The young woman, Laura, lives in a “schloss” (or castle) in Styria, Austria. There, a little wealth goes a long way, so the family’s modest means afford them a life of luxury that they could not have in their native England. Laura remarks that her life there is so comfortable that she can’t imagine that having more money would add to its luxury.
Although Laura is not part of the upper class, she clearly has enough to afford her a comfortable life. She establishes herself as firmly within the newly emerging middle class, a class built on work rather than nobility and inherited wealth. This wealth, and the disparity between those with money and those without, becomes a major recurring theme.
Laura describes the region in which she lives, which is incredibly picturesque, but also quite “lonely” and isolated, as the nearest inhabited town is seven miles away. Three miles from her schloss is a ruined village, whose now-roofless church holds the “moldering tombs of the proud family of Karnstein, now extinct.” The Karnstein family had once owned a nearby chateau, and Laura notes that its desertion is the subject of a legend she will later relate.
Although Laura lives a life of relative luxury, the isolation of the schloss is something that clearly affects her negatively. She comments on her loneliness frequently, and it seems that this weighs on her and leaves her open to outside influence. The nearby Karnstein estates will become important later in the text.
Laura was nineteen at the time of the events she’s describing, and eight years have passed between then and her present retelling. In introducing the people in her life, Laura notes “how very small is the party who constitute the inhabitants of our castle.” Laura’s mother died when she was a child, so she lives with her widowed father and her two governesses, Madame Perrodon and Mademoiselle De Lafontaine. Her father is loving and kind, but her existence is solitary and she lacks true friendship from girls her own age. Besides companionship, however, Laura has everything she wants, and has lived a spoiled, sheltered, and protected life.
Again, the distance the now-adult Laura has from the events she is re-telling gives her greater understanding of just how these experiences changed and shaped her. She recognizes that although she was given everything she wanted, her lack of companionship and true friendship left her feeling unsatisfied. Although she has the love of her father and her governesses, she longs for the love shared between friends and, having never experienced it, she is susceptible to the influence of others.
The ease of Laura’s life means that she remembers clearly her first moment of true fear. It left a “terrible impression” on her, which has “never been effaced,” despite that it happened so long ago and some people might think the incident “trifling.” She was no more than six years old when she awoke one night completely alone. Feeling neglected by her nurses, she began to cry when she noticed a pretty face kneeling by her bed, watching her with her hands under the covers. Seeing this lady, Laura felt “pleased wonder,” and the woman got into bed with her and caressed her, comforting her.
Laura’s first experience with fear had a profound and lasting effect, staying with her for years after the event. The ease and comfort of her life up until then meant that the fear had a particularly pronounced impact. It is Laura’s innocence and naivety that makes these occurrences so important and significant. It’s notable, too, that the beautiful face comforted Laura while also frightening her, suggesting that leaving the safe and protected space created by her father and being confronted with the dangers of the world invokes complex and contradictory emotions in Laura. This will be true throughout the book.
Soothed into sleep, Laura woke to the feeling of two needles digging into her breast. Opening her eyes, she saw the lady again, who immediately disappeared. Laura screamed, and her nursery maids arrived, examining her breast and the room but finding nothing. The maids seemed troubled, however—one whispered to the other that the spot on the bed next to Laura was still warm.
That Laura feels the sensation of two needles digging into her breast is the first evidence of the sexual nature of the attacks (confirmed by the fear/desire that Laura experiences). Additionally, the ambiguity about whether the dream was actually a dream suggests a slippage between fact and fiction. Characters will struggle to differentiate reality from fiction for the remainder of the book.
The incident terrified Laura and left her nervous for a long time. For years afterwards, a servant would sit up all night to watch Laura sleep, and a doctor came every couple of days to give her medicine. The morning after the incident, Laura’s father tried to reassure her that everything was alright, but she didn’t believe him. He told her it was just a dream, but she says she knew that what happened had been real. That day, a kind old clergyman visited the house and he took Laura’s hand and prayed with her. Laura comments how she remembers that old man—and that entire experience—vividly, even years later.
One of Laura’s father’s main character traits is his desire to protect his daughter at all costs and keep her in ignorance of all the harsh realities of the world. His protectiveness comes from a place of love, but by keeping her unfamiliar with the truth of the world he ends up putting her at risk. He himself also refuses to entertain that Laura’s dream might be real, which suggests his stubborn insistence on clinging to his beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence.