For a long time, I thought Villette was the greatest novel in the English language. I loved the narrative style, the European setting, the oddball romance at the heart of the story and above all the spinster heroine, Lucy Snow. I used to get particularly excited about the ending, which (spoiler alert) completely undermines the reader’s expectations by killing off the romantic lead and dooming the heroine to loneliness. And then, oh dear, I re-read it in middle age, after 20 years in which I’d knocked about a bit – and I was horribly disillusioned. Now I find Lucy’s self-denial nauseating, and her prim disapproval of anyone whose life isn’t as tidy as hers really depressing. The love story with M. Paul seems implausible, and I find myself liking all the characters we’re supposed to condemn. I still think it’s a great literary achievement, far more interesting and complex than Jane Eyre, but I’ve completely changed my ideas about what fiction should do. And life, for that matter. There’s quite enough misery and loneliness in real life without revelling in it. I almost left it off the list altogether, but obviously Villette is still a masterpiece – even though I personally don’t much like it any more.