Publishers’ Readings and Appropriations of Moll Flanders [Archival 2]

In the introduction to his book Renaissance Drama and the Politics of Publication, Zachary Lesser provides a description of reading that centers attention on the publisher:

I use reading broadly to indicate the wide variety of ways in which publishers must have made sense of texts, for whether or not they read a play in its entirety or saw it performed in the theatre, all early modern publishers needed to judge plays’ larger cultural meanings in order to decide whether they fit into their specialities … All these judgements, many of which may be only partly conscious, are part of the publisher’s reading of the text, for they perform its “horizon of expectations,” and while these expectations may or may not be fulfilled if the publisher reads the text word by word, they will inevitably shape that reading. (9)

Shifting away from theories of reading that emphasize the final reader’s practice of textual engagement, and focusing instead on the imperatives of the publisher who must have read drafts of a play or seen it performed on stage before deeming it viable for print, Lesser’s description of reading underscores how a publisher’s interpretation of a play determines its wider cultural reception. The publisher’s reading affects the material shape that the printed book eventually takes through the layout of paratextual materials such as the use of illustrations, the layout of the title page, and the kinds of arguments made in the preface. In this regard, the publisher appears to perform the author’s function by demarcating the “horizon of expectations” that the final readers bring to bear on the text. It is important to note how Lesser emphasizes that often publishers never read the play that they are interested in, but only focus on its “larger cultural meanings” to aesthetically situate the play. This observation underscores how the initial writer’s intentions could be disregarded by the publisher in favor of framing the play within more appealing contexts to facilitate sales. As a result, the publishers’ reading of a play (or lack thereof) can be conceived of as a transformative process that imbues the play with commercial value.

While Lesser writes in the context of seventeenth century drama, I have found his exploration of the publisher’s interpretive framework to be applicable to eighteenth century realist prose as well. By examining various editions of Daniel Defoe’s novel, Moll Flanders, we can see how these books’ publishers reframed or, in some cases, completed altered the story that was first published for overtly commercial ends. In changing the paratext as well as the text itself, the posthumous publishers of Moll Flanders highlight their capacity to transform works such that it is ensconced in an entirely new “horizon of expectation” that may contravene how the narrative was initially conceived.

Circa 1790, approximately seven decades after its initial publication and six decades after the death of its author, Moll Flanders was reissued as an abridgment by the Fleet Street printer, T. Sabine. While the first edition of Moll Flanders ran 436 pages, came with a title page proclaiming the story as being “written from her own memorandums,” as well as contained a preface running 11 pages, Sabine’s abridgment shortens this story to 73 pages, does away with the preface entirely, adds a frontispiece engraving of the protagonist, and alters the title page such that it no longer gives any indication as to who the author of this text might be. In commensurate with shortening the narrative, Sabine retails this book for six pence, a noticeable drop from the six shillings that it cost to purchase this book when it first came out. Sabine’s changes are significant because they underscore how a publisher could change a text, without regard for the initial creator’s intentions, in an effort to create a different “horizon of expectation” within which Moll Flanders could be read and circulated. Whereas the first edition was aimed at a well-heeled readership who had the means and the time to read a lengthy novel, Sabine’s edition appears to be targeted towards a relatively low-brow audience who might not have the leisure or the sophistication to read a work that runs for hundreds of pages.

Sabine’s interventions in Moll Flanders completely reframes the story, having a major effect on the narrative’s overall aesthetic. For example, the first edition’s preface, which frames Moll’s story as a true account of a woman’s struggle in pursuing a virtuous life in a world governed by vice and debauchery, is done away with altogether. Instead, Sabine includes a frontispiece engraving, which features a portrait of Moll herself, ornamented with expensive-looking earrings and necklaces, wearing a dress that suggestively reveals her breasts. Above this portrait are the words “Taken from Life in Newgate,” and below it is a six-line poem promising the reader that Moll’s “beauty,” “intrigue,” and “contrivance” “will keep you awake while her story is told.” On the one hand, the preface to the first edition called to attention the veracity of the account being presented and advanced the story as one from which the reader may “have something of Instruction.” On the other, Sabine’s frontispiece makes no claims to truth or morality, but promises a salacious tale full of adventure and erotic undertones. Not only do these paratextual differences reflect a changing readership of Moll’s tale, but they also disclose Sabine’s understanding of the larger cultural context within which this story must be re-worked. Sabine’s reading of Moll Flanders conceives of the story as holding greater commercial potential for a relatively lower market audience, and his changes to the text repositions what was initially a story conceived along bourgeois lines governing virtue and morality, into a more bawdy one.

