For my first two installments of Female Character of the Week, I wrote about characters I loved. This week, I’m writing about a character I love to hate. This character is the most manipulative, scheming shrew in all of Jane Austen (excluding her novella Lady Susan). No, I’m not talking about Caroline Bingley. I’m talking about the sneaky little witch that almost destroys Elinor Dashwood’s life. Ladies and gentlemen, I present Miss Lucy Steele.
Name: Lucy Steele
Why She “Rocks”: Take a good look at her. At this very moment, she is about to break Emma Thompson’s heart, thinking of the absolute most hurtful way to do it, and on top of that, she has terrible hair.
Don’t you just hate her already?
Lucy Steele is the younger of the two Steele sisters in Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility, though Emma Thompson cut her sister’s character out of her script for her film adaptation. She is the distant relation of Mrs. Jennings, the well-meaning chatterbox old lady who befriends the Dashwood family after they move to Barton Cottage following the death of Mr. Dashwood. She has little money but plenty of ambition to make up for it, and she’s mean.
How is she mean? Lucy Steele is the nasty girl who pretends friendship and affection for another woman just so she can get what she wants. Jane Austen has a few stock characters like this – Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice – but Lucy Steele is the most effective of them all because in the end, she gets exactly what she wants. Isabella, Mary, and Caroline have to watch as the men they wanted to marry either marry someone else, or simply want nothing more to do with them. But Lucy is cleverer than that.
Lucy, being secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars over five years, confides in Elinor Dashwood, but not because Elinor is just the best confidante ever (though she is). Lucy knows perfectly well that Edward is in love with Elinor, and she’s sizing up the competition. This might be understandable behavior, except that Lucy doesn’t love Edward at all and is only with him to reap the benefits in his inheritance. So she pretends to be besties with Elinor, talking all the time about how much it hurts her and Edward to be apart for so long, and how Edward totally loves Elinor like a sister, and she continues to rub it in this girl’s face, over and over again, that she has the man she loves. I read this, and watch this, and want nothing more than to smack that bitch DOWN.
It almost happens. Lucy almost loses everything. The Ferrars family disowns Edward and passes the inheritance to his younger brother, Robert. But then, Lucy has a sudden change of heart and realizes that ROBERT is the brother she really loves. Quelle surprise! She then ditches Edward and marries Robert. This constitutes a happy ending, because now Edward and Elinor are free to marry each other – which is lovely, and the scene where Elinor breaks down and Edward finally confesses his love for her gets me every time – but knowing Lucy gets everything she wants in the end and receives no comeuppance is kind of awful.
And kind of awesome. I think one of the reasons Lucy entertains me so is because she’s played by the wonderful Imogen Stubbs, also known as Viola from Trevor Nunn’s adaptation of Twelfth Night. She plays sweet, lovely Viola just as effectively as manipulative, awful Lucy, and I enjoy watching her play such different characters.
Sense and Sensibility is possibly my least favorite Austen novel and the only instance where I prefer the film to the book (though, for me, picking a least favorite Austen novel is like picking a least favorite ice cream flavor), but when it comes to villains, no one does it like Lucy Steele. I have to begrudgingly tip my hat to her for playing her cards so well.