The novel opens in a London playhouse during a performance. The novel's unnamed protagonist, a beautiful and intelligent young woman from a good family, is there to see the play. She has only recently arrived in London, having grown up in the country, and enjoys an uncommon amount of independence and autonomy.
As she gazes around at the other people attending the theatre, she notices that one woman in particular is receiving a lot of male attention. This woman is readily identifiable as a prostitute. The protagonist is surprised that men, some of whom she knows and considers to be intelligent, are still so willing to associate with her; however, when she expresses this idea to the well-bred ladies sitting near her, they dismiss her as sheltered and naïve. The more she thinks about it, the more the protagonist becomes intrigued with knowing how the experiences of a prostitute are different from her own.
Spurred by her ability to follow her own unchecked impulses, the very next night she returns to the playhouse in disguise. Hiding her identity by veiling her face, she sits in a different section of the theatre and imitates the behavior of the prostitute she had observed the night before. Men are immediately attracted to her, and begin flirting with her very openly. She enjoys the attention, and is particularly excited when a man named Beauplaisir approaches her.
The protagonist has interacted with Beauplaisir before and has always felt an attraction to him, but those interactions have always taken place under circumstances where her behavior was strictly controlled by a sense of what was socially appropriate. Now she is much more free in her interactions, and he takes a new interest in her. Beauplaisir does not recognize her; while he does detect a resemblance between the woman he assumes to be a prostitute and the well-bred lady of his acquaintance, he assumes it must be a coincidence. He is impressed to find that this mysterious new woman is much more intelligent and articulate than most of the prostitutes with whom he has interacted, and the two spend hours flirting and talking.
The setting of the novel's opening scene in a playhouse highlights several key themes, such as acting, disguise, and deception. The protagonist will function much like an actress throughout the story, using devices such as costumes and adopting an accent to disguise her true identity. It seems probable that the setting in which she first encounters the prostitute plays a subconscious role in her audacious decision to dress up and pretend to be one. The setting of the theatre would have also immediately hinted to Haywood's readers that the novel might be concerned with a scandalous subject matter. There had long been debates about the morality of acting, and controversy about theatre had reached its peak in England when it was outlawed in the mid-seventeenth century during the English Civil War. By the time Haywood wrote, theatrical culture was thriving, but it remained linked to transgressive behavior. Acting essentially involved pretending to be something you were not, and this was perceived as dangerously close to sinful behavior like lying and deceiving.
Another reason why theatre were controversial is that playhouses were mixed social spaces; in an era where class position often rigidly defined one's experiences, especially for a woman, the theatre was a rare place where both aristocrats and working class individuals could find themselves in the same room. The protagonist's fascination with the prostitutes she observes suggests that she has never seen one before. Her reaction actually encapsulates the common fear around more relaxed social interactions: people feared that if sheltered young women learned about the behavior of prostitutes, they might be tempted to try it themselves.
A number of unique factors come together to make it feasible for the protagonist to conceive of her plan. Her wealth and high social position make her accustomed to getting what she wants. She has grown up outside of the city and is therefore more naïve and less aware of how strict social and moral codes can be. She is also unsupervised, without the usual parental or patriarchal figures to closely monitor her behavior and reputation. This gives her far more agency than an upper-class young woman would typically have, but it also leaves her vulnerable to making bad decisions as a result of following her whims. The narrator clearly positions the root of the protagonist's behavior as an impulsive but ultimately innocent curiosity, and this creates sympathy for a character that might quickly get in over her head by pursuing this plan.
The success of the protagonist's disguise reveals several things about class and gender dynamics. Firstly, external markers such as clothing, jewelry, speech patterns, vocabulary, etc. signify and define one's place in the world. Simply by modifying these markers, she can move into a completely different position and radically change the dynamic of how other individuals interact with her. Her status as an upper-class woman both protects and stifles her: it ensures that she is protected from sexually aggressive behavior from men, but it also means that they do not interact with any freedom and playfulness. As soon as she presents herself as a woman who is of a lower class position and sexually available, men treat her completely differently. The idea of masquerade and disguise appears frequently in eighteenth-century literature for precisely this reason: by obscuring one's identity, it can also be liberating. As Terry Castle explains in her study of masquerades, "The masquerade symbolized a realm of women unmarked by patriarchy, unmarked by the signs of exchange and domination, and independent of the prevailing sexual economy of the eighteenth century" (p. 255).
The appearance of Beauplaisir (whose name combines "handsome" and "pleasure") is the moment when the protagonist's careful plan starts to slide out of her control. She has already nursed an attraction to him when they have interacted in more formal circumstances, and she finds it intoxicating that he is now paying attention to her—and that she can openly flirt back. Because of her newly liberated sexual status, the protagonist can speak her mind more openly. As Juliette Merritt explains, "Here, Haywood makes the conventional link between women's speech and their sexuality. Sexual and verbal looseness are linked because the body and access to discourse are the two main sites of women's oppression" (p. 54).
The protagonist and Beauplaisir's interaction also suggests that she has not completely transitioned into the disguise she has taken on: Beauplaisir notes with interest that she is more educated and refined than he would expect. This heightens his attraction to her, and suggests that rigid social distinctions benefit neither men nor women. Like most aristocratic men of the time, Beauplaisir likely has to rely on one category of women for sexual satisfaction, and another for emotional or intellectual engagement. His pleasure in seeing these two attributes come together suggests that allowing young women more freedom in how they interact with men might lead to more organic and satisfying romantic connections.