St. Theresa of Avila was an idealistic young woman who lived in Spain in the sixteenth century. There have been many women like her since, women whose lives were not romantic or spectacular but rather filled with tragedy, errors, and disappointment. These women struggled to reconcile their ideals with their desires, and especially with their feminine natures. There is so much variation between women that it is difficult to say anything conclusive about them as a group. Women like St. Theresa have trouble fitting in and finding others like them; they strive to leave a legacy, but their actions usually go unremembered.
In the prelude, the narrator addresses the place of women in history. In the nineteenth century, when Middlemarch was written, history was still largely a collection of stories told about “great men” who had an impact on the world as rulers, intellectuals, artists, or innovators—roles that were essentially closed to women. Indeed, sainthood was one of the few ways that women could leave a legacy in the historical record.