Summary: In the first lines of the novel we learn that Mary Lennox has been sent to live with her uncle at Misselthwaite Manor in England, where everyone thinks she is ugly because she is thin, sour-faced, and has yellowish skin. Most of the chapter, however, focuses on the child's life in India.
We learn that Mary is the only child of British parents. Her father is a government official stationed in India. Her mother is a beautiful woman who likes to socialize, didn't want any children, and keeps Mary shut away with servants so she doesn't have to see her. Her father also has no time for her.
Because Mary is unloved and raised by servants who have to cater to her, she is a spoiled, selfish, and demanding child who expects to have everything done for her. She even beats a servant in anger.
The cholera epidemic that breaks out in India drives the plot of the first chapter. First, Mary's servants die, and then her parents perish. They don't get away from the epidemic in time. Mary knows none of this until British soldiers find her all alone in her quarters. They make arrangements to ship the little girl to England.
The spoiled, selfish, ugly Mary seems an unlikely—and unlikable—protagonist for a children's book, but her backstory in India catches our interest. We can't help but feel sorry for her as a neglected and unwanted child. Burnett depicts India as an exotic and unhealthy place where a girl like Mary is unlikely to thrive. Burnett keeps the chapter moving along at a brisk pace, and holds our interest by having the omniscient narrator summarize information we need to know with quick, sure brushstrokes. She keeps the reader from becoming confused by focusing on just one character. She sets up a scenario in which Mary will face culture clash as she adjusts to her new life in England, and this builds our suspense about what will happen to Mary after the chapter ends.