The novel opens with a brief preamble explaining the purpose of the narrative: to lay out a detailed description of events that will function similarly to a legal record. In order to give the most complete account of events, the story will be told from the perspectives of different individuals who have insights into what happened. Walter Hartright, a twenty-eight year old art teacher, is introduced as the individual who is overseeing and compiling the various narratives, and as the character who will begin the story.
The events of the narrative begin in London, on the last day of July. It is a hot evening and Walter goes to visit his mother and sister Sarah, who live in the suburb of Hampstead. When he arrives at their house, he is greeted by his friend Professor Pesca. Pesca is Italian and makes a living giving Italian language lessons to wealthy London families. He and Walter had sometimes crossed paths as a result of teaching in the same houses, but their friendship was cemented when Walter saved Pesca from drowning while they were both at the seashore. Ever since then, Pesca has been devoted to Walter and has also become friends with his family. Pesca is very excited to tell Walter that he has a job opportunity for him: one of Pesca's clients was looking for recommendations for a drawing teacher, and Pesca is eager to recommend Walter for the position. The position is being advertised by Frederick Fairlie of Limmeridge House, who is seeking to hire someone to give art lessons to two young women, and also to assess and organize an art collection. The position is a 4 month contract that pays well, and Sarah, Mrs. Hartright and Pesca all think this is a wonderful opportunity. Walter, however, is reluctant to take the position and is less than excited when his application is accepted and he is given instructions to travel immediately to Cumberland.
The night before his departure, Walter goes to Hampstead again to say good-bye to his family. Since it is a very hot night, he is in no hurry to get back to his stuffy rooms in central London, and decides to take a winding route home. As he is walking, he is shocked to feel someone touch his shoulder from behind and more shocked to turn around and encounter a woman dressed entirely in white. She asks him whether she is on the right road to get to London, but also seems very sensitive about him believing she has done something wrong. He reassures her and agrees to walk with her to a place where she will be able to get a cab. She makes him promise that when it is time for her to leave, he will not try and detain her.
As they walk, she asks Walter if he knows any baronets (a rank of nobility, like an earl or duke). Walter names the few that he does, and she is reassured that none of them are the one she is concerned about. Walter expresses worry that a baronet has harmed her in some way, but she refuses to talk about it. Walter also tells her that he is leaving London for Cumberland the next day, and she mentions that she has fond memories of Cumberland. Much to his surprise, she goes on to specifically mention Limmeridge House, the place where he will be employed. She alludes to a Mrs. Fairlie, who she loved, but who is now dead. Walter doesn't say anything about his future employment, and as soon as they reach central London she is very eager to get into a cab and hurry away. Almost as soon as she drives off, Walter overhears a conversation in which two men stop to question a police officer. The two men explain that they are looking for a woman, dressed in white, who has escaped from a mental asylum.
Walter is now worried that he may have helped a mentally ill woman to run away. However, his own plans preoccupy him and he leaves for Cumberland first thing the next morning. After an extended journey, he arrives late at night, and goes to bed without having met anyone except some of the servants.
The opening section of the novel introduces the unconventional narrative structure, and explains the justification for it. Most novels are narrated in either the first or third person, from the point of view of one or several primary characters. Here, Walter is introduced as both a central character, but also as a sort of author/editor figure. He will bring together narratives from the perspectives of many characters so as to give as complete and accurate an account as possible. This insistence on accuracy suggests several things. It works as foreshadowing to indicate that some of the novel's content may seem fantastical or unbelievable. It also suggests that it has been difficult to uncover what actually happened at certain moments and that there may be gaps, omissions, or inaccuracies.
Walter's insistence on accuracy and relying on multiple narrators seems to suggest a commitment to an objective, unbiased account of events. His comparison of the narrative to legal testimony further implies this commitment. As Lisa Surridge points out, "The text reveals the household as a forum of potential witnesses, and their narratives, letters, and documents as potential legal exhibits" (p.116). At the same time, the fact that Walter is the one putting together the story based on his investigations, interviews, and reconstructions gives him a large amount of control, and alerts a reader that his perspective might still be biased.
In this opening section, we get hints that Walter may function as the novel's hero. We learn that he is a responsible and caring provider to his mother and sister, foreshadowing an ability to take good care of women who are dependent on him. The encounter with the woman in white further highlights these chivalrous tendencies; even with a mysterious and possibly sinister figure, his first instinct is to be courteous, helpful, and try and keep her safe. Even the history of his friendship with Pesca is significant in that it includes mention of Walter having saved him from drowning. This further suggests that Walter is physically strong and competent, but also brave and honorable.
Pesca, who seems at this point to be a minor character, is significant for the way he immediately introduces a non-English presence into the novel. His colorful and flamboyant personality foreshadows the figure of the Count. The reference to Pesca nearly drowning and being rescued by Walter indicates the gap between a weak and decadent continental European culture, and an athletic, vigorous, and more traditionally masculine culture among Englishmen like Walter.
The scene in which Walter first encounters the woman in white has become one of the most famous scenes in Victorian literature. The idea of an unaccompanied woman walking alone in the middle of the night would have been particularly shocking at this time, and immediately raised suspicions that the woman was either in danger, or that she was herself dangerous in some way. Walter is torn between these same concerns, as well as an underlying sexual tension. The touch of the woman's hand is powerful not just because of the shock, but because of the way in which direct contact between a woman's body and his own would have been rare and potentially arousing. As Andrew Mangham explains, "Although it is arguable that Hartright is disturbed by meeting a possible lunatic or prostitute, his fear could also stem from his own sexualized response to the woman in white" (p. 175). It was not uncommon at the time for a rejection of social expectations to be seen as part of a symptom of madness, especially in women, so the news that the woman in white seems to have been an asylum escapee seems a plausible explanation to Walter.
The theme of social class is also raised prominently at the very start of the novel. The very fact that Walter needs to work and that he is motivated to take the job in Cumberland indicate that Walter is middle-class, and relies on work to earn an income and support himself. At the same time, the nature of his work means that he is put in contact with much wealthier families who can afford the cost of giving their daughters art lessons. The woman in white has clearly had some negative experience with an aristocratic man, although at this point she will not give any details. There is an implicit contrast between Walter, as a middle-class individual who works for an income, who takes good care of her and behaves like a true gentleman, and this (possible) other man, who may have the title of gentleman but not actually behave like one. This indicates that a criticism of class structures may go on to be a significant part of the novel.