Chapter IV, "Miss Marchmont," takes an abrupt leap forward in time. There is a strange monologue at the beginning of the chapter, alluding to the literary convention that heroines in novels live happy childhoods, or at least have long stretches of protected and easy domesticity. But in the most general of terms–without naming any specific people, places, or events–Lucy Snowe intimates that, since her girlhood visits to the house of the Brettons, her life has been difficult, sad, and even tragic. It is not known whom she lived with (or whether either of her parents was alive in her childhood) or in what circumstances they lived, other than the fact that Lucy is of the educated classes and not the daughter of servants or laborers. Lucy urges the reader to imagine her "basking" in the happiness of a good childhood, but she makes clear that this was not the case. The narrator is at pains to reveal nothing other than that Lucy has suffered.
When or how Lucy’s parents (or the guardians whom she lived with, for it is not clear) died or, perhaps, disowned her, leaving her with little or no money, is not explained. The reader knows only that Lucy has suffered at least one family death, for she wears a mourning dress. It is known, however vaguely and obliquely, that before that death and Lucy’s current status as a poor, genteel young woman with no family or friends, there was some sort of emotional suffering or neglect in her life. But Lucy is cagey and reveals nothing, and the reader can only imagine what might have happened.
The Brettons have fallen upon harder times, too. The property Mrs. Bretton held in trust for her son has fallen to a fraction of its value, and the mother and son now live in London. Lucy knows that she cannot appeal to them for any kind of help.
Miss Marchmont is introduced. She is a "woman of fortune" who lives in the neighborhood where Lucy is now destitute. She is a paralyzed invalid who cannot stir from her sickroom. She offers Lucy the position of nurse-companion, a hard job but one that is at least socially acceptable for an educated young lady. Lucy is loath to accept it at first, though she desperately needs a job, because she understands how limiting it would be both emotionally and physically for her. Lucy thinks perhaps that she may find some other employment to suit her better. For the next few days Miss Marchmont requests that Lucy come to visit her, and during that time Lucy forms respect for and attachment to the invalid’s patient suffering. The respect is such that Lucy decides to take Miss Marchmont’s offer.
One night there is a terrible storm, which Lucy thinks portends death or change. That night Miss Marchmont is excitable and tells Lucy the tragic story of her youth. She was engaged to be married to a man she deeply loved. This man, Frank, was riding to see her one Christmas Eve, but he fell from his horse and was dragged to her door. Frank died in Miss Marchmont’s arms. She says that she hopes soon to be reunited with Frank, and that night Miss Marchmont dies. Lucy is very affected by the story of Frank's death, and she mourns Miss Marchmont bitterly, for she was her only friend on earth.
The reader is now led to believe, through her dying words, that Miss Marchmont may have left a fortune for Lucy upon her death. But Miss Marchmont had not made any such provision before she died, so Lucy, after having experienced another death of a person dear to her, will be thrust again on the world in much the same state of poverty as before.
The next chapter finds Lucy nearing the end of her stay at Miss Marchmont’s. The heir to her estate (which may have become Lucy’s had Miss Marchmont lived a little longer), Miss Marchmont’s second cousin, pays Lucy her wages, and Lucy is to find her way in the world as the possessor of fifteen pounds (a few months’ wages in Brontë’s time, but only enough to live on for a short time). Lucy is worn but still has intact health, and she is now in need of employment and a place to live.
Lucy goes to visit an old servant of her family, a housekeeper who is working at a large estate nearby. During the interview Lucy catches sight of a daughter of the house, an old school friend of hers. She does not speak to the woman, but she notes that this woman retains a French nurse for her child. The housekeeper informs Lucy that English governesses, too, are in demand abroad, where they are quite well-paid and well-treated. During this passage it becomes clear that Lucy was a good student. But in a moment of unreliability, Lucy makes us think that at this point in the narrative her command of French is good, for she critiques her old school friend's French. (We will learn later that Lucy speaks no French.)
Lucy resolves to go to London, which is not far distant. She stays at an old, respectable inn that had been used by her uncles. Upon arriving in the metropolis, Lucy is a bit bewildered, but she endeavors to keep a calm and quiet demeanor. Her shabby clothing, worn looks, and insignificant presence do not impress the smart-looking servants at this hotel, but she eventually persuades them by her speech and ladylike words to sufficiently provide for her needs. Then she goes to her own room and cries herself to sleep, wondering what she will do and how she will make her way in this world.
Chapter VI, "London," finds Lucy strangely elated. In the morning, she walks about London and takes in the city, finding it exciting and exhilarating. She returns to her inn. The waiter, who remembers Lucy’s uncles when they stayed there in past days, advises her how to go abroad. Lucy has made the decision all of a sudden, perhaps prompted by the sight of the French nurse-governess in the home where she visited Mrs. Barrett. A ship, The Vivid, is leaving port the next morning, and aided by the kindly waiter, Lucy takes a berth and prepares to embark.
She sails for Boue-Marine (a made-up Continental port, its name meaning literally "sea-mud") in the fictional kingdom of Labassecour ("barnyard"). She knows nothing of these places, but she has "nothing to lose." She arrives at The Vivid, cheated by the boatmen and porters on her way, and boards the ship. She is looked down upon by the ladies’ cabin stewardess, and she awaits the arrival of the other passengers.
