Daniel Defoe lived between 1660 and 1731, producing during his lifetime somewhere between 250 and 400 different pieces of writing. He was a member of the lower middle class, a Dissenting Protestant, and a staunch political activist, all of which contributed to a lifelong sense of alienation and embattlement. Defoe's father was a butcher, and he himself became a tradesman. As a young man, he participated in Monmouth's Rebellion in 1685 and joined William III's army against James II in 1688. He suffered his share of ups and downs, falling into severe financial and legal trouble in mid-life. Having been twice imprisoned himself, Defoe had a first-hand knowledge of the social underworld he describes in Moll Flanders.

Because of his class status and religious affiliation, Defoe was in some respects an outsider among the literary figures of his generation. He was educated, but in a practical vein; he did not receive the classical education that informed the careers of Pope and Dryden, for example. His orientation was toward the Puritan and the popular, and his writing shows none of the perpetual strife between high and low (or ancient and modern) culture on which so much of Augustan literature turned. He devoted most of his writing years to journalism, pamphleteering, and opinion-pieces; the bulk of Defoe's great fiction was produced in a relatively short time-span and late in his life, between the years of 1718 and 1724.

In addition to Moll Flanders, Defoe is famous for Robinson Crusoe , Roxana, and A Journal of the Plague Years. Writing before Fielding and Richardson, he did a great deal to make the novel respectable and certainly succeeded in producing a brand of fiction that was more compelling and imaginative that what had gone before. Yet Moll Flanders was not a novel that enjoyed great success at the time of its publication; the coarseness of its subject matter alienated many potential readers. It was for later centuries to appreciate the nature of his achievement in this book, which has been compared to such works as Zola's Nana (1880) and Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900). Though some 19th- and 20th-century critics have belittled Defoe's technical achievements, he currently enjoys a strong literary reputation and is counted by many contemporary scholars as one of the key figures in the early development of the novel.