Readers are introduced to Audley Court, an old and picturesque house in the county of Essex. It is the home of Sir Michael Audley, his daughter Alicia, and his second wife. Sir Michael is a baronet. Readers learn that Sir Michael married for a second time at age 55, seventeen years after the death of his first wife. His second wife is named Lucy Graham. Prior to Lucy’s marriage, the wife of the village surgeon, Mrs. Dawson, had employed her, with Lucy acting as a governess to Mrs. Dawson’s daughters. Lucy is very beautiful and she charms everyone she meets; after seeing her at church, Sir Michael had arranged to spend more time with her and fell very strongly in love. When Mrs. Dawson first mentioned to Lucy that Sir Michael is likely to propose, she became agitated and upset, and said that she did not deserve the good fortune. When Sir Michael did propose, Lucy gave a strange speech about how she could be expected to resist the offer he is making, and then accepted his proposal. Sir Michael was happy that she accepted, but disappointed that she did not express love for him, and seemed to be mostly attracted to his wealth and position. After the proposal, readers learn that Lucy Graham had been wearing, on a ribbon around her neck, a ring wrapped in a piece of paper.
The scene then shifts and readers find themselves introduced to George Talboys, who is on board a ship sailing from Sydney, Australia to Liverpool, England. Although George is initially very social with the other passengers, as the ship approaches England, he becomes very agitated and impatient. One night, Miss Morley, a governess and fellow passenger, strikes up a conversation with him. She confides that she is anxious about what might await her in England: she is returning after fifteen years away, to reunite with her fiancée, but she fears what might have changed in the interim. George becomes agitated and explains that he is also returning to his wife, although he has only been away for three and a half years. He explains their history.
George had been a soldier stationed at a seaport town when he met his future wife. Her father was poor and had a drinking problem, and hoped to marry his daughter to a wealthy military man. George fell in love and married her, but although he came from a wealthy family, he was disowned when his father learned that he had married a girl without a fortune. The two were in financial trouble: they spent some time in Italy before returning to England and staying with her father, who cheated them out of their small amount of remaining money. George tried unsuccessfully to find work, with the situation growing more desperate now that his wife had given birth to a son. He and his wife argued about money, and he left the house so upset that he considered committing suicide. Instead, he overheard a conversation about the Australian goldfields and decided to secretly travel to Australia, make money, and then return. He left a short note for his wife explaining his plan, and departed. After much suffering in Australia, he discovered a large gold deposit that earned him a large sum of money.
George is now returning to his wife; during his absence, he only sent her one letter, in which he told her he was returning and provided her with the address she can use to contact him. He expects that she is still living with her father, but the conversation with Miss Morley has filled him with a sense of unease and fear about what may have happened during his absence.
The reader is returned to Audley Court and introduced to Phoebe Marks. Phoebe had been working as a maid in the Dawson household when Lucy worked as the governess; when Lucy married and became Lady Audley, she brought Phoebe with her as her personal maid. Phoebe has slipped away to meet with Luke, her cousin and childhood sweetheart whom she plans to marry. Phoebe describes all the luxuries Lady Audley is surrounded by, expressing envy. Leaning that Sir Michael and Lady Audley are away from the house, Luke asks to see inside and Phoebe takes him in, showing him Lady Audley’s clothes and jewels. As he inspects one of her jewel boxes, he discovers a hidden drawer built into it. Inside the drawer are a baby’s shoe, wrapped in a piece of paper, and a lock of hair. Phoebe takes these items, telling Luke that she believes they will prove valuable.
The reader is introduced to Robert Audley, Sir Michael’s nephew. He is technically employed as a barrister in London, but spends very little time working. He regularly visits Audley Court, and is fond of his cousin Alicia, but does not harbor any romantic feelings towards her. Robert runs into George Talboys in London; the two are old friends. George has just gotten off the ship and traveled to London; he is in a hurry to get to the address he had provided to his wife, since he expects she will have sent him a letter. George and Robert go together, and George is upset to learn that there is no letter for him. He picks up a newspaper and reacts with horror to the announcement of the death of a woman name Helen Talboys.
George is so distraught that he faints. He wakes up at Robert’s home, where he was taken to recover. George explains that Helen Talboys was his wife, and that he is horrified by her death. The next day, Robert and George travel to the town of Ventnor, which is where the announcement said that Helen died. Trying to uncover the details of what happened and confirm that this Helen Talboys is indeed George’s wife, they ask about her father, Captain Maldon. A hotel clerk confirms that there is a man named Captain Maldon staying in town, whose daughter has recently died. George and Robert go to the house where he is staying and find items that seem to confirm that she was indeed the same Helen Talboys. They speak to the landlady, who recounts Helen’s death. When George asks if she spoke of him, the landlady says she did not, a detail that he finds strange. Moreover, when the landlady brings him a piece of hair she clipped from the head of the dead body, he notes that it seems to be straighter than the wavy hair he remembers belonging to his wife. However, both of these details seem relatively insignificant, and George weeps at her grave.
