Also, I feel like this cover is pretty much the most perfect match for how I felt the first time I encountered this story. Anyone else here pop-eyed from shock?
But, you know, at least we know now why Edward has never declared his feelings for Elinor or asked her to marry him. It's because he's been secretly engaged to this chick for four years! The nerve of some people!
Okay, so, I had to explain this to my husband, because he started singing that bit from The Phantom of the Opera where Raoul wonders, "Why is it secret? What have we to hide?" (It's been stuck in my head ever since, so it might as well be stuck in yours too.) I figured maybe I ought to explain it here too, in case anyone else is wondering. This is kind of a huge part of the plot, so I'm just going to dig into it. If you know all this already, well, skim ahead to the discussion questions.
The reason people would get secretly engaged at this point in history is if one or both of them had parents who would object. Which is totally the case here. Mrs. Ferrars, Edward's mom, is a very ambitious woman. We've already heard Edward talk about how she wants him to have some kind of fashionable, high-profile profession, and all he wants is to be a minister living quietly in the country somewhere. And Fanny Dashwood, Edward's sister, warned Mrs. Dashwood that her mother has high hopes for Edward to marry someone with a good fortune of high social standing. Elinor doesn't have either of those, and neither does Lucy Steele.
So if, four years ago when Lucy was 19 (which is how old Elinor is now) and Edward was presumably only 18 or 19 himself, Edward and Lucy fancied themselves in love, they would get engaged secretly and not reveal their engagement until both sets of parents were more amenable to the idea, at which time they could ask their parents for permission and make the engagement public.
And why would Edward not want to do that right away? Because his mother has the power to disinherit him and leave the family fortune to his younger brother Robert. Which would leave Edward penniless. And Edward, the dear boy, is just a little bit fond of living well at his mother's expense and not having to choose a profession yet. Not only that, but Lucy is pretty obviously attached to the idea of marrying a rich husband, so she doesn't want to make the engagement public until she's sure Edward won't lose his inheritance.
Now, the trouble with secret engagements is that either party can just disavow them, or break them with little real ramification. A public engagement is a kind of safeguard against either party backing out without the other party's consent -- the more people who know about an engagement, the more people will hold you to it. This is why Elinor and her mom were so shocked that Marianne and Willoughby were behaving as if they were engaged, but not announcing an engagement -- neither of them really had any reason to keep it secret.
Also, by the rules of the day, since the man was the one who asked the woman to marry him, then the woman was the only one with the real power to break the engagement. A man could ask a woman to end their engagement, but if she wanted to hold him to it, he was stuck. Or he could break it and be considered dishonorable and disgraced. This was a safeguard for women, who had very little real power over their own lives except in the choice of whether or not to accept a proposal and whether or not to allow an engagement to lead to marriage.
So. Somehow or other, Lucy got Edward to propose to her, four years ago. She's holding onto that engagement because it's her ticket to the big-time. She's obviously from a lower class than the Dashwoods, who are the wife and daughters of a gentleman, and undoubtedly poorer than the Ferrars, who are rich and landed gentry. If she can marry that much higher up the social ladder, not only is she going to have a really nice life, but she can probably pass some of financial assistance on to her family, and maybe even help her old maid of a sister live a comfortable life too. Lucy has hitched her wagon to a star, and she knows it.
BUT. Obviously, Lucy has heard about Elinor. Her secret fiance has been noticeably attentive to a woman much closer to himself in class, intelligence, personality, and so on. Elinor is competition, and Lucy won't stand for that. So she pretends to need a confidante and an advisor in order to inform Elinor of Edward's secret engagement so Elinor will back off. She hasn't been educated very well, but she is clever, and she is very, very devious, isn't she? By swearing Elinor to secrecy, she's keeping Elinor from making this engagement public or telling Mrs. Ferrars about it somehow. But she's also making her own position more secure because now, if Edward tries to break the engagement or disavow it, she can call on Elinor to witness that she knew about it.
Poor Edward is stuck with this conniving viper for a fiancee, and poor Elinor is stuck with this secret knowledge that the man she loves (and who, she is convinced, loves her) is not free to be with her. Ugh! And we thought Marianne's love life was a mess!
1. Marianne refuses to tell polite lies, and would rather be rudely silent than have to say things she doesn't mean. Which do you prefer doing?
2. What do you think of Edward at this point? Was he leading Elinor on?