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Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Jane Austen's Lucy Steele and Anne Steele

The characterisation of the Steele sisters is another incidental pleasure of Sense and Sensibility.

Anne, nearly thirty, is plain and silly. Despite hardly knowing them, she talks with 'vulgar freedom' to the Dashwoods about boy-friends ('smart beaux') and assumes other women think of nothing else. She convinces herself she has 'made a conquest' of Dr. Davies, with whom she and her sister travelled to London, and she wants everyone to tease her about him. (Jane Austen was to tell her nephew and niece that Miss Steele never did succeed in catching the doctor.)

Anne Steele is a good comic character, but a minor one, a plot device when she meets Elinor in Kensington Gardens and reveals the recent dealings between Edward and Lucy (most of which she ascertained by listening at the door).

The other Miss Steele is Elinor's rival Lucy, about twenty-two (older than Elinor). She is pretty, with a sharp, quick eye, and a smartness of air, which, though it did not give actual elegance or grace, gave distinction to her person. Her art is flattery, a tactic succeeding with the gullible. But her powers had received no aid from education, she was ignorant and illiterate, and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed... .

Knowing that Elinor is probably hoping to marry Edward, Lucy sets about warning her off, using the sly practices of simulated friendship. Elinor endures Lucy's cruelty, such as her assurance that Edward thinks of Elinor as a 'sister'. Lucy makes sure the evidence of her secret engagement to Edward stacks up. She shows Elinor the portrait miniature she carries of Edward and points out her lock of hair which Edward has in a ring (and which Elinor had assumed to be her own). It is a marvellous exhibition of cattiness. Oscar Wilde's scene between Cicely and Gwendoline has some similarity, though in The Importance of Being Earnest we see both girls and not just one resorting to spite.

The head-to-head battles continue over three chapters. Lucy makes remark after remark which she knows must hurt Elinor, giving her a series of little stab wounds which, cumulatively, should leave her in despair. (This is the pattern by which the suspense is generated for Jane Austen heroines – and countless heroines of romantic literature.)

As late as Chapter 47 – the novel ends with Chapter 50 – Elinor suffers the severest blow of all, when Thomas the servant tells her Mr. Ferrars is married. Marianne is shocked to perceive by Elinor's countenance how much she really suffered, (though it is Marianne herself who becomes hysterical and has to be supported into the other room).

Lucy has actually married Robert Ferrars. This may be contrived plotting. However, status was the great attraction to her, so the mercenary nature of this marriage would certainly have appealed. She had previously thought of breaking off her engagement to Edward when things were going badly for them.