As with all the chapter epigraphs in “Middlemarch”, George Eliot has put a lot of care in writing the prelude of the book. What she wrote seems a bit weird and you tend to hope it’s not related to the actual book, because it talks a lot about Saint Theresa – and no one expects to read about saints when picking up this classic.
Luckily, “Middlemarch” is not about saints, nor is it about religion. It is the story of many people in a small town, filled with gossip, reluctance to change and weary of strangers.
So why talk about Saint Theresa in the prelude? To get to the bottom of this, let’s start with who is Saint Theresa better.
Who is Saint Theresa?
Our friend, wikipedia, enlightens us: Teresa of Ávila was a Spanish noblewoman who was called to convent life in the Catholic Church. She was a religious reformer, an author, a theologian of the contemplative life and of mental prayer and she earned the rare distinction of being declared a Doctor of the Church.
We see Saint Theresa here is a blend of religious achievements as well as intellectual ones.
Saint Theresa had a passionate, ideal nature and lived an epic life, being forever “conscious of life beyond self”. She stands as an ideal of womanhood and of a life well lived.
Why does Saint Theresa appear in the prelude to “Middlemarch”?
To answer that, we must read a bit further. The first chapter of Middlemarch introduces Miss Brooke as young heiress. She is peculiar, religious, passionate and idealistic. She yearns for something greater than herself – a life of devotion or sacrifice or intellectual conquest. She is not actually clear on what she wants. She is not always very consistent in her views, as her sister, Celia, points out. But she wants a significant life.
Intuition tells us she will be one of the many Theresas yearning for an epic life, the prelude warns us about:
“Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion.”Middlemarch, George Eliot
Sadly, these Theresas are unable to attain the same great achievements as the original. They are limited by society, lack opportunity or the right circumstances.
Will Dorothea be one of the successful ones? Will she have an epic, memorable life? The prelude and the first chapter are wonderful in enticing us to keep reading to find out!
Have you started Middlemarch?
What did you think of the prelude to this novel?
If you have finished Middlemarch’s first book (Chapters 1-12), you may also like this article: