Moll Flanders, a model for the 1990s

Boyd Tonkin celebrates the life and devious times of Daniel Defoe
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The Independent Online
A controversial writer from Stoke Newington, well known as a bankrupt, secret agent and convicted criminal, will next Sunday achieve a prime- time slot on ITV for a serial that boasts "a lot of sex and nudity". If the author were still alive, the Daily Mail would be loading its moral artillery and Granada would be bracing itself for an explosion to make the Crash film row seem no more than a slight skid. But, for ultra-cautious TV executives, frocks and carriages can still license a multitude of sins.

Daniel Defoe published Moll Flanders - his picaresque tale of a streetwise adventuress who survives and then thrives in a man's world - in 1722, and died in 1731. The producer of Granada's four-part adaptation, David Lascelles, can therefore tease us with hints that Andrew Davies' "funny, sexy script will "probably shock a few people". The past is a foreign country, and they have more fun there.

Quite apart from the scope they offer for period nookie, Defoe and his indestructible heroine look ripe for rehabilitation. As she sleeps and bargains her way to status and riches, the jail-born Moll shows up the hypocrisy of a culture that lauded free enterprise but barred half the population from its benefits. A major-league pickpocket, Moll exploits the flashy and the gullible. Jenny Uglow, who is completing a biography of the painter William Hogarth, points out that Moll enriches herself amid a get-rich-quick society that sounds very familiar: "Her victims are asking for it - that's the fantastically Thatcherite thing about Moll."

Andrew Davies says that he found in the novel "a very raw sort of society with no welfare state - people could drop through the bottom of it easily. That seemed to have a lot of contemporary relevance."

Moll's creator was no stranger to dubious deals and double standards. Puritan and businessman, pioneering novelist and pure downmarket hack, Defoe would have felt quite at home with today's mood of sensation-seeking moralism. Just look at his titles: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders or, for his first and best-known novel, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. This consummate operator would have flourished in a tabloid newsroom. Indeed, from 1704 and 1713, he wrote the entire content of a thrice-weekly paper.

Like Moll herself, Defoe remade himself time and time again. Nothing about him is quite what it seems, starting with his name. Born Daniel Foe in the City around 1660, the son of a Dissenting butcher, he failed in at least three business careers - as a hosier, roof-tiler and breeder of civet cats. One of his three bankruptcies involved debts of pounds 17,000. Multiply that sum by 50 times or so, and you can see that Jeffrey Archer was a rank amateur in the minus-millionaire stakes.

In the 1690s, Defoe started writing non-conformist tracts and skulking round the fringes of London politics. Notoriety arrived when the heavy irony of his pamphlet The Shortest Way with Dissenters was read with a straight face by the powers-that-be. It landed him in the pillory for three days in 1702, but the sympathetic London crowd pelted him with flowers instead of bricks.

Later, he spied for the Tory politician Robert Harley and had a clandestine role in negotiations for the parliamentary union between England and Scotland. His subterfuge didn't end there - readers who come across the vivid faction of the his Journal of the Plague Year still assume that Defoe (who was about five years old at the time) is writing as a trustworthy eye-witness.

Robinson Crusoe appeared in print as fact, not fiction - the dodgy SAS memoir of its day. Ambiguity even surrounds the question of what he actually wrote. Scholars have quarrelled for decades over it as the list of works attributed to him has swollen from 200 to 560.

Defoe still sounds like our contemporary. His pared-down, clean-limbed prose - the new plainness allied with science, trade and non-conformity - hasn't aged as more patrician styles have. He speaks from and about a rough-and-ready mercantile class who would rival, and then join, the old aristocratic elites. His sneaky shifts of loyalty from one faction to another typify a time when ideology mattered less than naked power.

Defoe makes capitalism sound not just respectable but exciting. Works such as The Complete English Tradesman present commerce as a vocation to be proud of at a time when gentlemen still despised the money-makers that their daughters often married. This hyper-active north-east Londoner went at least half way towards inventing - and celebrating - Essex Man.

But Defoe's portrayal of a boom-and-bust economy also sets honest trade against the scams and rackets of an age that bred the South Sea bubble and various crooked lotteries. The speculative South Sea Company finally burst in 1719. Imagine if Barings Bank had attracted millions of small investors, then tried to take over the national debt, and you'll grasp the scale of the collapse.

Jenny Uglow describes the hungover atmosphere of the 1720s as "terribly like the 1990s, as we came down from the Eighties". In this climate of sore heads and empty pockets, Moll not only struck a blow for women's freedom but personified mixed feelings about the enterprise culture of her day. The TV adaptation may have as much to say about high jinks in boardrooms as in bedrooms.