Literary daybook, Jan. 27

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Topics: Books, Richard Blumenthal,

Today in fiction

On Jan. 27, 1910, Dotty holds her open house.
— “The Knowledge of Water” (1996)
By Sarah Smith

From “The Book of Fictional Days”
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to fictiondays@yahoo.com.

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1722, Daniel Defoe’s “Moll Flanders” was published. Defoe’s title page is one of literature’s longest come-hithers, and casts a wide net: “The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders &c who was born at Newgate, and during a Life of continued Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five time a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent.” Lest readers get too much of the wrong idea, Defoe follows this up with a preface in which readers are told that the Penitent part of the story is uplifting, that the Whore-Thief part is instructional, that the author was “hard put to wrap it up so clean,” and that if some find the tale overstimulating they should not blame the author for the bent of their own “gust and palate.” The narrative tease is maintained throughout the story, with Moll wide-eyed one moment and winking the next at the foolishness men can bring to the sexual barter:

“And now he made deep protestations of a sincere inviolable affection for me, but all along attested it to be with the utmost reserve for my virtue and his own. I told him I was fully satisfied of it. He carried it that length that he protested to me, that if he was naked in bed with me, he would as sacredly preserve my virtue as he would defend if if I was assaulted by a ravisher. I believed him, and told him I did so; but this did not satisfy him, he would, he said, wait for some opportunity to give me an undoubted testimony of it …”

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The opportunity is soon contrived, and we find that the gentleman is true to his word, for two long years. Moll is not pleased by this, and Defoe does not waste the narrative opportunity: “I do not say that I was so wholly pleased with it as he thought I was, for I own I am much wickeder than he, as you shall hear presently …”

Defoe was no libertine, and a prolific writer in all genres and markets. He had previously published two manuals on good living, “The Family Instructor” and “Religious Courtship,” and would soon write a third — though perhaps the success of Moll’s story had an influence here, as it is titled “Conjugal Lewdness” or “Matrimonial Whoredom, a Treatise” concerning the use and abuse of the Marriage Bed. Like Moll, his main motivation was money — he died while in hiding from creditors — and his roller coaster life sometimes paused in similar places:

“In the School of Affliction I have learnt more Philosophy than at the Academy, and more Divinity than from the Pulpit: In Prison I have learnt to know that Liberty does not consist in open Doors, and the free Egress and Regress of Locomotion. I have seen the rough side of the World as well as the smooth, and have in less than half a Year tasted the difference between the Closet of a King, and the Dungeon of Newgate.”

– Steve King

To find out more about “Today in Literary History,” contact Steve King.

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