It is “a fine October morning” in the suburbs of Victorian London. The Reverend James Mavor Morell—a “first rate” “Christian Socialist clergyman of the Church of England”—is working in his drawing room in St. Dominic’s parsonage with his secretary, Miss Proserpine Garnett. Morell’s windows look out onto Victoria Park, an “oasis” in the “desert of unattractiveness” that is his neighborhood. As Morell and Proserpine attempt to find a day in Morrell’s schedule for him to give a lecture, it becomes evident that he is a very busy man and lectures often. The Reverend Alexander Mill, who is Morell’s curate and whom the other characters call “Lexy,” arrives, late for work. He is surprised to hear that Morell’s wife, Candida, is returning early from her vacation with her children and expresses concern about catching measles from the children. Morell praises his wife and suggests that Lexy find a wife for himself, as Morell believes marriage to be a great blessing. After Morell leaves, Proserpine voices her annoyance at Morell’s constant praise of Candida to Lexy. Lexy defends Candida’s beauty; Proserpine accuses him of thinking her jealous of Candida.
Mr. Burgess, Candida’s father, arrives to visit Morell, and Proserpine and Lexy leave. Burgess and Morell do not get along, and this is the first time that Burgess has visited in three years. They begin an old argument: Morell had criticized Burgess for paying his employees extremely low wages and had prevented him from acquiring a large contract. Though Burgess has now raised his employees’ pay, Morell sees that it is not because of a true reformation. He calls Burgess “an apostate with [his] coat turned for the sake of a County Council contract,” and Burgess accuses him of having an “hunforgivin’” (unforgiving) spirit. Still, they are able to find common ground.
The two men have just resolved their dispute when Candida appears. She is accompanied by Eugene Marchbanks, an eighteen-year-old poet whom Morell had found sleeping outside the previous year and brought home. Burgess is eager to meet Marchbanks, having learned that Marchbanks is the nephew of an earl. Marchbanks is a timid man—he struggles to talk to strangers and gets nervous about tipping cab drivers. Burgess leaves for the train, and Candida goes to look over the state of the house. Insisting that he cannot stay for lunch, Marchbanks emotionally tells Morell that he loves Candida. Morell laughs at this, calling it “a case of calf love.” Marchbanks retorts that Candida’s soul craves “reality, truth, freedom” but instead received “sermons” and “mere rhetoric.” They argue violently, and Morell orders Marchbanks to leave. Candida returns as Marchbanks is walking out the door, and she insists that he stay for lunch. Marchbanks agrees.
Marchbanks is alone in Morell’s drawing room. Proserpine enters, and Marchbanks reflects on the difficulty of expressing one’s longings. Though irritated by Marchbanks’s poetic monologues, Proserpine is strongly affected and implies that she herself is in love. She refuses to confess whom she is in love with, but Marchbanks realizes it is Morell. Marchbanks asks if it is possible for a woman to love Morell, who has “nothing in him but… pious resolutions.” Proserpine resolutely replies, “Yes.”
Burgess comes in, and he and Proserpine exchange some unpleasant words before she is called away. When Morell enters the drawing room, he is delighted at Proserpine’s reported frankness. Marchbanks expresses horror at the fact that Candida is doing household chores. Candida arrives, and Morell grows concerned about Marchbanks’s ability to counter his arguments and begins to see the younger man as a possible threat to his marriage. Candida worries that Morell is working too hard; when everyone else but Morell has left the drawing room, she expresses her concern. Candida asserts that everyone, including...
(The entire section is 2,555 words.)