All you need to know about the books you meant to read

MOLL FLANDERS by Daniel Defoe (1722)
Click to follow
Plot: Moll reflects on her outlandish life with brutal commonsense. Her mother was a Newgate prisoner, subsequently transported to Virginia. Brought up by the mayor of Colchester, Moll is passed on to another "lady". Marriage and childbearing become a means for social advancement. Moll takes a succession of husbands, one of whom removes her to his estates in Virginia. Here she meets her mother-in-law who turns out, by a stroke of fate, to be her mother. Refusing to remain in an incestuous marriage, she returns to London where she embarks on a series of bigamous relationships. One of these is with Jemy, a highwayman. Finally she hitches herself to a banker who loses his dosh and reduces Moll to penury. Her luck runs out and she finds herself back in Newgate prison. Here she meets Jemy and has a twitch of compassion. He intercedes for her and they are both sent to Virginia. Moll is re-united with her brother (and husband), her son and her mother's estates. The brother dies and Moll is free to marry Jemy, claim her fortune and live happily ever after - repentant and rich.

Theme: Moll sins and excuses herself, wallowing in her own complacency but having no truck with self-pity. Human nature cannot progress until it learns to sympathise.

Style: The prose is bald and idiomatic with a careless disregard for felicities of phrasing.

Chief strengths: Defoe explores the gap between lofty human aspiration and base spiritual achievement.

Chief weaknesses: The restless spontaneity sometimes becomes too much of a good thing.

What they thought of it then: Swift, Pope and the coffee-drinking crowd undervalued Defoe, finding him common but Moll Flanders gained intellectual respectability with Hazlitt and Lamb who applauded the book's anarchic tone.

What we think of it now:Critical debate is obsessed with Defoe's status as a conscious artist: he is either a master ironist manipulating his material with panache or a moral buffoon .

Responsible for: The English novel, or nothing at all, depending on your view.