Executive Producer: Rebecca Eaton, Gub Neal
Producer: David Lascelles
Director: David Atwood
MOLL FLANDERS/Episode 1/Intro by Russell Baker
Tonight we begin a two-part presentation of "Moll Flanders," by Daniel Defoe.
You may know Defoe only as the man who wrote "Robinson Crusoe." If so, "Moll Flanders" will come as a shock.
To give you a rough idea of what it's like, I quote from the title page where Defoe promised a story about a woman who was, in his words, "twelve years a whore, five times a wife -- once to her own brother -- twelve years a thief, and eight years a transported felon in Virginia."
That should be fair enough warning that this is a show that may strike some parents as unsuitable for children.
It's doubtful that Defoe deliberately set out to write a scandalous book -- he was essentially a reporter, and a very good one too.
His reports on what he saw of plain English life in the eighteenth century are still studied by social historians, and his "Journal of the Plague Years" is considered a masterful re-creation of life during the Black Plague.
He had spent some time in Newgate prison for bankruptcy, and there -- thrown in with thieves, pickpockets, prostitutes -- he'd had a close look at the underside of British society.
He must have been especially fascinated by the women criminals he met. In "Moll Flanders" he was trying to show how hardship and bad luck breed such women.
Moll is more interesting than the usual victims of society we meet in sociological novels -- she is bright, scrappy, cunning, ruthless and irresistible to men.
Like Scarlett O'Hara, she is the struggling woman determined not to be defeated by a cruel world.
Defoe published "Moll Flanders" over 250 years ago and critics have disagreed heatedly about it ever since. Virginia Woolf, a woman of the 20th century, said it was one of the few English novels that deserve to be called "great."
William Hazlitt, the 19th century essayist, called it "utterly vile and detestable."
Defoe himself seems interested mostly in the degradation forced on women by a brutal society.
And brutal it was. It was a society in which shoplifting was a capital crime.
If, however, the condemned shoplifter was a pregnant woman, she could not be hanged until her baby was born.
It was under these circumstances that our heroine was born in Newgate prison.
Moll Flanders, Episode One.
MOLL FLANDERS/Episode 1/Extro by Russell Baker
The English of the eighteenth century were as baffled as Americans are today about what to do with their criminals.
Ours, of course, are housed by the government at tremendous expense to the taxpayer. The English were more tight-fisted. The policy was not to lock 'em up and throw away the key, but to get rid of them once and for all. Hanging was one way to do it. It was the punishment for dozens of crimes, which we now regard as minor felonies. Shoplifters and pickpockets were carted to the gallows in a steady parade.
There were a lot fewer hangings, however, than the more sensational histories suggest. Over the years, the English discovered that hanging simply didn't stop the crime rate from going up and up.
In Daniel Defoe's time, a popular alternative developed -- "transportation." Instead of being hanged, criminals were exported in chains to the American colonies. Moll's sea-captain husband sails for Virginia with a cargo of convicts who've been sentenced to "transportation." As Moll says, it beats hanging.
Captains were paid three to five pounds per convict for the passage. They could also profit by selling the prisoners' services to colonists who needed labor.
Convicts were usually transported for seven or eight years, after which they could settle as free citizens of the colony.
They often turned out to be excellent colonists. Some of us watching here tonight may be their descendants.
With the American Revolution, England could no longer ship convicts to the United States. So it stored them on decaying hulks anchored in the Thames until someone had the idea of exporting them to the far side of the earth.
In the nick of time, Captain Cook had claimed Australia for Britain…which opened its first penal colony there in 1788.
For Masterpiece Theatre, I'm Russell Baker. Goodnight.
Episode number: 1 2
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