Everyone is stuck in Marseilles in quarantine together before being allowed to cross the English Channel. (Brain snack time: people coming back to England from the Middle or Far East had to hang out for awhile in quarantine to make sure they didn't have some horrible disease. This was before you could test for diseases, so the only way to know for sure was just to wait and see if the person got sick.)
Mr. Meagles is having a hissy fit about what a superboring quarantine is. He's kind of offended at the idea that he might have the plague, but also generally in a good mood – so it's a weird mix of joking around and actually ranting.
Finally he calms down when he sees his daughter, Pet. She's a lovely, spoiled, bratty young woman. He sends her off with her mother and her maid Tattycoram to get ready to pack up.
Arthur Clennam is all, "Tatty-what?"
And so Meagles launches into the story of how Tattycoram got her name.
Basically, the Meagleses (say that five times fast!) went to the orphanage one day and were so sad to see all the sad orphans that they took one to be their maid. Since the only name she had was a randomly assigned one from the orphanage, they took part of it (Harriet, turned into the nickname Tatty), and mushed it onto the last name of the orphanage's founder.
Yeah, that really is about as crazy as it sounds.
Actually, it's hard to know how to read the whole Tattycoram storyline throughout the novel. It seems like the Meagleses are good people, and this whole orphan-maid thing was meant to be a generous action... but clearly it's also got exploitation written all over it. The novel leaves it ambiguous, so you decide.
So anyway. Meagles adds that the other reason they took in Tattycoram is that Pet had a twin sister who died as a very young girl, and they couldn't have any more children – so they wanted a companion for her.
Seems like TMI to us, but Arthur is cool with it. He overshares right back, telling Meagles that he had a crappy childhood with bitter, cold, unloving, completely materialistic parents who "weighed, measured, and priced everything: for whom what could not be weighed, measured and priced, had no existence" (1.2.59).
Arthur has been in China for 20 years, and is now about 40. His dad died a year ago there and so he's coming back to mom in London.
Finally quarantine is over.
Meagles says he's over being imprisoned.
Miss Wade, a beautiful woman traveling alone, says she'd never get over it. A French guy (who is clearly Rigaud) agrees.
As everyone is leaving, Pet offers to help Miss Wade. Miss Wade doesn't need help and mostly wants everyone to just leave her alone. Meagles is kind of freaked out by the idea of a woman not wanting to be accompanied by someone.
Miss Wade goes to pack and walks by a room where Tattycoram is throwing a temper tantrum on the floor. She is raving about being a servant, having to take care of Pet, and being treated crappily by the Meagleses.
Miss Wade is fascinated. She kind of tries to calm her down in a perfunctory way, but mostly she just watches.
Finally Tattycoram calms down, says that actually the Meagleses are really nice to her, and that she just has an anger management problem. Um, OK. See what we meant about the ambiguity of this situation?