Lilia Herriton, a widow of several years, has been living with her in-laws, the Herritons, since her husband Charles' death.
At Charing Cross station, everyone is gathered to wish Lilia a bon voyage to Italy. Snobbish Philip Herriton, his dour sister Harriet, precocious little Irma (Lilia's daughter), disapproving Mrs. Herriton, and meek Mrs. Theobold (Lilia's mother) accompanied by Mr. Kingcroft, are all speaking at once, trying to give Lilia last minute advice.
Lilia's trip to Italy had been Philip's idea—a desperate attempt by the Herritons to put a stop to Lilia's flirtations with Mr. Kingcroft, who Mrs. Herriton considers an unsuitable match for her daughter-in-law. He probably wears white shoes after Labor Day, or eats his salad with his dinner fork.
Luckily for the Herritons, Caroline Abbott, a woman ten years younger than Lilia but way more levelheaded, was looking for a travel buddy (it was highly improper for young ladies to travel alone at the time, because of rogue fainting spells or something).
Arrangements were quickly made, and now Lilia is all packed up and ready for an extended stay in Italy with Miss Abbott as her travel companion (who incidentally is also expected to keep an eye on Lilia's unpredictable behavior).
Philip, who has traveled to Italy a bunch of times and thinks he's the expert on the country, reminds Lilia to go off the beaten track to really experience Italy at its best. As Lilia boards the train with Caroline, Harriet calls out that there are handkerchiefs in the inlaid box she has lent Lilia for the trip. Symbol alert: watch this inlaid box.
Returning home to Sawston, the Herritons have afternoon tea and share their relief over Lilia's departure. Philip is quite pleased with himself for coming up with the idea of sending Lilia off to Italy. He even thinks that the beauty and culture of Italy will cure Lilia of being a Philistine (that means someone who is uncultured and has bad taste).
Now for some quick character background on Lilia. The narrator now fills us in on the details leading up to Lilia's trip to Italy:
1) A dude named Charles fell in love with Lilia almost ten years ago. Mrs. Herriton does everything in her power to prevent the marriage, but being unable to come between the couple, she switches tactics to supervising Lilia's each and every move;
2) After Lilia gives birth to Irma, Mrs. Herriton takes charge of training Irma to behave properly;
3) When Charles dies (we don't know how), Lilia tries to assert herself, but Mrs. Herriton puts constant pressure on her to perform the duties of widowhood;
4) Lilia forms a flirtatious friendship with Mr. Kingcroft, and as a result, is promptly shipped off to Italy before she risks ruining the Herriton's precious reputation.
Recipe for unhappiness for poor Lilia? We think so, yup.
Ok, back to the present time. The winter passes quietly and Lilia's tour of Italy seems to be a success. Lilia is becoming quite the sophisticated traveler, and back in Sawston, Irma's manners are improving under the guidance of Mrs. Herriton. She's probably picking up some handy-dandy Edwardian skills like the ability to wear a big hat without toppling over.
But hang onto your (big) hat because things are about to get real bumpy. Mrs. Herriton receives a letter from Mrs. Theobold saying that Lilia is engaged to "someone at the hotel." Clearly, this is not at all what Mrs. Herriton had planned for. She had only just broken up Lilia and Mr. Kingcroft, and now this. Smelling salts, please!
Fearing the worst, Mrs. Herriton rushes off to send a telegram to Caroline. Miss Abbott has some serious explaining to do.
When a telegram from Caroline finally arrives, Mrs. Herriton learns to her dismay that Lilia is engaged to "Italian nobility." Mrs. Herriton senses that this must be a lie, and in a last ditch attempt to prevent scandal, she insists that Philip go at once to Italy to bring Lilia home before she goes through with the marriage.