Moll Flanders, published in 1722, was one of the earliest English novels (the earliest is probably Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, published in 1688). Like many early novels, it is told in the first person as a narrative, and is presented as a truthful account, since at that time the idea of a long, realistic work of fiction was still new. It is not only an extremely entertaining and action-packed story, but also gives a valuable and lively picture of 17th century society. Although Moll is an exceptional character because of her ingenuity and extraordinary life, the problems that Moll faces are firmly rooted in her society.
As the daughter of a transported convict, she begins life at a great disadvantage: she lacks the support system of family and friends which all children need, and which was particularly necessary for women, since their access to employment was limited. Without any system to protect them, the children of convicts are thrown into the world with no training in any trade and no prospects other than starvation or the same life of crime that ended so badly for their parents. Moll herself was very lucky to be taken in: the parish (the area served by one church) were under no obligation to take care of penniless children who were not born there, or had no other particular claim to charity: "I was not a parish charge upon this or that part of the town by law."
When Moll is a young girl, she is forced to go into service as a maid because she would not be able to make a living sewing and spinning. Maids were paid very little, but at least they were fed and clothed. The fact that women were not able to support themselves legally (the assumption being that their husbands or father would contribute to their support from their higher wages) always underlies Moll's decisions: she really needs to get married. When she is widowed at the age of 48, she is too old to hope to marry again, and has little choice but to embark on a life of crime.
In the 17th century, crime (at least thievery) really paid, because labor was very cheap and things were very expensive. Before the era of industrialization, the production of objects took an immense amount of labor: a piece of cloth could be the result of many hours of work, though stealing it might only take a minute. Even though labor was very cheap, the sheer amount of it which was required to make an object added up to make theft a profitable line of business. For example, the governess bought a lady's watch that Moll stole for 20 guineas, presumably less than it was worth, since it was stolen; 20 guineas would have supported one of Moll's children for 4 years. It would be by no means easy for Moll to make a living doing honest work, but she grows rich rapidly as a pickpocket. The emphasis on cloth underscores the fact that the production of cloth was a very important part of the 17th and 18th century English economy.
Theft was not the only illegal occupation open to women. In the 17th and 18th centuries, prostitution was widespread in London. This was probably the result of a social system in which poor women could hardly make an honest living, and completely lost their reputations if they were seduced, thus making it almost impossible to get an honest job. A "fallen woman" had little choice but to remain on the ground. Also, men could not engage in extramarital sex with respectable women, and commonly married late.
Theft and prostitution were not without their risks, however: a thief could be transported or hanged for stealing a watch or a length of cloth. At the very least, they could expect to spend several weeks in Newgate Prison, a lively but hellish place.
Transportation to Virginia was considered a terrible punishment, even though transported convicts could eventually hope to be freed and settle their own land. The difference between colonial America as viewed by Americans, and as viewed by the colonizing English, is worth noticing. We are in the 17th century, long before any breath of revolution: Virginia is simply a place where good money can be made raising tobacco.
Prostitutes could not defend themselves well from infection or pregnancy. Syphilis was probably introduced into Europe from the Americas, in exchange for small pox and a host of other diseases. It appeared in Naples in 1493, and ravaged its way through Europe, known generally as the French Pox, except in France where it was called the Naples Disease (le mal de Naples). It was treated in a variety of harmful and ineffective ways, including the use of mercury, a dangerous poison. Some people argued that it could not be sexually transmitted because so many monks had it! But by the time of Moll Flanders, there was apparently little doubt that it was a venereal disease. It appears commonly in 18th century engravings as a punishment suffered by lustful sinners, weakening aristocratic families when infected children were born. Pregnant prostitutes might be chased from parish to parish since the authorities would not want to have to take charge of the unwanted infant. They could take refuge in houses like that of Moll's governess, who had presumably bribed the parish so they wouldn't bother her. Unwanted children could be given to country families to be taken care of, along with a sum of money. However these children were often neglected, and in any case rates of child mortality were very high. Many of Moll's many children quietly disappear, presumably fallen prey to illness. Perhaps because of the high rates of child mortality, some mothers guarded against becoming too attached to their children. Other familial ties were less strong also: people married for money rather than for love.
Despite all these difficulties and dangers, the picture Defoe gives of 17th century England is not altogether black. Its inhabitants seem to enjoy themselves quite a bit whenever they have a little money. Although the gaiety is rather frenetic, and pleasure is rarely without attendant dangers, there seems to be no doubt in Moll's mind that life is well worth having. Perhaps the spice of danger is what gives Moll Flanders, and the society it represents, such a vivid and intensely alive quality.