Sense and Sensibility 21-23: The Miss Steeles; Explicating Elinor

I have recently read through Chapters 21-23 of Sense and Sensibility.

Plot Points

The Palmers exit, and Marianne and Elinor Dashwood are left with the Middletons. They are introduced to the Steeles, two girls names Lucy and Anne, with whom they socialize via the Middletons. It is in this setting that they learn that Lucy is acquainted with Edward Ferrars. Currious about the connection, Elinor inquires. Yet it is by the confidence of Lucy that Elinor learns—to her great horror—that Lucy has been engaged to Edward for some time. Elinor is very distressed, but is successful in suppressing her emotions regarding this revelation. At the close of Chapter 23, Elinor is hoping to learn more about their relationship.

Character Commentary

Two new characters make their appearnce in these chapters: Lucy and Anne Steele—the Miss Steeles. And they sure do shake things up for the lives of the Miss Dashwoods, particularly Elinor. Lucy is described by Sir John as “monstrous pretty, and so good-humoured and agreeable!” She seeks to please those around her, especially Lady Middleton, by way of superficially coddling her children, especially Annamaria. “What a sweet woman Lady Middleton is,” exclaims Lucy. Later, Lucy uses these sentiments to escape the card table, claiming that it would displease the little girl if she didn’t finish the basket meant for her.

The Dashwoods generally view the Steeles as superficial. Elinor perceives that Lucy’s “powers had received no aid from education, she was ignorant and iliterate, and her deficiency of all mental improvement, her want of information in the most common particulars, could not be concealed…”

Continued is Elinor’s characterization as someone who suppresses emotion for the better, or at least what she perceived to be the best action. Note Austen’s saying of her that “upon Elinor … the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it always fell.” She suppresses her emotion, perhaps ultimately to her advantage if she wants to learn more about the situation surrounding the apparent love triangle.

Style Points

I was generally pleased with the way Austen moved from the dialogue-heavy chapter 22 (in which Elinor learns of the probable unfaithfulness of Edward) to the explication of Chapter 23 (in which thoughts of Elinor are given in detail). The opening sentence of Chapter 23 give the tone of the mix between intense thought and subdued action of which Elinor has become familiar: “However small Elinor’s general dependence on Lucy’s veracity might be, it was impossible for her on serious reflection to suspect it in the present case, where no temptation could be answerable to the folly of inventing a falsehood of such a description.”

Elinor goes through all the possibilities: did Edward lie to her? did he really care about Lucy?: “Had he feigned a regard for her which he did not feel? Was his engagement to Lucy an engagement of the heart?” These lines and others do well, I think, to draw the reader in to the thoughts of a character. I have questioned this ‘open’ method before, both in the words of Austen here and in those of George Eliot at The Modern Dash, but here it is successful—partly after its coming off of the heels of the previous conversation between Elinor and Lucy, which I feel is muddy (though necessary) due to the descriptions of opposing interests. After that intense conversation (and revelation about Edward), we need a time of reflection.

By the end of the Chapter, Elinor has made an effort to seek more information: “And as she could now have nothing more painful to hear on the subject than had already been told, she did not mistrust her own ability of going through a repetition of particulars with composure.” Here, we see what I think Austen has intended all along. Sure, Elinor is sensible, but let’s see how she does in a real crisis. Putting one’s characters to the test—sending them clueless into the crucible—is a component of great fiction, in my opinion.

Memorables

“The young ladies went, and Lady Middleton was happily preserved from the frightful solitude which had threatened her.”

“… she had … suffered the extinction of all her dearest hopes…”

Looking Ahead

What more will Elinor find about about Lucy and Edward? Their relationship still seems a bit vague, but Elinor seems determined—though careful—to dig more. Also, is there is a confrontation coming? Edward’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.

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One Comment on “Sense and Sensibility 21-23: The Miss Steeles; Explicating Elinor”

  1. Sylwia Says:

    A very good observation about Austen’s style of narration. She often goes from the general to detail, or from the factual – a conversation or letter – to the subjective – a character’s thoughts.

    Sometimes it’s puzzling, because she can narrate the same scene several times. Here it’s clear, but she also happens to do something like:

    1.) They were all very displeased with him.

    Then a few paragraphs later:

    2.) Mrs. X in particular because…

    Then a few paragraphs later…

    3. Mrs. X was going to… (only here we learn what actually happened)

    And then…

    4.) It was said that… (we learn extra information about the event)

    And then in the following chapter or chapters we see the character’s detailed thoughts.

    It’s often read as a sequence of events, but in fact it’s a multiplied retelling of the same event. So for example we learn that it wasn’t everyone but just Mrs. X, or that she wasn’t as displeased as one might think, but it’s very difficult to catch on first reading, because the first impression is the strongest.


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