Though we now think of him principally as the author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe was first and foremost a political writer and social critic, a Whig activist who moved from circles of power to prison, who pamphleteered the public and petitioned parliaments and kings. But he was also an early champion of the novel, a relatively new form in the English language of his day. And Moll Flanders is the work that brings all this together.
Moll is an assumed name, and one taken quite late in the novel’s narrative, in fact. For it is a novel of the everywoman, of anonymity, of scandal and struggle and the hard work of being alive. Born to a convict, her life takes her between the new American colonies and England, from husband to lover to husband several times, from proper society to prostitution to crime and back again. It’s the whole scope of contemporary society through the path of one woman who does what she needs to do to survive.
“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.” – this the summary Defoe provided of the book that marked his own transition out of active political life but arose directly out of social conditions he observed and the critique that had motivated him.