippery slope to crime (Fielding 9). Moll epitomizes this conception of the poor as those who “disdain the Wages to which their Industry would entitle them; and abandoning themselves to Idleness, the more simple and poor spirited betake themselves to a State of Starving and Beggary, while those of more Art and Courage become Thieves, Sharpers, and Robbers” (7). It likely goes without saying that Moll finds herself drawn to the second group.

In fact, Moll plays the gentlewoman so well that when her nurse dies when Moll is fourteen, she even has the fashionable families of the town fighting over who will take her in permanently (8-9). The family in which she finds herself provides the last stroke of ill fate disguised by the appearance of good luck: both of the brothers in the family fall in love with her, but only one wishes to marry her. Moll persists in turning down this perfectly advantageous marriage because she does not love him, thereby abandoning any favor the world had shown her (see “Marriage” for more). Eventually she relents though, and marries the brother. But her descent into crime cannot be avoided. After she is widowed, her true descent into crime begins.

Fictive Restrictions

Moll believes she is pushed to crime as a matter of fact, but the novel suggests she has opportunities for a fruitful life–with a catch. Moll desires her life on her own terms, not through a life of service or in a loveless marriage. Today, these desires cause no obstacle, but eighteenth century society does not allow a woman a way to work by her hands and live as a “gentlewoman” through legal means. In the end, Moll Flanders serves as a warning to women and a confirmation to men that women ought to be satisfied with their lot or face a lifetime of crime and ruin. Furthermore, the novel makes sure that the qualities most directly leading to her criminal future–dissatisfaction, unwillingness to do physical labor,  and ambitions of luxury–cement themselves in girlhood.

The next genre for consideration, quasi-fictional criminal biography, examines another woman whose childhood dissatisfaction and unsuitability for work lead her to crime. But this time with near opposite results. Continue reading about Mary Frith.

Nicole DeGuzman ~ 11/14/15

18th century child girl crime

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