Rowson explains that she first heard the story of Charlotte Temple from an old woman who had known the title character. As was common in eighteenth-century novels, the author does not acknowledge that the content is fictional, and goes so far as to add that she has changed the names of characters and places so that the novel “can ... hurt the feelings of no one.” Rowson hopes that Charlotte’s story will help young people to avoid the same fate as the book’s heroine.
Montraville and Belcour, “brother officers” in the British army, are passing through Chichester on their way to Portsmouth, where they will depart for their assignment in the United States. They take a walk through the town, and see a line of young ladies leaving church, students from the local boarding school.
Montraville recognizes Charlotte Temple, with whom he danced two years ago at a ball in Portsmouth. Fifteen-year-old Charlotte has matured into a beautiful young woman since then, and Montraville is immediately attracted to her. However, he must proceed to Portsmouth to prepare for his deployment. After a few days in Portsmouth, though, Montraville can no longer bear his longing for Charlotte, and returns to Chichester, hoping for another glimpse at the young beauty. He encounters Charlotte walking with her French teacher in the field and joins them. He impresses Charlotte with his gallantry and bribes the French teacher to let Charlotte meet him again in the field the next day.
The narrative flashes back to many years before Charlotte’s birth. Her father, Henry Temple is noble, but poor. However, he saw his siblings forced into unhappy marriages, and he has resolved that one day, his own children will marry for love, not money. Mr. Temple has also earned a reputation for charity, and one day, a young officer named Blakeney approaches him on behalf of a debt prisoner, Captain Eldridge. Blakeney and Temple go to visit Captain Eldridge in debtor’s prison, where he is staying with his daughter, Lucy Eldridge.
Captain Eldridge explains why he is in prison. He borrowed money from a wealthy school friend of his son, George. The money was intended to set George up as a soldier, but Captain Eldridge banned the school friend, Mr. Lewis, from his house after learning that he hoped to make Lucy his mistress. Lewis responded by demanding the money back, and of course Captain Eldridge could not pay. Later, he offered to forgive the debt if Lucy would become his mistress, but Captain Eldridge and his son refused.
Captain Eldridge continues his story. George died in battle shortly after his father was arrested, and Mrs. Eldridge died at the shock of seeing her son’s wounded body. Since then, Lucy has lived with her father in prison, and supported him with her painting and needlework. Moved by Captain Eldridge’s misfortune, Mr. Temple decides to help him pay his debts, even though this will require him to get a mortgage himself. His father, the Earl of D---, suspects that Mr. Temple wants to marry Lucy, but reminds him that the girl is too poor and he needs to marry the wealthy Miss Weatherby instead.
Miss Weatherby is spoiled and has a bland personality, but she loves Temple. Unfortunately, his conversation with his father has made Henry realize that he only wants to be with Lucy. The Earl banishes him from the family, and decides to marry Miss Weatherby himself. However, Henry Temple is unwavering in his decision to marry Lucy, and they move into a cottage with Captain Eldridge and live happily on a modest income. Charlotte is their only child.
The first section of Charlotte Temple briefly establishes the novel's characters and setting before launching into a detailed description of how Charlotte's parents met and married. Their marriage serves as a foil for Charlotte's romantic misadventures. Like Montraville, Mr. Temple fell in love with a woman he was too poor to marry, but he ignored his father's disapproval and married Lucy anyway. For the relationship to work, Mr. Temple had to live in reduced circumstances and accept the way his life has turned out, a trait that Rowson extols in Chapter VIII.
In these opening chapters, sex is repeatedly likened to a financial transaction. Montraville bribes Charlotte's French teacher so that he can see her again; Lewis attempts to "buy" Lucy Eldridge as a mistress by forgiving her family's debts. Both of these villains literally attempt to buy sex, but even the novel's virtuous characters are preoccupied with the notion of marrying for money. Indeed, Rowson suggests that a system where most people marry for money actually encourages men to make bad choices. Because couples cannot marry if they are too poor or of different social ranks, men are tempted to have sexual intercourse with their girlfriends and then leave them for more suitable women.
Rowson's comparison of romantic relationships to financial transactions also draws attention to the ways that women are objectified by men. Montraville falls for Charlotte without knowing anything of her character, and evaluates her as if she were a piece of merchandise. Mr. Temple's father also does this, when he tries to calculate the financial advantage (or lack thereof) of his son marrying Lucy Eldridge. Truly good men will disregard beauty and wealth and instead look at a woman's character, Rowson seems to suggest.
However, it is problematic to characterize Rowson as an early feminist. In this opening section, she devotes one chapter to Charlotte and four chapters to Mr. Temple. Although she later delves into Charlotte's thoughts and experiences, the reader's first impressions of the main character are through the lecherous eyes of Montraville. She is sparsely characterized, with few interests or quirks. This feature of the narrative speaks to Rowson's motives for writing Charlotte Temple: The novel is intended to teach virtue, and by making Charlotte as bland as possible, Rowson makes it easy for any young woman to identify with her experiences.
Similarly, Lucy Eldridge is only described from Mr. Temple's point of view. She is completely passive and mute, and is sent out of the room so that her father can relate her life story for her. However, unlike Charlotte, Lucy has made enormous sacrifices to help her father, and she appears as a model for young women to emulate, rather than a flawed character with which they can identify, like Charlotte.