The Wife of Bath as Inspiration for Defoe’s Moll Flanders: A Case of Eighteenth-Century Chaucerian Medievalism
Scholarship about Daniel Defoe’s 1722 *Moll Flanders* focuses on the antecedents of Moll's criminality in 18c texts or the moral paradoxes in her first-person narration. Critics have overlooked the significant affinities between the character of Moll and Chaucer's infamous female pilgrim--Alisoun, the Wife of Bath. Both heroines: marry five times; cleverly deal with authority figures and men; are associated with clothing production; love wearing beautiful clothes; are well-traveled; are associated with Bath; equate money with sex and commodify themselves in their marriages and love affairs; and have affiliations with a network of influential female characters, their "gossibs."
Alongside significant parallels between the content of Alisoun's and Moll's stories, there is a compelling affinity in form; both narrate female autobiographies ventriloquized by male authors. In her *Prologue*, Alisoun recites the first female autobiographical narrative in English, detailing her lifelong career as a "wife" and delivering advice about her philosophy of love/marriage and her commodification of her body as an object for sale. Alisoun's confessional narration arguably served as a literary model for Moll's first-person memoir of her legitimate and bigamous "marriages," assorted love affairs, travel, life of crime, and her strikingly similar philosophy of marriage and morals, delivered as if a conduct book.
Did Defoe consciously echo Alisoun in his creation of Moll? Before examining the affinities between Alisoun and Moll, we review the many opportunities Defoe had to know Chaucer's *Canterbury Tales* generally, and his Wife of Bath texts particularly. Besides references Defoe made to Chaucer's works, we explore other examples of eighteenth-century Chaucerian medievalism, especially focused on Chaucer's Wife, in the works of Dryden, Pope, Gay, Urry, Betterton, Cobb, Fenton, Prior, Addison, Steele, and anonymous texts such as the oft-reprinted "Wanton Wife of Bath" ballad. Considering all this, we ultimately argue that Defoe's Moll Flanders owes considerable literary inspiration to Chaucer's Wife of Bath.