Literary works of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries tend to depend, in one way or another, on reputation. In works such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Eliza Haywood‘s Fantomina, the issue of good and bad reputation informs the main conflict of the story. It is important to note, however, that the reputation at stake in many of these works is that of the female protagonist; not the male. Reputation is rarely mentioned when it comes to the men of these stories, except to tell us whether they have a good or bad one. Those men with bad reputations, like Macheath from The Beggar’s Opera, are rarely looked down upon for them. The women who receive bad reputations on the other hand, usually for some kind of sexual or romantic misconduct, are treated as if their life essentially over. One black mark and they are sent away from society forever, like the tragic Fantomina, or they are forced into a life of prostitution and destitution. These women’s reputations are at the mercy of the public. Even the rumor of misconduct is enough to cause trouble, as Belinda fears in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.
However, there is one heroine from this time period that does not allow herself to be entrapped by others opinions of her. She is a woman who learns to work the civilized machinery of reputation to her own advantage. Moll Flanders, the protagonist from Daniel Defoe’s classic novel of the same name, does not sit idly by, but molds the gossip and chatter of society to her advantage, gaining a good reputation again and again even though she has been “Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia”, and has given birth to countless bastards (Defoe, IV). What makes Moll so different from her fictional female contemporaries? How could she become the mistress of her reputation when they could not? The answer is a simple one: Moll is a consummate liar. Deceit, Defoe illustrates, is the key to a good reputation.
The issue of reputation is first brought up in Defoe’s tale of debauchery when Moll’s “virtue” has been taken by the eldest son of the high-born family she has been living with since youth. It is here that Moll first lays out the difference, in her eyes, between ‘reputation’ and moral ‘character’. When looking back on this time of her life, Moll comments wistfully that she “…had not only the Reputation of living in a very good Family, and a Family Noted and Respected every where, for Vertue and Sobriety, and for every valuable Thing; but I had the character too of a very sober, modest, and virtuous young Woman…” (Defoe 19). The world in which Moll lives in, the world of mid-seventeen hundreds Britain, legitimates this perception of ‘reputation’ time and time again; whether or not you actually have ‘virtue’ and ‘sobriety’ is relatively unimportant, as long as one is perceived to possess such traits.
It is to Moll’s credit that during this first indiscretion she seems little concerned for her reputation, more concerned with her “love” for the older brother than what anyone else in the house might think of her. It is the elder brother himself that stresses these issues of reputation, reminding her time and time again that if the affair is made public, even to their immediate family, there will be no way to “…save [them] both from Ruin…” (Defoe 41). Moll is taught by this man of great public reputation, but poor private morals, that reputation is one of the most important things to those who hope to move about in ‘society’.
Moll learns this lesson well and put it to good use. Being without any real family and having her first husband die and his family turn their back on her, Moll finds herself out on her own for basically the rest of her life, with only what she manages to save from her various adventures to live upon. For Moll, a good reputation is the key that will open the door to her greatest desires. For her, reputation allows her to find company, mostly in the form of husbands, and to find financial security, mostly in the form of rich husbands. For to be alone and to be destitute are the two things Moll fears most. She gives voice to these fears many times in her writings, counting her stock at the end of every misadventure, bemoaning the fact that she does not have any friends upon which to rely as the rest of the world does. A reputation of virtue allows her to move through the world of the upper-class, while a reputation for wealth allows her to marry gentry over and over again.
Defoe, Daniel, and G. A. Starr. Moll Flanders. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
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