Daniel Defoe’s The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1722) is the story of the notorious life and ultimate repentance of a woman who lived much of her adult life as a prostitute and thief. Set in London, the novel reflects immigrant urban life. It’s a tale told by a woman who does not reveal her real name, but to fellow streetwalkers she is known as Moll Flanders.
She was just six months old when her mother was imprisoned for stealing three pieces of fine “Holland” (imported Dutch fabric) from a draper in Cheapside. The baby was “sold” and spent time in the company of “gypsies” before running off as a child ending up in Colchester. The story starts amid the textile industry of Colchester and Norwich, noted for its refugees from the Low Countries.
At the time a “Moll” was a woman of low repute, perhaps a criminal’s partner. (“Moll Cut-Purse” was immortalized in two plays of the early seventeenth century). It’s been said that from the Middle-Ages until late in the seventeenth century many of the brothels on the south bank of the Thames were operated by Flemish women. Daniel Defoe notes those bawdy houses elsewhere, in that “the mistresses of them were generally Dutch (that is Flemish) women.”
In his preface, Defoe promises his reader a serious moral message, but fortunately, the novelist proved stronger than the moralist. Moll Flanders may be a victim of society’s careless attitude towards the vulnerable, but she is also an unrepentant thief and prostitute, taking pride in her deviously clever ways of turning the moral world upside down.
Defoe’s introduction to Moll Flanders is both a defense of the narrative against critics and a subtle exercise in enticing readers by the promise of a truly wicked story. Moll Flanders, born in prison, twelve years a whore, five times a wife, twelve years a thief, eight years a transported felon in Virginia, dies a penitent in the end. Although the story has been interpreted as a conversion narrative (Defoe was, after all, a Puritan) what makes Moll Flanders a tour de force is the author’s firm grip on sin and his disinterest in salvation. The irony is that Puritans had closed theaters for fear of their erotic libertines, but it was a novelist out of their own ranks who contributed an archetypal story of sex and crime.
Defoe must have been aware of the tensions between novelistic and moral values. For the novelist, high-mindedness required ample vigor and verve. At the end of the preface the ‘editor’ of the manuscript of Moll’s story explains that he had made the decision to omit passages concerning Moll’s final years of virtuous life in Maryland and Virginia. These additions were related third hand the author tells us, “not told with the same Elegancy as those accounted for by herself,” Defoe suggestion is that enough attention had been paid to the demands of propriety and decorum.
Bricks of Manhattan
Over two hundred and fifty years later, Martin Scorcese created the character of the under-aged runaway prostitute Iris ‘Easy’ Steensma in his film Taxi Driver (1976). Set in a morally bankrupt post-Vietnam Manhattan, there are parallels with Defoe. The names have a common history in immigrants from the Low Countries. Moll is of Flemish descent, Iris Steensma appears to be Frisian. Scorcese’s screenwriter Paul Schrader was a grandson of Frisian immigrants. He was fed on Puritan principles.
Like Defoe’s novel, this film is a hard-hitting tale of a sometimes perverse urban life presented without judgment or sentimentalism. It tells the story of Travis Bickle, a lonely taxi driver dismayed by the sleaze and prostitution he encounters on his nocturnal journeys through the metropolis. Suffering from chronic insomnia, he becomes infatuated with Betsy who works for Senator Charles Palantine, a smug, campaigning presidential candidate. Betsy rejects Travis’s advances and he descends into insanity. From his taxi, he witnesses an argument between twelve year old runaway Iris and her pimp Matthew ‘Sport’ Higgins. He tracks the girl down and tries to convince her to return home (mailing her money to pay for the fare) and to stop prostituting herself.
Iris “Easy” Steensma is a twentieth-century Moll Flanders walking the streets of Manhattan. Living with her pimp and preferring her street name, young Iris has been exposed to the drinking, drugs, and violence of New York City’s underbelly but, like Moll Flanders, she is not portrayed as a victim. She presents herself as a strong and determined personality in charge of her feelings and affections. She defends Sport in front of Travis. She laughs at Travis and suspects he’s a narc.
Travis finally confronts Sport in an East Village brothel. There is a shoot-out. Wounded, Travis tries to commit suicide before passing out. But it’s not the end – as the film closes in a five-minute epilogue, Travis is embraced as a model citizen and hailed in the local press as a hero who has saved an adolescent girl from a life of dishonor. He gets a letter of thanks from her father, revealing Iris had returned to school. Now having resumed his job as a cab driver, Travis encounters Betsy. She seems to admire the man she once despised and he drives off with a smile.
Having brought sex workers to life in fiction, both novelist and filmmaker safeguarded their artistic integrity in the end. Their characters are saved from sin and turned into model citizens, but it’s an artistic ploy. A stone hurled through the window of rectitude – salvation on the cheap. Vice is an infinitely better story-teller than virtue. The novel and film end on an ironic postscript – not so much a PS, more a PS off.
Photo of original Moll Flanders edition in 1722.