At the outset of Moll Flanders, the mother of the title character of Daniel Defoe's 1722 novel is convicted of a felony and sent to the Virginia Colony as punishment. She abandons her infant daughter, who is eventually kept alive by a crew of gypsies. As a three-year-old, she escapes from the nomadic troupe in the city of Colchester. The local parish officers place her in the care of a woman she calls "Nurse" who, for a time, becomes a kind of foster parent.
When Moll is of an age, Nurse teaches her to read and to work at limited tasks, such as sewing. Since this woman had been a person of some breeding, she also gives her lessons in proper etiquette. Yet the young child spends her time either working or weeping, terrified that the magistrates will force her to go into "service" as a cookmaid's drudge when she reaches the age of eight.
The foundling begs "Nurse" to allow her to remain with her, promising to work especially hard to avoid being pressed into "service." Nurse regards her charge with skepticism:
'Why, what?' said she; 'is the girl mad? What would you be -- a gentlewoman?' 'Yes,' says I, and cried heartily till I roared out again.
Moll, who has already become a skillful seamstress, explains that she will earn her keep in that way, and thus become a gentlewoman. This is a term that the girl has misunderstood as referring to an entrepreneur rather than a woman of the leisured upper classes, which is highly amusing to Nurse and later to the Mayor and his family. But the woman is moved by her charge's entreaties and arranges with the officials to allow Moll to remain with her.
The significance of this sequence is that it establishes the role which Moll will continue to pursue throughout the remainder of her life: that of a self-employed business person.