Criminal Girlhood in Mary Frith Biographies:
As a genre, criminal biography soared in popularity throughout the long eighteenth century. Moll Flanders, an early novel, largely takes its generic cues from it. Criminal biography sits on a boundary between fiction and nonfiction; while based on real people, it glorifies and sensationalizes its subjects. One of the most enduring of those subjects was Mary Frith, otherwise known as Moll Cutpurse. Her life as pickpocket, highwaywoman, and gang leader spawned criminal biographies for a over century.
Like Moll Flanders, Mary Frith’s life of crime is portrayed as fated and her distinctive qualities pointing towards crime arise in girlhood. However, the differences end there. Whereas Moll Flanders strikes a hyper-feminine figure, basking in vanity and luxury, manipulating others with her girlish wiles, and generally cobbling her way reactively from one scheme to the next; Mary Frith’s biographies portray her as an active figure living in a man’s world. While the novel genre considers fictional but comparatively everyday lives, the criminal biography considers real but extraordinary lives. Therefore, the representations of Frith are generally more positive than the fictional representations of Moll Flanders, as the quasi-fictional nature of eighteenth century criminal biography shed the didactic inclinations of its novel counterpart.
She is un-“matcht throughout the whole Course of History or Romance; so unlike her selfe, and of so difficult a mixture, that it is no wonder she was like no body, nor could not be Sorted by any Comparison, or Suited with any Antick Companion.
“She was the Living Discription and Portraiture of a Schism and Separation, her Doublet and Petticoate, understanding one another, no better than Presbytery and Independency; and it was wondered by some, that in the imitation of the latter, and in honour of the Rump she wore not the Breeches; but it seems she was Loath to innovate in her Old Years.” ~ from The Life and Death of Mrs Mary Frith, 1662 (A4)
One final point before embarking in earnest upon this brief study of Mary Frith. The following discussion juxtaposes two of her biographies, their publications separated by almost sixty years. The latter text bases itself on the former, but it makes some revealing modifications in the process. Alexander Smith’s more recent version proves more conservative in its treatment of gender than its predecessor. You may access both texts here:
1719: “Moll Cutpurse, a Pick-pocket and Highwaywoman” by Alexander Smith
Note: All irregular spellings, capitalizations, and emphases are original to the text.
Unlike Moll Flanders’ convict mother, Mary Frith is raised in a loving family. Gender is a concern of Frith’s life even in this area, as it is pointed out that both her parents “were very tender of this Daughter, but especially the Mother, according to the tendernesse of that Sex, which is naturally more indulgent then the Male; most affectionate she was to her in her Infancy, most careful of her in her Youth” (The Life and Death 5-6). It seems that, in light of things to come, pointing out that Frith’s mother raised her properly becomes important. (See “Family” for more.) And yet, only Smith’s version feels the need to qualify this parental affection by sharing that her parents loved her particularly “as having no other Offspring” (137).
Likewise, Frith receives perhaps a better education than most girls. “[B]eing of a pregnant docible wit,” she was “taught to read perfectly” while “very young,” and “this Learning stood her in much stead afterwards” (The Life and Death 8). Frith may have been better educated as a girl growing up in the early seventeenth century than in the eighteenth. Brigitte Glaser identifies a more liberal view of women and their education around the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, although the “progressive attitude lasted only for a few decades and changed with the ascension of King James I” (190). Elizabeth I reigned from 1558 until her death in 1603. The Life and Death of Mrs Mary Frith gives Frith’s year of birth as 1589, at just the right time to reap the advantage of a tolerant outlook on women and their education (3). Yet another, more obvious reason exists explaining the quality of her schooling. It seems her education “was the stricter and diligentlier attended, by reason of her boysterous and masculine spirit, which then shewed itself, and soon after became praedominant above all breeding and instruction” (The Life and Death 6).
Personality and nature define the origins of Frith’s criminal activity, not a failing of her parents’ upbringing (see “Childhood Crime and Punishment”). And education meant to stifle her boyish tendencies backfired, only suiting her better for the criminal life she would lead.