Although Sabine’s reworking of Moll Flanders frames the narrative in contradictory terms when compared to its first edition, it still remains more-or-less faithful to the major plot points in the initial publication. For example, Sabine maintains use of the first-person narrator and includes major moments such as Moll’s accidental incestuous marriage to her half-brother in Virginia, her marriage to the Lancashire swindler, as well as her ultimate return to Virginia where she leads a life of penitence. However, when this story was printed in Boston by William M’Alpine in 1773, again as an abridgment, it was completely changed. M’Alpine’s Moll Flanders is only eight pages long, but presents Moll’s life as a very different sequence of events. While the first edition begins with the narrator outlining a caveat that the name “Moll Flanders” is not real and then gives reasons for refusing to share Moll’s real name, M’Alpine’s Moll Flanders, contrastingly, begins in media res with an account of how Moll’s criminal parents ended up in Newgate. The matter of naming is ignored completely in M’Alpine’s rendition, and instead Thomas Flanders and Catharine Flanders are identified as Moll’s parents; names which are not mentioned anywhere in the first printed edition. Along similar lines, while the first edition ends with Moll as a seventy year old lady leading a life in penitence on her Virginia plantation, M’Alpine’s version ends with Moll’s death as a cause of “Astmah or shortness of breath.” The brevity of M’Alpine’s version of Moll Flanders, along with his thorough departure from details of the initial print version makes his publication a completely different story. However, the fact that foundational aspects of the initial story were retained in M’Alpine’s version, such as the name of the female protagonist and the picaresque structuring of the plot, points towards an attempt to capitalize on Moll Flanders’s existing notoriety in print culture. Moreover, one might also surmise that M’Alpine’s wholesale disregard of the particulars of the initial story evidences that he had never really read Defoe’s version of Moll Flanders, but was only broadly aware of its overall narrative arc because Moll Flanders was widely circulated and discussed in the public sphere. His reading (or general conception) of Moll Flanders is consequently one governed primarily by commercial interests.

What unites Sabine’s and M’Alpine’s renditions of Moll Flanders is that their readings and reinterpretations bring to the surface attempts at customizing their products to meet commercial demands. Otherwise put, these two abridgments highlight moments in the production history of books, where the publishers’ readings of their own texts shows how preexisting works, in this case Moll Flanders, are transformed into saleable goods. Lesser’s account of how the publishers Richard Bonian and Henry Walley interrupted their printing of the first edition of Shakespeare’s Historie of Troylus and Cresseida to include a new preface works in a parallel fashion. Lesser emphasizes that by inserting the preface that boasted of the play’s “wit” and “elite” aesthetic, the publishers “sought to position the play within a particular niche of the print marketplace … And, most importantly, they themselves understood the play (at least on second thought) as fitting within this niche” (2). Not only did Bonian and Walley interpret Troilus and Cressida as being suitable for customers looking for witty and elite fare, but they materially altered the textual apparatus within which this play was being printed such that it was overtly marketed to this particular demographic. Over a hundred and fifty years later, Sabine and M’Alpine repeated this same process of interpretation and textual intervention to transform Moll Flanders, initially produced as middle-class fare with middle-class values, into a story responding to the demands of a relatively downmarket demographic willing to shell out a few pence for a bawdy tale.

Works Cited

Defoe, Daniel. The fortunes and misfortunes of the famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was 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, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent, Written from her own memorandums. London: W. Chetwood, T. Edling, 1722.

Defoe, Daniel. The fortunes and misfortunes of the famous Moll Flanders. Containing, I. Her being born in Newgate, and manner of being brought up among gypsies, who left her to the care of the Parish of Colchester. II. Her being debauched at the age of eighteen by her lady’s eldest son; and some time after married to his own brother, who dying left her with two children. III. Her marrying a rich planter, who took her to Virginia where his estate lay, and having a child by him; her discoursing with his mother one day, when she discovered it to her own mother also. IV. Her refusing to live in incest with him, and return to England. V. Her intrigue with a gentleman at Bath, by whom she had a son. VI. Her marriage in Lancashire with a gentleman, who proved to be an Irish fortune hunter VII. Her being detected in a robbery, trial at the Old Bailey, and transportation with her Lancashire husband. VIII. Arrival at Virginia, seeing her son by her own brother, growing rich, and dying penitent in the 77th year of her age. London: T. Sabine, 1790.

Defoe, Daniel. The life, death & misfortunes of the famous Moll Flanders. Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continued variety for threescore years; was twelve years a whore, five times a wife, whereof once to her own brother; twelve years a thief, was eighteen times in Bridewell, nine times in New Prison. Boston: William M’Alpine, 1773.

Lesser, Zachary. Renaissance Drama and the Politics of Publication: Readings in the English Book Trade. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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