Walter Hartwright has an enviable life. He’s painting on a sunny roof in London, enjoying wine with his friend Pesca, when a boy brings him a letter offering him unsolicited employment. A Mr. Fairlie requires an artist to restore his damaged collection of valuable drawings and to instruct his two nieces in draftsmanship and painting. Walter is reluctant to leave London for Fairlie’s country estate in northern England, but he’s convinced to take the job by both his widowed mother and Pesca, who recommended him for the position.
As Walter stumbles home from the pub on his last night in London, he encounters a frightened woman in the woods. He agrees to help her find a carriage and struggles to learn more about her as she slips in and out of lucidity. “I’ve been in hell,” she says, in between repeating “Frances good, Frances loving.” When Walter tells her that he’s leaving the next day, she says she knows Limmeridge, the estate he is going to, and mentions a baronet there. She also reveals that she only wears white – and then she disappears into a carriage and is gone.
Close behind her, Walter sees a man ride up on a horse and ask someone if they’ve seen a woman in white: she’s a “deranged” escapee from the asylum. Walter says nothing.
Walter is still dwelling on the startling events of the previous night when he arrives at Limmeridge and meets Marian Halcombe, one of the nieces he will be teaching. Marian and her half-sister Laura had the same mother, but Marian’s father was poor where Laura’s, the brother of the Mr. Fairlie on whose estate they now reside, was rich. Marian gives Walter a tour of the isolated estate, and when he sees Laura he is so shocked by her resemblance to the woman in white that he tells Marian about his encounter. Marian reveals that their mother was named Frances – perhaps the woman was talking about her.