Furthermore, astrological associations mark Frith for criminal greatness from the beginning. Here a juxtaposition of the 1662 and the 1719 texts proves enlightening. Compare the following:
1662: “She was indeed a perfect Ambodexter, being Mistresse of that thriving Art: no doubt Mercury was Lord of the Ascendent at her Birth, and with his influences did so endow her, that from her very Cradle she gave signes of a very towardly and pregnant Wench, manifested by several petty Stratagems and designes as oft as occasion and opportunity presented” (The Life and Death B2).
1719: “[I]t is to be observ’d, that Mercury was in Conjunction with, or rather in the House of Venus, at the Time of her Nativity; the former of which Planets is of a thievish, cheating, deceitful Influence, and the other hath Dominion over all Whores, Bawds, and Pimps, and, join’d with Mercury, over all Trepanners and He–[?] She hath a more general Influence, than all the other Six Planets put together” (Smith 139).
Smith’s later text depicts a crueler, baser Frith than the seventeenth century version, revealing a harsher eighteenth century viewpoint not just of crime but, I would argue, of gender as well.
That “boysterous and masculine spirit” most defines Frith’s girlhood. Biographies characterize her as a girl exceedingly active, physical, energetic, and all other such rambunctious descriptors. “A very Tomrig or Rumpscuttle she was, and delighted and sported only in Boys play and pastime” (The Life and Death 6). She fought and ran and beat boys at their own games (Smith 138). She sought out trouble, frequented the bear garden, and attended “other Rabble-rout Assemblies” (The Life and Death 7). Regular girls’ activities never suited her, and “she was not so to be tam’d, or taken off her rude Inclinations; she could not endure that sedentary Life of Sewing or Stitching” (Smith 138).
As may be presumed, Frith is inclined towards neither work nor marriage upon reaching adolescence. Although “fit to put out to service, having not a competency of her own left her by Friends to maintain her of herself; […] She was too great a Libertine, and lived too much in common to be enclosed in the limits of a private Domestique Life” (The Life and Death 12). In an interesting choice of words that strips Frith of independence, Smith’s text changes “maintain her of herself” to “maintain her without Working” (139).
Marriage and subsequent motherhood is also out of the question, as Frith “had a natural Abhorrence to the tending of Children” (Smith 140). She had no suitors and was “never in Love, to which she was no way so happily formed; nor was so much a woman as vainly to expect it” (The Life and Death 15). Admittedly, lack of “those Longings which poor Maidens are subject to” remained an advantage for a girl in both 1662 and 1719, as without them Frith stayed unclouded in judgement and chaste in body (Smith 141 and The Life and Death 21).
Her masculine tendencies of childhood extend into cross-dressing, and “from the first entrance into a competency of age she would wear it” (The Life and Death 18). Indeed, coming from the twenty-first century, I cannot help but wonder whether Frith would consider herself transgender (or androgynous or intersex) today. Regardless, the representation of her cross-dressing supplies another point of comparison between the two texts:
1662: Men’s clothes “served properly as a fit Covering, not any disguise of her, (according to the Primitive invention of apparrel) wherein every man might see the true dimensions and proportions of the body, only hers shewed the mind too” (The Life and Death 19).
1719: “Though she was so ugly in any Dress, as never to be woo’d nor solicited by any Man” (Smith 141).
The remarkable difference of these quotes extends not just from the level of disparagement but to the positioning of masculinity. Frith dressed as a man ennobles her in the earlier biography. By contrast, Frith dressed as a man makes other men uncomfortable in the later biography.
Beating Them at Their Own Game
Mary Frith’s girlhood serves to complement that of Moll Flanders: one the “Rumpscuttle” and the other a “gentlewoman.” Frith plunges into the world of men and comes out on top. However, that commitment belies its supposed confidence. Frith can only reach the level of criminal success she attained by shedding her feminine characteristics and pursuing the life of a man. So while today we might want to see her as an inspiring figure of female independence, she is only allowed to accomplish it, from girlhood on, through embracing manhood and disassociating from womanhood. We still don’t have an answer to get around this. But neither Frith nor Flanders accurately reflects the reality of eighteenth century girl criminals. In establishing opposing representations, they can now serve as counterweights to the final genre for consideration: the non-fiction of Old Bailey court records.
The Roaring Girl
While a bit tangential, I hope this may nevertheless be of interest. In 1611, Mary Frith inspired a play, called The Roaring Girle. In 2014, the Royal Shakespeare Company put it on. Check out the clip below!
Nicole DeGuzman ~ 5/6/15