Catherine, Agnes, and Rose Leyburn, sisters living in a remote valley in Westmoreland, in England’s Lake District, learn of the imminent arrival of Robert Elsmere, a young Anglican clergyman coming to visit his uncle and aunt before he assumes responsibility for a parish in southern England. Once he meets the Leyburns, Robert is quickly drawn to Catherine’s seriousness and spirituality. Catherine resists her own attraction to Robert, having promised her deceased father to remain in Westmoreland and devote herself to her mother and sisters and to preserving the centrality of religion in their lives. Rose, a talented violinist, is already trying to break away to study music, but Catherine thinks music frivolous. Catherine is grateful when Robert persuades her to treat Rose’s interests more sympathetically, but she feels she has to break off her relationship with him. She tells him that she cannot desert her family and had resolves to continue her life in Westmoreland. Her resolve is shaken when her mother, learning of her interest in Robert from Robert’s matchmaking aunt, assures Catherine that she would be pleased with the match. Catherine feels her life’s purpose is undermined. On a stormy evening, she attends the deathbed of a woman who bore an illegitimate child. Robert follows her and persuades her to marry him, promising that together they can live a life dedicated to God and to helping others.
This promise bears out as the Elsmeres enthusiastically embark on their work with Robert’s new parishioners at Murewell, in Surrey. At the end of their first year, though, Catherine is troubled by Rose’s interest in the disillusioned Edward Langham, a man with no sympathy for religious belief. Langham and Rose hope briefly that she might rouse him from the despair of his solitary, empty life, but Langham, believing himself unable to change, departs suddenly. Rose is embarrassed to have shown her interest in him.
A more serious crisis develops when Robert becomes friendly with Squire Wendover, the local large landowner and a scholar famous for his skeptical views of Christianity. Robert...
(The entire section is 865 words.)