This is a charming vignette of Saint Theresa of Avila as a little girl, holding her brother by the hand, going out into the country side looking for martyrdom, illustrating the “passionate, ideal nature [that demands] an epic life.” Such a girl who has a “rapturous consciousness of life beyond self” could hardly be content with a normal woman’s life. She is the type of many such women today who yearn for an expanded life but are not helped by the “tangled circumstance” of society. This tragic sort of woman in the modern world has no channel for her life force, but only a “vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood.” She is a swan among ducks and finds no fellowship.
Eliot’s famous Prelude to Middlemarch could be the outcry of the Victorian woman, or women of any age, who have no outlet for their talents or direction for their spiritual lives. They are like the child Theresa, who nevertheless, even in a man’s world, grew up to reform a religious order. Eliot sets up an epic question: what sort of heroism is possible in the modern world, especially for women? Her main character, Dorothea Brooke, is such a modern St. Theresa.
Chapters 1-5 (The Brooke Sisters)
Dorothea Brooke and her younger sister, Celia, are two young ladies of marriageable age who have recently come to live with their bachelor uncle and guardian, Mr. Brooke, at Tipton Grange. Though Dorothea is the striking and beautiful older sister, the rural opinion favors the pretty Celia as the one who is easier to understand. While Celia knows life through common sense, Dorothea is always out of place with her refined religious perceptions and longings. Dorothea is severe and Puritanical compared to Celia, who has normal coquettish desires for dress, jewelry, and conquests.
Dorothea does not want a husband like the neighbor, Sir James Chettham, an amiable but ordinary squire, who is in love with her. She thinks him boring, though in her passion for good works, she persuades him to build decent cottages for his tenants and gives him her designs. He goes along with her plans as he prepares to propose to her. No one reckons on Dorothea’s lofty thoughts of an ideal husband, who would be her superior in learning, and spiritually elevated. Into the picture steps Reverend Casaubon, a clergyman of fifty. Dorothea, not yet eighteen, immediately romanticizes him as a type of Milton or Locke. She wants to devote herself to someone who can teach her wisdom. Mr. Brooke tries to dissuade her from getting engaged to Casaubon, but she accepts him, to everyone’s shock.
One of the main characters of the novel is the narrator who tells the story from the multiple points of view of the characters, while adding her own reflective wisdom. This vantage point gives us compassionate insight into each character but within a certain social context, for the narrator stands for the collective wisdom gleaned from all the lives put together. This narrator is “omniscient” and anonymous, though we can think of her as close to George Eliot’s own viewpoint.
Immediately, the narrator begins to uncover the fact that most people are lost in their own illusions of reality, one of the themes of the book. She brilliantly weaves together the intersecting illusions of all the characters, showing us the profile of the town of Middlemarch, a fictitious small town in the rural English midlands in the early nineteenth century. Middlemarch stands for English life just before the impact of the industrial revolution. The time is just before the great Reform Bill of 1832. Life is still somewhat simple and conventional here in this backwater, and the citizens are not interested in anything but daily concerns. This sets the stage for their clashes with the more extraordinary and farsighted characters, Dorothea and Lydgate and Will Ladislaw who stand for the forces of change.
While it could be rather farcical that the beautiful Dorothea, who is constantly compared to the Blessed Virgin, is marrying Casaubon, the “dried bookworm of fifty,” Eliot treats Dorothea’s “soul hunger” as a real and tragic phenomenon in this society. She has no teacher or even comrade to whom she may tell of her own exalted thoughts and wishes. Even her sister Celia, though adoring her, criticizes her, and does not understand her need for living her religious vision in daily life. Dorothea thinks that Casaubon will understand and teach her, while he, it is clear, expects an obedient and self-abnegating wife. The narrator gives us foreshadowing of this problematic marriage by explaining Dorothea’s short-sightedness and “theoretic” nature, desire for “intensity and greatness.” Casaubon also has trouble with his vision and needs a secretary to help him with his life work, The Key to All Mythologies.