At dinner, Mr. Brooke recalls meeting the poet William Wordsworth. Dorothea feels awkward. Sir James explains that he is planning to experiment with technological innovations on his farm, but Mr. Brooke advises against this. Dorothea speaks up in favor of James’s plan, as she believes that it is more likely to benefit everyone, both Sir James himself and his tenant farmers. Mr. Brooke dismissively replies that women don’t understand political economy. Casaubon interrupts with a non sequitur, explaining that he spends all his time reading ancient books. Dorothea thinks that Casaubon is “the most interesting man she had ever seen.”
Mr. Brooke’s comment about women not understanding political economy is the first time we witness the expression of overt sexism in the book. The fact that he accuses Dorothea of this after she argues that agricultural innovations will bring mass benefit suggests that it is Mr. Brooke himself who is ignorant. Brooke appears to have a habit of self-inflation, and achieves this in part by asserting his superiority over women.
Sir James says he knows Dorothea likes horse-riding and that he would love to lend her an elegant horse he owns that has been bred especially to be ridden by women. Dorothea impatiently replies that she is giving up riding, wanting to focus only on Casaubon. Sir James responds that Dorothea is too harsh on herself; Celia agrees that she is always promising to give things up. Dorothea blushes, annoyed. She wishes that Sir James would talk to Celia and leave her to converse with Casaubon.
This passage introduces a very important idea within the novel: that people often make strange, unexpected, and even self-sabotaging choices when it comes to love and marriage. Sir James is clearly interested in Dorothea and supports her unique ideas and personality. However, Dorothea is drawn to Casaubon, despite his age and social awkwardness.
Mr. Brooke returns to discussing politics, and Dorothea says that she wishes he would let her organize his documents. Casaubon admiringly comments that Dorothea seems like an “excellent secretary,” but Mr. Brooke responds that women are “too flighty” to be trusted with documents. Later, when the sisters are alone, Celia observes that Casaubon is very ugly, but Dorothea disagrees, saying he looks like John Locke. Annoyed, Dorothea accuses Celia of being shallow and not appreciating Casaubon’s “great soul.” Celia is skeptical that Casaubon actually has a great soul.
Presented with Dorothea and Celia’s differing views on Casaubon, readers must determine for themselves who to believe. It is perhaps true both that Celia is rather shallow and that Dorothea has been somewhat blinded by her admiration of Casaubon’s intellect and ambition and therefore cannot see him as he really is. This is indicated by the fact that she compares him to the famous philosopher John Locke.
Celia thinks it’s a shame that Dorothea doesn’t like Sir James, and fears that her sister won’t marry any man unless he shares her own ardent principles. Sir James, however, is not put off by Dorothea’s strong will; in fact, he finds it charming. He tells Dorothea that horse-riding is healthy, and Dorothea suggests that Celia should do it. They argue until Casaubon intervenes, taking Dorothea’s side. Sir James is not jealous of Dorothea’s evident admiration of Casaubon, as he would never imagine she would seriously prefer Casaubon to him. Sir James and Celia begin talking, and he concludes that Celia is pleasant and beautiful, albeit not as intelligent as Dorothea.
Just as Dorothea’s admiration of Casaubon is unexpected and perhaps misplaced, the same might be said of Sir James’s attachment to Dorothea. Dorothea may be a remarkable woman, but she clearly has little interest in James. Celia evidently adores James, but he is not able to see that because he is too fixated on a woman who finds him irritating. Furthermore, James understands Dorothea so little that he mistakenly assumes it is impossible that she would be interested in Casaubon.