Dorothea Brooke tends to wear simple, modest clothes, which make her look even more beautiful. People consider her highly intelligent, although they think her sister, Celia, has “more common-sense.” Though not noble, the Brookes are a “good” family, and women from this social rank tend to dress plainly. Dorothea is deeply religious and obsessed with “intensity and greatness;” these qualities make finding a husband rather complicated. She and Celia are orphans who were educated in England and Switzerland. Their unmarried uncle Mr. Brooke, who is almost 60, arranged their education. He travelled when he was young and is now prone to frequent shifts in opinion.
In the opening to the novel, we are given the impression that Dorothea Brooke is a rather unique and unusual woman. In contrast to Celia, whose “common sense” means that she conforms to the norms of the society in which she lives, Dorothea’s love of extremes and fixation on “intensity and greatness” are unusual for a woman. Religious piety is one of the only ways for women to indulge in “greatness” but, as this passage points out, even that interferes with Dorothea’s marriage prospects.
If Dorothea marries and has a son, her son will inherit Mr. Brooke’s substantial estate. As such she is considered an “heiress.” Dorothea’s beauty and inheritance make her an appealing candidate for marriage, but again, her “love of extremes” gets in the way. Her dramatic habits of fasting and fervent prayer conflict with the way wives are expected to behave. Women are supposed to have “weak opinions” and conform to societal norms. Most people prefer Celia to Dorothea; on the other hand, Dorothea is undeniably charming despite her unusual behavior. She loves the outdoors and horse-riding, a habit she is constantly claiming she is about to give up.
This passage further emphasizes the ways that Dorothea deviates from the expected behavior of a woman in her community. Furthermore, it also suggests that Dorothea feels conflicted about her own failure to conform to these expectations, as indicated by her repeated vows to give up horse-riding. Dorothea may have a personality that inclines her to rebel against norms, yet she wants to embody these norms at the same time.
Anytime a man comes to the Brookes’ house, Tipton Grange, it is assumed he is in love with Celia. Dorothea has a “childlike” understanding of marriage and thinks her ideal husband would be like a father who could teach her things. Today Sir James Chettam is coming to dinner at Tipton along with Rev. Edward Casaubon, whom Dorothea and Celia have never met. Casaubon is a wealthy, respected, and highly educated man who has spent many years writing an ambitious work of religious history (The Key to All Mythologies).
This passage introduces an important social custom of the time. Families with daughters of marriageable age receive suitors for social visits, so that both the potential couple and the family can get to know one another.
After Dorothea comes home from the school she has set up in Middlemarch, Celia asks if they should divide up their mother’s jewels, since six months have now passed since Mr. Brooke gave them to the sisters. Dorothea kindly responds that they shouldn’t wear the jewels, but Celia responds that wearing jewelry is now quite common and that it might help them keep their mother’s memory alive. Dorothea enthusiastically responds that if Celia wants to wear them, they should get them out. Dorothea herself refuses to be given any of the jewelry, even the cross, which she is opposed to wearing as a “trinket.”
In this passage, readers begin to see how Dorothea’s idealism can become a little grating to those around her. Dorothea’s decision not to wear jewelry appears to be a personal preference, and it does not seem as though she is judging Celia. However, it is easy to see how Celia could feel pressure to conform with Dorothea’s unusual and somewhat extreme way of being.
Upset, Celia says that she is embarrassed to wear the jewelry if Dorothea refuses to do so. However, Dorothea then begins to admire the ornaments, trying to justify this admiration in her head by framing it as a kind of religious mysticism. Celia insists that Dorothea keep a simple ring and bracelet for herself; Dorothea accepts them but urges Celia to put the rest of the jewelry away. Celia asks if Dorothea will wear them around other people, a question that offends Dorothea. Both sisters are upset until Dorothea asks Celia to look at the architectural plans for cottages she has drawn. Dorothea rests her cheek against Celia’s arm as a way of apologizing for having upset her.
Like all sisters, Dorothea and Celia sometimes find themselves in conflict with one another. This is due to how close they are while at the same time being so different from one another. Dorothea’s insistence on accepting only the plainest jewelry from her mother’s collection emphasizes that she has no vanity and is perhaps uninterested in wealth. It could also be seen as a rejection of femininity. Her architectural plans suggest that she is more interested in what are regarded as typically masculine pursuits.