The first chapter introduces the character of Dorothea Brooke. She and her sister Celia are orphans in the care of their uncle, Mr. Brooke. Although she is from a wealthy family, Dorothea prefers to dress plainly. Still, she possesses "that kind of beauty that seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress." Dorothea longs to live an ascetic life devoted to some great project for improving the world. She is forever attempting to persuade her uncle to spend money to improve the lot of the tenants on his estate.
Mr. Brooke fears that her Puritan energy will hinder her marriage prospects. However, many men find her bewitching, especially on horseback. Dorothea does not realize this; she assumes that Sir James Chettam's frequent visits to Tipton Grange, the Brooke estate, have nothing to do with her. She believes he wishes to marry Celia.
Celia works up the courage to ask Dorothea to divide their late mother's jewelry. She fears that Dorothea will think her request is vain and frivolous. Dorothea takes only an emerald ring and a matching bracelet for herself and allows Celia to take the rest. Innocently, Celia asks whether Dorothea will wear the ring and bracelet in company. The question offends Dorothea.
During a small dinner party at Tipton Grange, Sir James informs Mr. Brooke and Dorothea of his plans to improve conditions for the tenants on his estate. Mr. Brooke declares that he spends far too much on such endeavors. Dorothea disagrees and points out with sharp wit that Mr. Brooke spends large sums on entertainment and little on socially responsible projects. Her well-spoken retort catches the attention of Mr. Casaubon, a middle-aged scholar and clergyman. Dorothea admires Casaubon for his dignified, intellectual conversation. Celia knows that Sir James wishes to marry Dorothea and believes that Casaubon is old, boring, and ugly. For her part, Dorothea thinks that Sir James is silly.
Casaubon and Dorothea begin to spend more time in conversation. He admires her because she does not care for the frivolous and trivial things in life. She admires him for his "great soul." She wants to become his wife. Sir James attempts to please Dorothea by showing interest in her "plan for cottages." Dorothea devotes her spare time to drawing plans for better housing for the tenants on Brooke's estate. Sir James admits that Brooke is unlikely to spend the money for the project, but he states that he himself would like to follow her plans at Freshitt, his own estate. Dorothea is delighted, and the two of them set to work on putting the plan into action.
Celia informs Dorothea that Sir James wishes to marry her; Dorothea reacts with utter disbelief and plans to discourage him. However, Mr. Brooke arrives to tell her that Casaubon has asked him for her hand in marriage. Dorothea is overjoyed and accepts the proposal right away. Brooke does not understand why she prefers Casaubon over Sir James, but he wishes to allow her to make her own choice. Dorothea informs Celia of her engagement to Casaubon. Celia reacts with anxiety and sadness at the news.
Mrs. Cadwallader, learning of Dorothea's engagement from Mr. Brooke, reports the news to Sir James. Sir James reacts with disbelief. Mrs. Cadwallader states that Dorothea is too high-flown and strictly religious for him anyway. However, she had planned to play match-maker for Dorothea and Sir James since she had come to live with Mr. Brooke. She resolves instead to get Sir James and Celia married. Sir James decides to be a gentleman. He continues collaborating with Dorothea on the cottages according to her plans.
The Prelude alludes to the life and work of Saint Theresa, a sixteenth-century Spanish mystic. She devoted her life to a combination of religious contemplation and practical works. The narrator states that her "passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life." Yet, there are many "Theresas" who have been born since then without the opportunity to have an epic life. The narrator attributes this to the absence of a "coherent social faith and order" through which they could enact great works. It is obvious that the Prelude positions Dorothea as an unsung Theresa. When reading the novel as a whole, it is important to keep this in mind. The real Theresa is a famous, well-known saint. All of her good works are recorded in history. Dorothea, however, is an ordinary, unknown woman in a small, provincial community.
The Prelude characterizes such an unsung Theresa as a cygnet among ducklings. Eliot uses this metaphor to point out that even the most ordinary life can be extraordinary. Dorothea stands out even in poor dress. She is not the general standard of feminine virtue like her sister, Celia. Social convention requires women to avoid too much learning and to dress with a touch of the coquette. Celia is forever chiding her sister for being much too intellectual. Women are supposed "to have weak opinions." Moreover, social conventions require that women never act on these opinions. However, Dorothea clearly does have strong opinions; she criticizes Mr. Brooke for not spending his money on socially responsible projects. Her interest in politics and social reform sets her apart from other women.
Dorothea wants to live a grand life. She feels she has a calling to be an intellectual philanthropist, but because she is a woman, social conventions deny her access to politics and higher learning. She hopes to live out her dreams through Casaubon by marrying him. She relates to Casaubon not as an individual, fallible human being, but rather as a "great soul." To her, he is the abstraction of "The Scholar." As his wife, Dorothea hopes to aid Casaubon in his scholarly pursuits like the poet John Milton's daughters aided their father. Through this role, she can gain access to the education available to men only.
Casaubon and Milton are somewhat like doubles. Milton was blind, and Casaubon's eyesight is failing. Milton's daughters worked as scribes for their father. Dorothea views such unfailing devotion as the mark of happy companionship. However, Milton's daughters regarded their father as a tyrant, and they never really enjoyed working under his direction. The comparison between Casaubon and Milton foreshadows Dorothea's eventual dissatisfaction as Casaubon's wife and helpmate. She makes Casaubon into her ideal potential husband, and she will later suffer for her idealism.
Dorothea also has little self-knowledge. She dreams of submitting herself to an epic theory of self-sacrifice and virtue. However, she has more pride than she knows. Celia's off-hand suggestion that she wear the emerald ring and bracelet in company stings Dorothea's pride. She responds haughtily to the suggestion she would give into ostentation even though she admires the beauty of the jewelry. Her own personal desire for the jewelry belies her outward presentation of herself as one who doesn't like ostentation.
There are hints that Dorothea can better effect good works by concentrating on the everyday and the ordinary. Her cottage plans, for instance, work well on Sir James's estate. It is through practical measures rather than epic, high-flown theories that she alleviates some of the world's misery. Against the background of large, national reforms, Dorothea's small-scale plans bring about actual change. Despite this, she sets her ambitions on the horizon by dreaming of grand social reform. Her social reality and her idealism do not coincide, and Dorothea will be forced to undergo a process of disillusionment. In part, this arises from the restrictions placed on women's access to the public social world, but it also occurs because her dreams are simply unrealistic.
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