George and Robert meet up with Mr. Maldon, as well as George’s young son, Georgey. Mr. Maldon explains that after George’s departure, he and Helen had moved to Southampton where she had worked as a piano teacher. When she became ill, they had come to Ventnor, and she had died only the week before. George announces that his son will remain in his grandfather’s care, with access to his father’s fortune when he matures. Robert will be his guardian, as George himself plans to return to Australia as soon as possible. Mr. Maldon is very quick to agree to this plan, which Robert rebukes him for, arguing that George should remain in England and care for his son himself. George, however, insists that he cannot bear to remain in England; he and Robert leave the town, after hearing from the landlady that, surprisingly, Mr. Maldon and Helen had always seemed to be financially comfortable. The next day, Robert is appointed guardian to George’s son. Since the next ship to Australia doesn’t leave for a month, George resigns himself to passing time in London with Robert. Robert comes up with a plan for the two to travel to St. Petersburg, and George agrees, since he doesn’t care where he goes so long as he leaves England.
The opening chapters of the novel introduce a range of characters and events that initially seem disconnected from each other. Much of the impetus of the suspense and mystery will come from seeing how the different plotlines come to intersect, and how characters turn out to be involved in each other's lives in surprising ways. Braddon begins cultivating suspense immediately. The setting of Audley Court, while majestic, is also isolated and mysterious, suggesting that it is a place where secrets could be hidden. When Sir Michael proposes to Lucy Graham, her reaction implies that there is more to the event than a pretty governess being wooed by a wealthy aristocrat. She asks him not to ask too much of her and says that she cannot hide the fact that she is tempted by the wealth he will be able to offer her. It is surprising that Lucy is so blunt about her motivations–presenting the marriage as arising not out of love, but instead out of Lucy's desires to obtain material advantages, is one of the first times readers see Braddon start to poke holes in a domestic ideology that assumed marriages were always blissful and wives were happily subservient.
The theme of domestic unhappiness is further developed through George's story of his marriage. This is not the typical "love conquers all" narrative: although he put his feelings for Helen ahead of practical concerns about her income and class position, the result is that both suffer. They learned the hard way that living in poverty is difficult and places a strain on relationships. George's reaction reveals a sense that he has failed as a husband, father, and man: the same domestic ideology that stressed that a woman should be devoted to caring for her home and children meant that a man was responsible for providing an income for his family. George's despair when he could not do so was so great that he considered committing suicide, and then hatched a desperate plan to go to Australia. It may seem bizarre that, rather than discussing this decision with his wife, he slipped away in the middle of the night, but a sense of shame led him to refuse to speak to her until he could report that he had finally succeeded and was able to provide for her. This also explains why he did not write to her until he finally had good news to report.
The impact that wealth can have on someone's life is a thread that runs through the other storylines as well. Luke and Phoebe express their resentment of the life Lady Audley enjoys, particularly because she had started in a relatively humble position as a governess. For many readers, class mobility would have been a suspicious phenomenon, raising concerns that someone might have lied or covered up parts of his or her past in order to try to advance themselves. Phoebe and Luke are happy to discover items that imply Lady Audley has a secret because this gives them power over her. Robert Audley, on the other hand, because he is well off and well connected, can afford to lead a leisurely life, with no real ambitions.
The chance encounter between George and Robert sets the stage for the intense connection that will drive much of the rest of the plot. Although the two have not seen each other for years, Robert is immediately invested in helping his friend and goes out of his way to be supportive. George is portrayed as highly emotional and sensitive, and this vulnerability seems to make Robert feel quite protective of him. Another possible interpretation is that there is some degree of homoerotic attachment between the two men: Robert's obliviousness and lack of romantic interest in his cousin Alicia might be read as indications that he is not interested in women.
These chapters also begin to introduce the clues, or "circumstantial evidence," that alert readers to what might be going on behind the scenes. The ring around Lucy Graham's neck, the baby shoe, and lock of hair hidden in her jewelry box hint at the possibility of another husband or fiancée, and a child somewhere in her past. Several of the details around the death of Helen Talboys also seem out of place: the lock of hair that supposedly belongs to her is not quite the right texture, and George finds it odd that she would not have mentioned him on her deathbed. On their own, each of these details are small and don't provide much information. They do, however, encourage the reader to pay very close attention while continuing on with the novel. As the story unfolds, readers will have the opportunity to act as detectives as well, and the presence of these clues in the first chapters prepares them to read attentively.