Very few details are known with certainty about Eliza Haywood's early life. She was born Eliza Fowler, likely either in Shropshire or London. In 1714, she is recorded working as an actress in Dublin under the name of Eliza Haywood. She would later go on to describe herself as a widow, but the husband whose surname she adopted has never been identified. Haywood did have two children, whose paternity is also debatable. Some contemporary sources suggest that these children resulted from a marriage which ended when her husband abandoned her. Others, including the poet Alexander Pope, accused Haywood of being the mother of illegitimate children. If the latter is true, the likely candidates as fathers of her children are Richard Savage, a well-known writer, and William Hatchett, a playwright and translator, since Haywood was rumored to have been romantically linked to both.
Haywood began her career as an actress, which at the time was considered a disreputable occupation for a woman, and may explain why her personal life was dogged by rumors of scandal. Her first novel, Love in Excess, was published in 1719 and served as the start of a long and varied literary career. While continuing to work as a stage actress, she wrote a number of novels and novellas (including Fantomina) during the 1720s. She also began writing plays and working as a translator, which shaped her own literary style due to the French fiction she was exposed to. In 1724, her first play was staged, and at about the same time she began writing essays to be published in periodicals and journals. Alongside becoming a notable public literary figure, Haywood actively entered into the political debates of the day.
By the 1730s, Haywood was at the peak of her acting success. The final play she wrote was staged to great success in 1733, but shortly thereafter she began writing dramatic criticism, and continued to do so for the rest of her life. She also ventured into editing a successful periodical,