Volume One begins rather cryptically. The reader meets a first-person narrator, but practically nothing about the person telling the story is imparted. Everything must be drawn from context.
Lucy Snowe, we learn, is a twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl whose godmother has a "handsome house in the clean and ancient town of Bretton." Lucy Snowe visits this godmother twice a year, staying with her alone, without any of her own family. Only later is it clear that this town of Bretton is actually in England. This godmother, whose name is the same as the town in which she lives, has a teenaged son.
Lucy likes staying in the house of the Brettons well enough, but she does not seem to expect love or general favor from the family, just to be tolerated in a genteel way. While Lucy is there on a visit, a letter arrives for Mrs. Bretton which upsets that lady. When Lucy returns to her room, there is a new small, white crib in it.
A little girl who is to be Lucy's roommate is a relative of Mrs. Bretton's dead husband, Dr. Bretton. Her name is Paulina Mary (Polly) Home, and she is to stay with the Brettons while her widowed father makes arrangements abroad. Mrs. Home had been a pretty and vain woman who had neglected Polly. Mrs. Home separated from Mr. Home and, having gotten a fever after a ball, died. This child, Polly, the product of neglect and a broken home, is hoped by Mrs. Bretton "not to be like her mama." Her devastated father is prescribed travel by his doctor to heal his frayed nerves and, it is said, his blameless but still guilty conscience.
The child arrives late at night and immediately shows her imperious nature by ordering servants around. She is tiny, very neat, and has the appearance of a doll. It becomes clear that she is to live for a time at the Brettons until Mr. Home can send for her. Polly does not seem to take a liking to Lucy, apparently because she does not like her appearance and Lucy appears to have no gaiety or frivolity. The little girl, understandably, weeps and does not sleep, and in the morning she orders about her nursemaid quite tyrannically. She again voices her dislike of Lucy. Polly cries out to her nurse that she is aching in her heart for her absent Papa. The child does not eat at breakfast, and Mrs. Bretton and Lucy confer about what is to be done for her. Lucy counsels time and kindness, and Mrs. Bretton replies that all will be well when little Polly takes to someone in the house.
In Chapter II, Polly continues to mope, and she is shown to have the most unusual combination of a tiny and childlike appearance and many of the affectations of a grown person. She is very still, rather than active like many children of six, and a girl who stays up at night praying. Lucy immediately begins to think that this little girl's mind cannot be completely healthy. Polly, not surprisingly, has a monomaniacal fascination and yearning for the return of her father.
Lucy observes Polly looking out the window and makes the judgment that Polly's nature is "sudden, dangerous," or "sensitive," because she witnesses the moment when Polly sees her much-awaited father approaching the Bretton house. Polly's rapt attention and frantic rush to meet her father show her single-minded personality.
When Mr. Home arrives at the Brettons, Polly does not avert her attention from him even for a minute. Mr. Graham Bretton, Mrs. Bretton's only son, arrives. Throughout this time, little Polly sits doll-like and unnatural, earnestly hemming (while repeatedly pricking herself with the needle) a little handkerchief she is making for her father. Lucy finds Polly's behavior to be exceedingly strange and almost unnervingly adult in a child so small and young. Because of her possessiveness of her father, Lucy thinks Polly is a busybody.
Graham is described by Lucy as "handsome, faithless-looking." He is sixteen, auburn-haired, and well-grown. He is somewhat spoiled by his mother and is a bit of a tyrant with his friends. He teases Polly a little bit, and they are introduced to each other as "Mr. Bretton" and "Miss Home" and bow and curtsey with the utmost formality. Graham engages in a bit of bantering flirtation with Polly, which the little girl counters with amazingly womanly skill. Lucy watches, mutely. Graham, before the little girl goes off to bed, asserts that he will be Polly's favorite soon, and he has the effrontery to say that Polly will favor him over her own father.
In Chapter III, "The Playmates,” Mr. Home leaves his little Polly, who is devastated at his departure. There are assurances that, when a house for them is settled, she will be called for. While Mr. Home is still at the Brettons', Polly has only haughty disdain for the playful overtures of Graham's attentions. At his departure, Mr. Home instructs Polly to be strong and not mope about, but as they have their final embrace Mr. Home weeps. Lucy notes that Polly, surprisingly, does not. When he is finally gone, Lucy watches Polly have a silent and intense paroxysm of grief, and Lucy thinks that, since Polly's nature is so sensitive, she will have many such extremes of emotion in her future life.
After a few days of silent grief, Graham (whom Polly calls "Mr. Graham") makes a tender overture to her, and it appears that he will become the person to whom her affections will be transferred. They become very close, and they continue their flirtatious playing during the rest of Polly's stay, with Graham alternating between the admiring suitor and the teasing young man, and Polly alternating between solicitous womanly attentions to him and coquettish disdain. Lucy observes that Polly's sole object is to monopolize the attention of Graham—to the extent that she, while still maintaining some dignity, seems to live solely for his regard. Graham, while vacillating between giving her attention and being busy with his own pursuits and friends, declares her an "oddity," but also determines that she amuses him a great deal more than his mother or Lucy Snowe does.