Her fellow passengers include a wealthy family of four, the Watsons, among them a pretty young woman married to a much older, ugly, rich man. A young plainly-dressed lady, Miss Ginevra Fanshawe, is also aboard. She is on her way to school in Villette. The two young women strike up a conversation, and Ginevra lets slip her relationship to a M. de Bassompierre, who is her uncle, godfather, and benefactor.
The passengers are seasick for the last part of the voyage, and Ginevra shows herself to be selfish and given to complaining. Lucy rebukes her gently but is not disliked for it. Upon arriving in port, Lucy tips the stewardess well and asks for directions to a respectable inn. She is taken there, and there is some confusion because her money is English money and the porter and innkeeper do not want to take it. She exchanges a sovereign (a British coin equaling one pound) and goes to bed exhausted and still ill from seasickness, worrying what she will do tomorrow to find a way to earn a living.
Chapter IV’s story is a tragedy in miniature, with the lifelong tragedy of Miss Marchmont’s lost love and Lucy’s short and so far cheerless life compared. Miss Marchmont, who had a chance at love but had it snatched away, as she thinks, by God’s hand, has had a life of sickness and suffering ever since. But Miss Marchmont, we learn, has also had the memory of her beloved Frank to cherish for the thirty years between his death and her own. (Also, the story of Frank is blunt foreshadowing.) Lucy has had only her grim childhood behind her—and her bleak adulthood stretching out before her. Lucy also has formed an attachment to Miss Marchmont, which has, like Miss Marchmont’s fiancé, been snatched away too soon. Lucy, though severely limited by her post as nurse-companion, had been willing to nurse and serve Miss Marchmont for the next twenty years, if that was how long it took her to die. But just when things were comfortable and Lucy had started to like and be liked by a kindly lady, the illness took Miss Marchmont, and any possible monetary legacy, away from Lucy. The irony is real, for not only had Lucy had trepidations about taking the job in the first place, but she soon lost her only real friend in the world.
The philosophical bent of Lucy’s mind seems both very fortunate and very sad. A person exposed to much suffering does well to become philosophically stoic, regarding her suffering as inevitable and caring less about it than would perhaps be warranted. But it appears that Lucy, even as a child, has had this capacity and a sort of fatalism to go along with it. She seems to expect suffering and not to look for joy in life. If joy were to happen to her, the reader might believe, Lucy would embrace it; but it is clear that Lucy does not expect much happiness from life.
There is some evidence that the model for Lucy’s desolate childhood was Charlotte Brontë’s own childhood. The character of Lucy is an odd one for her time: utterly unattached and unloved but utterly free. Even if not autobiographical, the idea of the young adult—and even more fantastically the young, educated, respectable woman—cut off by death and suffering, free and with myriad possibilities ahead of her, was generally foreign and unknown to Brontë’s readers. Lucy is not in debt despite her poverty and has no children, no parents to take care of her, no opinion of the community to keep up, no husband to direct her. This state of affairs for any young woman in Brontë’s day must have been wonderfully exciting to readers (especially female readers) in the sense that the novel became something of an adventure story, not just a social novel. This could be seen as excitement about a forbidden circumstance; the radical idea of a free woman, apart from the family, was seen as threatening to society. Governesses, while respected, were not looked on very favorably in England, and the single woman or spinster have traditionally been seen as both threatening to society and burdens. Women’s roles were specifically envisioned as parts of a web of relationships with other people; independence was the province of men. Women alone, setting out in the world to decide their own fortunes and directions in life, were few and probably looked on as subjects of curiosity. As characters in novels, they would be subjects for readers’ vicarious adventuring.
Lucy is also set apart from most people in her ability to face of death—not only her own, for she has experienced the deaths of people close to her. Her monologue about how death holds no terror for her separates Lucy from the world and from the rest of life. In many ways she is like an adventurous, reckless man without a care for his life (what might be termed in modern times an adrenaline junkie), or conversely like a nun whose whole existence is in the spiritual realm, with much less than the natural care for her own health and life.
The name of Lucy’s ship The Vivid, compared to the mythological and historical names of the other ships on nearby anchor, is perhaps a foreshadowing of what this trip will mean to Lucy. The word "vivid" means brightly colored, easily visible, and full of life (such as the buxom and vibrant stewardess in the ladies’ cabin). But it also implies that this voyage will be real and true-to-life, not a fairy tale or a story fated to have a happy ending. The Vivid is going to carry Lucy into her real future, complete with all the happiness and sorrows that will entail.
The name de Bassompierre, vaguely mentioned in connection with Polly’s father’s Continental relations, is mentioned by Ginevra Fanshawe. This selfish girl is the niece of some grand de Bassompierre who pays her school bills. The reader will learn later that this is an important family name.
Lucy makes judgments about people based on their supposed “natures" as well as their appearances. The episode on the ship reinforces Lucy’s habit of moral judgment about everyone around her, which will persist throughout the book. She notes Ginevra’s weakness for selfishness and her inability to endure suffering (something that Lucy has proven herself able to do already in her young life), and Lucy chalks it up to "nature" and her "particular style of fair and fragile beauty." Lucy had made a similar pronouncement about Polly’s nature upon observing Polly’s megalomaniacal tendencies and her supreme, intractable femininity. While probably correct about many of her judgments, Lucy is not particularly charitable or indulgent in her analyses of her fellow human beings. Since she has been the recipient of such an (unspecified) amount of bad fortune so far in her life, however, one might not be surprised that she finds it difficult to be charitable in her judgments, even if she can be charitable out of respect for someone like Miss Marchmont.