Moll Flanders

DANIEL DEFOE

Secret agent, political provocateur, merchant, rebel, and writer, Daniel Defoe led a life as fascinating and enduring as those he recounted in his novels. He was born in London in 1660 to James Foe, a candle merchant and butcher of Flemish descent. In his childhood Daniel survived a deadly resurgence of the bubonic plague in 1665 that killed thousands of Londoners, and he witnessed the Great Fire of London in 1666. As a Dissenter—a Protestant who did not belong to the Church of England—Defoe was excluded from studying at Cambridge or Oxford; instead he received an excellent education under the Reverend Charles Morton, who would become one of the first administrators of Harvard College.

By his early twenties Defoe had established himself as a merchant, selling all manner of goods, including hose, tobacco, wine, and the secretions of civet cats used in perfumes. He married Mary Tuffley, daughter of a wealthy merchant, in 1684; the couple had eight children during their long marriage, which ended with Defoe’s death forty-seven years later.

Defoe’s great interest in politics entrenched him in the political turmoil of his times, and he soon earned a sizable reputation as a pamphleteer. His wildly popular poem The True-Born Englishman (1701) challenges English sentiment against Dutch-born King William III of Orange; his most famous pamphlet, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), is a response to the attacks launched against Dissenters when William died and Queen Anne took the throne. The tract landed Defoe in Newgate Prison, which he would faithfully depict in Moll Flanders, and upon his release he went into service as a pamphleteer and information-gatherer for a moderate and influential member of government, Robert Harley. In 1704 Defoe launched The Review, a highly regarded political journal that he wrote and edited until 1713. He emerged as a novelist with the publication in 1719 of the well-received account of a castaway The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, and he appeased the appetites of his reading public by publishing three nov els in a single year, 1722: Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack, and A Journal of the Plague Year. He published one more novel, The Unfortunate Mistress: Roxana, in 1724, then turned his hand to nonfiction again, with works that include the three-volume A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, published between 1724 and 1727. Daniel Defoe died, in debt and mired in legal battles but widely respected as a writer and political thinker, in April 1731 in a London boardinghouse.

THE WORLD OF DANIEL DEFOE AND MOLL FLANDERS

1660 Daniel Defoe is born in London, the son of James Foe, a candle merchant and butcher of Flemish descent. The monarchy, overthrown by Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil Wars earlier in the century, is restored, and Charles II ascends the throne.

1665 Bubonic plague breaks out in London, killing as many as 75,000 of the city’s 450,000 inhabitants.

1666 The Great Fire of London destroys much of the city.

1671 Barred from attending Oxford or Cambridge because he is a Dissenter (as Protestants not conforming to the doctrines of the Church of England were known), Defoe enters Reverend Charles Morton’s academy to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry. Under Morton, who later will become the first vice president of Harvard College, he receives an excellent education, but he does not enter the ministry.

c.1682 Defoe establishes himself as a merchant, trading in hosiery, tobacco, wine, and other goods. His business dealings take him to several European countries, where he acquires knowledge of many languages.

1684 Defoe marries Mary Tuffley, daughter of a prosperous Dissenter merchant who brings with her a substantial dowry.