A young man stands upon a ship, muttering “‘Poor little girl, how pleased she’ll be...how surprised!” He is George Talboys, a handsome 25-year-old man sailing from Sydney to Liverpool. Everyone on the ship enjoys his friendly nature and joyful spirit. George is anxious to get back to England.
This section introduces us to a major character, George, in a heroic fashion, returning home after gaining success abroad. George’s happy nature will contrast to his gloominess after his wife’s supposed death.
George converses with a fellow passenger, a pessimistic governess named Miss Morley. Miss Morley has been apart from her fiancé for 15 years and fears that he may have changed or even died while she was gone. George scolds her for spooking him, insisting he has no reason to worry about his own wife, since he has only been gone for three and a half years.
Miss Morley’s fears, which startle George, foreshadow both George’s discovery of the announcement of his wife’s death and the fact that his wife has completely changed both her name and her husband, even though, as he said, he has only been gone three and a half years.
George tells Miss Morley he used to be a cavalryman in the army, when he met his wife. His wife’s father was an alcoholic scammer who used his daughter to ensnare a rich son-in-law. George comes from a rich family, but his own father cut him off once he married beneath his station. That estrangement, and the fact that his father-in-law kept borrowing money from George, left the couple and their infant son in horrible poverty.
This scene recounts the backstories of both George and Helen, setting up the poverty that motivates both George and Helen to abandon their old lives and child. It also introduces Lieutenant Maldon’s selfish habits and Harcourt’s rigidity, two character traits that will later become crucial to the plot.
His wife’s misery drove George almost mad with grief and he fled their home, intending to never return. He meant to drown himself, but then heard strangers talking about gold-prospecting in Australia. He left his wife a note saying he had gone to make a fortune abroad and then boarded a ship bound for Australia.
George’s decision to leave his family sparked the central crime of the novel, Lady Audley’s bigamy. His decision also shows how poverty can drive one to make desperate decisions.
Motivated by his love for his wife and son, George worked hard and made a fortune prospecting gold. Only a week before he departed Australia to return to England did he feel confident enough in his station to send a letter to his wife, telling her where to leave word for him in London. Now George panics, thinking about how his wife could very well have died in the years he was gone, given that he has not heard anything from her. He asks Miss Morley to leave him alone to brood.
George’s love for his wife and child make him a likeable character, thus investing the reader in his fate. (Yet at the same time, we might wonder why he hasn’t seriously considered how his family might have changed until now.) His fear that his wife might have died will become realized when he reads the announcement in Chapter 4, and his brooding foreshadows the intense grief he will feel after this discovery.