Who’s up for some Victorian melodrama?
Our story is told in flashback, intercut with scenes of various characters speaking with (I believe) a lawyer. They all make it clear that Something Bad Has Happened, but we don’t quite know what it is yet.
Back to the beginning, then. We meet our hero: Walter Hartright, who’s a nice fellow, and an artist. He’s asked, seemingly out of the blue, to head off to Cumberland (mmm, sausages!) and be an art teacher to two young ladies. He’s not too keen, because it might take away time from his ART, but his best friend (who put him up for the job) and mother are both like, ‘You know this is an actual income, right? Which might be useful? Take the job, honey.’ And so he does.
But before he leaves, he and his friends have a little going away party. On his way home, Walter meets with a young woman all dressed in white and seeming rather distressed. She asks for his help getting a carriage and he agrees, because he’s a nice guy. They talk, and he mentions going to Cumberland, which is apparently where she’s from. She’s a bit…odd, if you will. She seems somewhat lucid sometimes, but then starts saying things like, ‘Frances is good,’ over and over again, and asks him to take her to Cumberland. He stutters that he can’t do that, and she dashes off and gets into a carriage. As soon as she’s gone, he overhears two men telling a policeman to keep an eye out, because a young woman’s escaped from an asylum. It’s clearly the young woman Walter just met, but he says nothing to the men.
Off to Cumberland he goes, to the home of Mr Fairlie, a wealthy hypochondriac who’s very concerned with his nerves. Walter’s pupils are Fairlie’s niece, Laura, and her half-sister, Marian. Marian’s pretty great, I’ll just tell you that right now. Very forthright and unabashed. These two ladies appear to be two sides of the Pre-Raphaelite coin: Marian’s got the non-conformity and the funky dress style, and Laura’s just like their models, with her long, blonde hair worn loose and flowing nightgown-like dresses. It takes all of five minutes for Walter to totally fall for Laura, and she for him. The other thing about Laura, though, is that she strongly reminds Walter of the young woman in white he met. It actually creeps him out for a bit.
He tells Marian about the young woman, and her curiosity is piqued when he mentions Frances. Apparently Frances was her and Laura’s mother’s name. Hmmm. She digs back through her mother’s old letters and finds several mentions of a girl named Anne, whom her mother took under her wing some years before, while Marian was abroad. Digging into the history of this girl turns into a sort of crusade for Marian, and you can tell that when Marian gets a crusade, she sees it through.
And then who should show up? Why, Anne herself! She begins hanging around the house, sending Laura warning letters about her fiance (we’ll get to that), and visiting Frances’s grave, convincing a young local boy that he’s seeing an actual ghost. But Marian and Walter know better, and he manages to catch up with her in the graveyard and convince her he’s a friend (though he mildly scolds her for sending the letter to Laura and upsetting her). Anne, for her part, tells Walter that Laura’s fiance is no good.
We don’t get to see much of this man, a baronet named Sir Percival, but what we do see convinces us that yes, he is, at best, a sleeze. This engagement isn’t Laura’s choice, it was her father’s, because it totally isn’t creepy at all to gift your daughter to your best friend, right? Laura’s uneasy about this match, and tentatively asks if Sir Percival is a good man. Everyone claims he is, because he appears to be, and that’s all that matters, to many.
Except, it seems, he’s not a good man: Anne tells Walter that Sir Percival is the one who stuck her in the asylum in the first place.
Ladies and gentlemen: we now have our villain.