Roxana introduces herself and her early life. She was born in France, in the city of Poitiers to wealthy Protestant parents. In 1683, when Roxana was about ten years old, her parents moved to England to escape religious persecution. They lived a comfortable life in London, and Roxana grew up into a spirited and beautiful young woman. When Roxana is fifteen, she marries for the first time. Her husband is a brewer from a prosperous family; he is handsome and charming, but also foolish. He does not do anything to help with the family business, but is stubborn and opinionated. After she has been married for a few years, Roxana's father dies, and tries to leave her some money because he has noticed that her husband is not very responsible. However, he entrusts the money to Roxana's brother, who loses it through risky investments.
A short time later, Roxana's father-in-law also dies, and her husband inherits the brewing business. However, Roxana's husband is lazy and careless, and cannot run the business effectively. Despite Roxana trying to give him advice, he gets in to so much financial trouble that he decides to sell the business in order to avoid bankruptcy. After selling the business, Roxana, her husband, and their five children move to a house in the country. With the money they made, they should now be able to live a comfortable life, but Roxana's husband quickly begins to squander all of their money. He continues to live an extravagant lifestyle and spends all of his time and money on his favorite hobby: hunting. As their financial situation becomes more and more precarious, Roxana begs him to change his ways. One day, the husband muses that he must do something to try and fix the situation. The next morning, he goes out hunting, and vanishes mysteriously. No one knows where he or his servants have gone.
The disappearance of her husband makes Roxana's situation even more precarious. She has no one to turn to for help: her husband has two sisters, neither of whom is willing to help her, and her own brother has gone bankrupt. The only person who shows Roxana any kindness is an elderly widow who is a distant relation of her husband, but this woman is also quite poor herself. Roxana's servant, Amy, remains very loyal to her, even though Roxana can no longer afford to pay her wages. One day, the widow and another woman whom Roxana has previously helped come to see her, and find Roxana in great distress. Along with Amy, the two women come up with a plan: Roxana's children should be sent to the house of their aunt (the sister of Roxana's husband), and dropped off there. People will be told that Roxana has left the town, and that if the aunt won't take care of them, the children will be reliant on care from the Parish (similar to the modern equivalent of foster care). Roxana regretfully agrees to this plan, and Amy takes the five children to the house of their aunt. At first, the aunt is adamant that the children cannot stay with her, even after she is falsely told that Roxana has gone mad and been taken to an asylum. However, her husband takes pity on them, and manages to persuade her other family members to contribute money to the care of the children.
Roxana no longer has the responsibility to care for her children, but she still has no money to provide for herself or for Amy. Her landlord has already repossessed many of her household goods, and has let her live in the house for a year without rent, but that year is now almost gone. As the Landlord has noticed Roxana's lack of money, he begins to behave much more kindly towards her, and bring frequent gifts of food and wine. He also hints at his willingness to help her further, and Amy tells Roxana that if she sleeps with the Landlord, he will likely provide for her financially. Roxana is initially horrified by this idea, but Amy insists the decision could be morally justified, since Roxana has no other options. The Landlord buys new furniture and furnishings for the house, and encourages Roxana to rent out the rooms. He also plans to move in to one of the rooms himself.
After the Landlord moves in, he openly tells Roxana that he is in love with her, and while he cannot marry her, he wants them to have a romantic relationship. He also vows to treat her respectfully. By now, Roxana has begun to be tempted by the security that a relationship with the Landlord could provide. She encourages him to spend the night, but he has to go to London for business. He alludes to them having a wedding celebration when he returns, which confuses Roxana. After he leaves, Roxana and Amy debate about whether or not Roxana can justifiably sleep with him, and Amy keeps encouraging Roxana to go ahead with the relationship. Finally, the Landlord provides Roxana with a written contract, agreeing to care for her like a wife, make her a cash payment if he ever ends the relationship, and provide her or her heirs with money upon his death. Roxana and the Landlord begin a sexual relationship, and start to live together like a married couple.
The novel takes the form of a kind of fictional autobiography, in which Roxana looks back and recounts the events of her life. This structure means that she has additional perspective on how her choices ultimately played out, but that she is also always viewing these events through the lens of her subsequent future. Throughout her life, Roxana will experience a series of downturns and then recoveries; in a sense, all of her experiences operate a bit like the stock market or an investment, cycling through a series of crashes and recoveries. Since capitalism and commodification will pervade this novel, it makes sense that Roxana focuses on this type of cycle in her account. As Christina Healey argues, "The young Roxana’s association with saleable goods, a safe haven, and sound investments shapes a narrative that seeks to instruct readers not only in the perilous pleasures of sexual immorality, but also in the wisdom of good business practices" (493).