At the end of two months, Polly's father sends word that she is to come to live with him in Europe. Paulina's affections have been transferred to Graham to such an extent that she is very aggrieved to be leaving him. Graham has no such compunction and rather insensitively makes little of their farewell. Lucy, who is kind to Polly although the child has no semblance of affection for her, brings Polly out from bed to say another goodbye to Graham, whom, she cries, "cares nothing for her." Lucy, who is of a philosophical turn of mind, explains that Polly cannot expect the same kind of regard from Graham as she has for him: not only is he a boy and she a girl, but he is sixteen and she is only six. Graham has a nature of strength and gaiety, and Polly's nature is sensitive and can be melancholic. Polly is assured that, if Graham has any favorite child that he knows, it is Polly, and she must be content with that. Polly, who is wakeful with grief, this one night sleeps in the same bed as Lucy, feeling somewhat comforted. Polly asks Lucy if she is a wise person to give such advice, and Lucy says that she means to try to be wise. Polly finally goes to sleep, and she leaves the house early the next morning.
From a modern perspective, the habits of the people in this book in regard to their children seem odd. Lucy, still a young girl, is sent for long periods to live with her godmother, who, though kindly, seems to have no particular affection for her. Polly, who was neglected by her mother after her parents separated and therefore had already experienced significant trauma even before her mother's death, is shunted off to live at the Brettons' for two months while her father travels for his health. That the child, neglected and grief-stricken, would need the constant, immediate companionship of her sole surviving parent seems to occur to no one. The fact that Polly seems to be a very strange child is not surprising given her circumstances.
But Lucy, though a philosophical and thoughtful narrator, is not an impartial one, and the reader learns later that she is not always a reliable narrator either. Lucy draws the conclusion that some of the extreme oddities of the temperament of Paulina Mary (Polly) are in her nature rather than the product of her tragic young life. That a child so young and small could be so composed, so repressed, and so emotionally needy takes Lucy, the self-sufficient one, by surprise. Never does Lucy explain Polly's monomaniacal tendencies as the product of fear of neglect and abandonment, which has been her lot for her entire young life. While the modern reader perceives this, Polly is still not a sympathetic character. Polly is too often described as less or different than human: "pygmy," "doll-like," "elfish,” "tiny," and "Mousie" are applied to her, and the child is too peremptory to servants and needlessly unkind to Lucy to be likeable.
Polly, for no good reason (or at least not any reason that Lucy is willing to tell us), seems to dislike Lucy. Perhaps Lucy is unattractive to her (some children have definite likes and dislikes when it comes to a person's appearance), but also Lucy appears to have no power in the Bretton household. She is not a man (like Polly's father is, and Graham is almost a man), and Lucy is nothing but a visiting goddaughter of Mrs. Bretton. The fact that Lucy is closer to Polly in age, and of the same sex, does not occur to Polly as being the beginning of a basis for friendship. Polly, after the departure of her father, transfers her affections almost immediately to the nearest man (Graham) and the most physically attractive, spoiled, and charismatic person in the household. Polly's taste in friendships, spurred by her deep-seated need for attention and affection, is surprisingly adult. It is based far less on play and shared interests than on status and emotional need.
The interaction between Graham and Polly has a disturbing sexual subtext. There is always a coquettish interplay between them, involving attention and servitude (Polly performs little services for him, for which he praises her) and power. Graham asserts, after Polly brings him tea and breakfast, that he will make her his housekeeper and cook when he has a house of his own. She procures little treats, like marmalade and sweet cake, for him. He exacts "payment" from her when he wins their little games—in the form of a kiss. The whole interaction has a flavor of adult flirtation, with the attendant false disdain and clever wordplay. Polly, we are led to believe, has learned feminine wiles early from her faithless and empty-headed beauty of a mother, and perhaps this is the only way Polly knows how to deal with the opposite sex. This idea is buttressed by revelations that, as a child of only six, Polly has already decided that she does not like pinafores and prefers aprons. That a child this young would be not only set in her ways about her clothing, but also allowed to have such leeway in her choices, shows her very feminine and very spoiled nature. Brontë continues this idea when she refers to Polly, when she is sitting unnaturally still, as a "little Odalisque." The message of the ultra-feminine, the intentionally alluring, and the foreign and unnaturalness of Polly are apparent from the start.
The description of Polly's all-consuming devotion to Graham, and Lucy's admonishment to her to suppress it, is descriptive of much of the nineteenth century's ideas of womanhood: the virtues of servitude and devotion were admired, but a woman was not often allowed to make overt demands for anything, especially the attention of a man. Polly has learned quickly what a woman must do to survive and be successful in the society of her day, and Lucy, in a more philosophical rather than flirtatious way, has learned the same.
The remarkable thing about these opening chapters is how very little the reader knows about Lucy. We know nothing of her parents or her family, or even from what part of England she comes. The reader does not know her age exactly, but it is assumed to be somewhere between Polly's extreme youth and Graham's near-adulthood. No one seems to talk to her, to take any notice of her, or to give her any thought whatsoever. What is known about her character is usually learned through a negative communication: we know that she does not possess Polly's emotional, sensitive nature because Lucy describes it as different and difficult to bear in this harsh world. Seldom does Lucy speak out loud, but she serves almost entirely as the mute witness and describer of events and people. It is known only that she is quiet, thoughtful, and of a philosophical—and possibly self-abnegating—turn of mind.