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Synopsis

Moll's mother is a convict in Newgate Prison in London who is given a reprieve by "pleading her belly", a reference to the custom of staying the executions of pregnant criminals. Her mother is eventually transported to America, and Moll Flanders (not her birth name, she emphasizes, taking care not to reveal it) is raised until adolescence by a goodly foster mother, and then gets attached to a household as a servant where she is loved by both sons, the elder of whom convinces her to "act like they were married" in bed, yet eventually unwilling to marry her, he convinces her to marry his younger brother. She then is widowed, leaves her children in the care of in-laws, and begins honing the skill of passing herself off as a fortuned widow to attract a man who will marry her and provide her with security.

The first time she does this, her husband goes bankrupt and flees to the Continent, leaving her on her own with his blessing to do the best she can and forget him. The second time, she makes a match that leads her to Virginia with a kindly man who introduces her to his mother. After three children (one dies), Moll learns that her mother-in-law is actually her biological mother, which makes her husband her half-brother. She dissolves their marriage and travels back to England, leaving her two children behind, and goes to live in Bath to seek a new husband.

Again she returns to her con skills and develops a relationship with a man in Bath whose wife is elsewhere confined due to insanity. Their relationship is at first platonic, but eventually develops into Moll becoming something of a "kept woman" in Hammersmith, London. They have three children (one lives), but after a severe illness he repents, breaks off the arrangement, and commits to his wife.

Moll, now 42, resorts to another beau, a banker, who while still married to an adulterous wife (a "whore"), proposes to Moll after she entrusts him with her money. While waiting for the banker to divorce, Moll pretends to have a great fortune in order to attract another wealthy husband. She becomes involved with some Roman Catholics in Lancashire that try to convert her, and she marries one of them, a supposedly rich man. She soon realizes he expected to receive a great dowry which she denies having, leading him to admit that he has cheated her into marriage, having himself lied about having money that he does not possess. He is in fact a ruined gentleman and discharges her from the marriage, telling her nevertheless that she should inherit any money he might ever get (finally, she mentions his name). Although now pregnant again, Moll lets the banker believe she is available, hoping he returns. She gives birth and the midwife gives a tripartite scale of the costs of bearing a child, with one value level per social class.

Moll's son is born when the banker's wife commits suicide following their divorce, and Moll leaves her newborn in the care of a countrywoman in exchange for the sum of £5 a year. Moll marries the banker now, but realizes "what an abominable creature am I! and how is this innocent gentleman going to be abused by me!" They live in happiness for five years before he becomes bankrupt and dies of despair, the fate of their two children left unstated.

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