As a young child, Roxana is forced to flee from France to England with her family. In 1598, King Henri IV of France had passed the Edict of Nantes, protecting the rights of Protestants as a religious minority in France. However, over time, increased pressures made it more and more difficult to live in France and practice the Protestant (as opposed to Catholic) faith. In 1685, King Louis XIV revoked the Edict, ending the protection and rights afforded to the Protestants. Defoe's date of Roxana's family's emigration in 1683 implies that they fled in advance of this crisis. This forced emigration represents the first time that Roxana experiences a sudden loss of stability, and a need to abruptly start a new life. While much of Roxana's subsequent obsession with establishing security and autonomy can be linked to the trauma of later losing her home and children, this initial childhood trauma also likely plays a role. For the rest of her life, Roxana will never truly have a stable long-term home where she can feel safe and settled. While it often seems almost forgotten in the later novel, her French cultural heritage is important; it likely makes it easier for her to assume new identities, as she can much more easily pass herself off as a Frenchwoman and disguise her identity that way. It also provides some exoticism and "otherness" to Roxana's character; her subsequent illicit sexual behavior and crafty ability to look out for herself could conveniently be located in a female character who is not truly an Englishwoman.
The early part of Roxana's marriage highlights some of the tensions and themes that will become prevalent throughout the rest of the novel. Roxana marries someone she likes and is attracted to; because she has grown up privileged and sheltered, she can prioritize these emotional appeals and doesn't yet know to consider factors like how responsible and intelligent the Brewer is. Once she is married, the problems become apparent quickly: Roxana is clearly intelligent, and can tell the the Brewer is being negligent and making bad decisions, but as a woman, she has little authority to do anything but stand by helplessly. This tension between knowledge and the ability to act must be torturous for her, and it also sets the stage for her later drive to ensure she has the power to make decisions based on her keen judgements and observations. As Julie Crane points out, "Defoe will not let us escape from Roxana's intelligence—her restless, turbulent, desperate energy as a thinking being" (13). Her father's attempts to help her are also foiled by her brother's incompetence, showing that many of the men in Roxana's life fail in their ostensible responsibility to provide for her and take care of her. The roots of Roxana's belief that no one will help her, and she can only depend on herself, likely take root during the difficulties of her first marriage, and this relationship damages her ability to ever fully trust a man again.
The Brewer's disappearance creates a crisis and turning point in Roxana's life. As a woman, she is vulnerable not only legally, but also biologically. She cannot manage money or business interests within her married life, and (at a time when any sort of birth control was extremely limited), she has very limited control of her fertility, and thus by her early twenties, Roxana is already the mother of five children. She has responsibilities, but no means to respond to those responsibilities, and faces the terrifying prospect of her children actually starving to death. While the various men in Roxana's life fail to help her, several women rally around her during her time of crisis: notably, they are all women who are, or have been, in economic crisis themselves. Amy, the old aunt, and the poor woman whom Roxana previously helped can presumably all understand the crisis in which Roxana finds herself, and rally to help her. The women, particularly Amy, take a very pragmatic viewpoint of what to do, and have no qualms about forcing the children onto the Brewer's sister and her husband. This choice marks the first time that Roxana breaches her principles, and steps outside one of the key expectations of her as a woman: that she will be a devoted and loving mother. Nonetheless, as will later be revealed, Roxana's decision to give up her children does ensure at least a baseline level of stability for them, and seems to be a choice that is made with deep regret and pain.
Once Roxana has breached the expectations of her role as mother, it becomes more conceivable that she could also breach another key expectation of female identity at this time: chastity. The class and education difference between Amy and Roxana emerges clearly in the pragmatic attitude that Amy shows: for Amy, ideals, social conventions, and religious beliefs have no place in a situation where the alternative might be death. Amy also points out that Roxana has effectively no way to earn money other than by trading her body. Amy might be able to have a different attitude towards sex work as economic labor because, as a working woman, she is already trading her labor for money within a nexus of capitalism. Roxana might be particularly resistant to the idea of illicit sex, but she is also partially afraid of the shift in her class and social position tied to the notion of having to earn money at all. Roxana is also careful to stress that she makes the decision to engage in a type of sex work extremely reluctantly, and mostly through persuasion by Amy. As a narrator, she has a vested interest in stressing this version of events, whereas at the time, she may not have been as devastated as she describes.
While Roxana has trepidations about what she sees as making herself a whore, she actually encounters quite a favorable context with the Landlord. He negotiates with her, treats her kindly and respectfully, and establishes a transparent contract rather than asking her to simply trust him. Interestingly, the Landlord is a man with whom Roxana has an illicit relationship that cannot be recognized socially, but he treats her more honorably than her actual legal husband does. The relationship is presented as a clear parallel to a marriage, and also an arrangement contracted between two people who could not marry each other even if they chose to. Neither Roxana nor the Landlord is free to marry, showing that strict rules making it impossible to leave even an unhappy or collapsing marriage don't seem to benefit anybody.