Moll Flanders Setting
London, England; English Countryside; Virginia, America
This novel bounces from prison to the countryside to London to Virginia, back to England, then back to Virginia, and then back to England again. Phew. That's quite a whirlwind. Why does Moll Flanders travel so many places? We like to think it's because our scrappy protagonist goes where the wind takes her. She'll go anywhere, as long as it helps her survive. But she's loyal to her home country of Britain to the core, and in the end, it's that attachment that brings her home.
Lady of London
Moll makes two major trips to America (specifically Virginia) during her story, but the rest of her life takes place in Britain – and most of it in the big old bustling city of London. Moll is a huge fan of that town, which she describes as "an expensive and extravagant place" (484). And we know how much our girl likes expensive and extravagant things. Plus, her cons work much better in the big urban center, where avoiding capture and blending in with all the hubbub are as easy as pie. For a while, anyway. When she is finally caught, Moll enters the one place in London she finds totally awful – Newgate prison, which she describes as a "horrid place."
But let's back up a bit and give ourselves a big dose of perspective. Consider this your warning that a little history is ahead. Bear with us. Despite the fact that the book is published in 1722, at the end, we're told that it was "Written in the year 1683," when Moll would be about seventy years old. That means our girl would have been born in 1613 or so, which is around three years before everyone's favorite Brit, William Shakespeare, died. If we go by the date Defoe says the book was "written," rather than the publication date, safely assume that the events of the novel take place squarely in the seventeenth century.
So then, in 1683, the Glorious Revolution – in which William of Orange and his protestant wife Mary seized the throne from James II, a Catholic king with close ties to the Pope – hadn't even happened yet; that upheaval was still five years in the future. Yet, Britain's government and people were already in turmoil over their distrust of a Catholic ruler in a Protestant country.
In the year of the novels publication, 1722, by contrast, George I had been ruling Britain for almost ten years and the Glorious Revolution was long over. Still, there was plenty of unrest in Britain because of George's German ancestry and upbringing.
So whatever the case, Moll Flanders the woman and Moll Flanders the novel were born into a Britain in turmoil, which pops up in the novel in subtle ways. It's clear from Moll's success as a thief that crime was rampant in her London. And it's clear from her interactions with Lancashire, a Catholic with ties to Ireland that religion is a hot-button issue for many Englanders. Plus, we already know that Britain wasn't an easy place to be a woman. Females had few options for survival in a country where they didn't have much control over their own destinies, and where women's rights were of little to know concern against the backdrop of social and political upheaval.
Nevertheless, Moll loves England in general and London in particular. It's no wonder she returns home so quickly from her first trip to Virginia when she discovers that her husband is actually her brother. She tells us,
But we got at last into Milford Haven, in Wales, where, though it was remote from our port, yet having my foot safe upon the firm ground of my native country, the isle of Britain, I resolved to venture it no more upon the waters, which had been so terrible to me. (398)
The isle of Britain, it seems, is a safe haven for Moll, and after her totally traumatic experience in America, it's no wonder. Still, even after she makes it big in Virginia the second time around, our loyal Moll heads back to England to start a new life there. No matter what, England is home.
But it's important to remember that many others, who were unhappy with the unrest in Britain, might have felt just the opposite. For people who didn't share the overarching political or religious views of Britain, America might have seemed like just the ticket.
The Land of the Free (Ex-Cons)
In fact, we can't help but wonder why Moll doesn't make more of a go of it over there. In Virginia, Moll has a chance of making a whole new life for herself. She's a prostitute starting over in a virgin land, which is oddly poetic, in an ironic kind of way. But each time she goes to Virginia, she wastes no time talking about it, and seems bent on returning to England as soon as she can, so in the end, we don't learn much about what Virginia was like back then at all.
We do know that criminals were being shipped to America as punishment early on in the seventeenth century, because that's where Moll's mother is sent as soon as Moll is born (in around 1613). And we know that later, the British are still basically treating America like a huge probation center, because that's where they send Moll when she, like her mother, is exiled.
For those criminals, the options are hanging or a one-way ticket to America. It makes sense to choose the latter, right? Right. Yet some characters in Moll Flanders, like Lancashire, seem to think being sent to America is just about as bad as dying. After all, America was unsettled, brand new, and didn't have "expensive and extravagant" things. This was, of course, decades before all the upheaval over there led to the American revolution, but Shmoop wonders that if Britain had known what was coming, they might not have sent all those hardened, bitter, surly criminals over there in the first place.
Whether we think of the book in the context of 1722 or 1683, at both times America remained very much a part of and connected to England. England had started attempts to colonize America when Queen Elizabeth I was still in power, and one of the first places to be colonized, Virginia, was settled shortly after her death, in 1607. The Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, just thirteen years later, in 1620.
It was a place for brave entrepreneurs, religious outcasts, and other misfits who couldn't quite make it work in England went to start anew. Moll and Lancashire certainly fit into this last category, and in many ways, America treats them more kindly than England ever did. After all, it's in America that they make all their wealth.