Margaret Hale is with her cousin, Edith Shaw, in the drawing-room of their home in Harley Street, London. The two have been talking over Edith’s impending marriage to Captain Lennox and Margaret’s plans to return to her parents’ country parsonage, after spending the last ten years living with the Shaws. Edith, exhausted from wedding preparations, has fallen asleep.
The novel begins in an indulgent upper-class setting. Margaret’s and Edith’s concerns seem fairly typical for women of a fashionable London neighborhood in the Victorian era, establishing a contrast with later events.
While Edith naps, Margaret thinks about her upcoming move and listens to her Aunt Shaw, who is entertaining several neighbors in the next room. Aunt Shaw is talking about the age disparity in her own unhappy marriage, which caused her to resolve that Edith should marry for love. As the conversation turns to Edith’s trousseau, Aunt Shaw summons Margaret to get Edith’s beautiful Indian shawls to show to the visitors. When Margaret goes to the upstairs nursery to fetch the shawls, she remembers how she came, “all untamed from the forest,” to join the Shaw household nine years earlier. She recalls the homesick little girl she had been and thinks how much she will miss the place now.
Reminiscence marks the story from the beginning, with Margaret looking back on her idyllic but “untamed” country roots, and how they contrast with her sophisticated London youth. Displacement and nostalgia will continue to shape Margaret’s understanding of herself.
Aunt Shaw uses Margaret as a model to show off the exotic shawls, as Margaret stands “quite silent and passive.” In the midst of the modeling, Henry Lennox walks in, and Margaret gives him an amused smile, feeling the ludicrousness of the situation. She is pleased that Henry will be spending the evening, since “he liked and disliked pretty nearly the same things that she did.”
Margaret’s passivity in the conventionally feminine role of a display model stands in comic contrast to the graver and more public roles she will later occupy. There’s also a hint of a possible romantic current between herself and Henry.
When Margaret mentions that she looks forward to a rest from wedding activity, Henry remarks that lately Margaret has always “been carried away by a whirlwind of some other person’s making.” Margaret agrees that it has been a “never-ending commotion about trifles” and describes the simpler wedding she would prefer. She changes the subject when Henry says that “stately simplicity accords well” with Margaret’s character.
Margaret has typically been subject to the demands of others, and the trifling nature of the “whirlwind” doesn’t seem to suit her. Margaret is also uncomfortable with the fact that Henry seems to have made a study of her character.
Henry asks Margaret to describe the village of Helstone in greater detail, and then teases her about the picturesque image she gives. Margaret is annoyed, saying, “I am not making a picture. I am trying to describe Helstone as it really is,” though she soon goes on to say that “Helstone is like a village in a poem—in one of Tennyson’s poems.”
Henry is dissatisfied with Margaret’s struggle to put Helstone into words and suggests that he might pay her a visit there, which Margaret encourages, then excuses herself to turn pages while Edith plays the piano. Then Captain Lennox arrives, breaking up the party. Henry observes the two girls as they bustle around the tea-table.
Henry’s romantic interest in Margaret is obvious, though at this point it’s unclear whether Margaret really means to encourage it or not.