I’ve been reading essays on Sense and Sensibility and thinking of all the useful lessons it teaches, including about the influence of money on people’s dating decisions. One of my students focused on the figure of Lucy Steele, whom she compared to a woman in the reality TV show Tough Love.
Lucy Steele is the woman whom Edward Ferrars once secretly promised to marry, a youthful mistake that he holds to but regrets once he meets Elinor Dashwood (and also once he learns how small-minded and manipulative Lucy is). When the promise to Lucy comes out and Edward is disinherited, Lucy proceeds to seduce the brother who inherits.
My student had to explain the television show to me because I’d never heard of it. Apparently it’s a “tough love boot camp for women who are considered to be the worst when it comes to having healthy long term relationships.” The Lucy Steele figure in recent episodes is “Miss Gold Digger,” whose primary criteria when it comes to men is how much money they have.
Anyone who has read Jane Austen knows about her interest in money. Being dependent on her parents and then brothers for her livelihood can do that. In Sense and Sensibility, there are three attitudes towards the relationship between love and money. There is, first of all, Lucy’’s view that money is paramount. Then there is the view of the romantic Marianne, who claims that money is immaterial to love—but who expects a certain standards of living.
Marianne reminds me a little of how we talked about money when I was in college in the early 1970’s. We claimed that it was irrelevant, but then we most of us came from privileged backgrounds and fully expected to step into something resembling the lifestyle of our parents sooner or later. Jane Austen would have no patience with our hypocrisy.
And then there is Elinor, the practical sister. She is the one who pays the bills in the family. Interestingly enough, she switches roles with her romantic sister in that she is the one who makes the romantic marriage whereas Marianne sensibly marries Colonel Brandon. Elinor accepts a proposal from Edward after he has been disinherited (and dropped by Lucy). But then she turns sensible again and gets Edward to reconcile with his mother. As Austen describes the situation,
They were brought together by mutual affection, with the warmest approbation of their real friends; their intimate knowledge of each other seemed to make their happiness certain — and they only wanted something to live upon. Edward had two thousand pounds, and Elinor one, which, with Delaford living, was all that they could call their own; for it was impossible that Mrs. Dashwood should advance anything, and they were neither of them quite enough in love to think that three hundred and fifty pounds a year would supply them with the comforts of life.
True love is all very well but there must be somethinfg to live on as well.
I wonder, in fact, whether Austen doesn’t come down hard on the Lucy Steeles of the world because she is aware just how much money does enter into the relationship equation. It’s as though Lucy is able to take the focus off of Elinor’s own pragmatism.
Lucy is also a threat to Austen because her own family were social climbers. With her depiction of Lucy, she could say that “at least we’re not like this.” Her secret fear, of course, is that she is.
If my students watch shows like Tough Love, it means that they themselves are trying to figure out what they want in a relationship. Once they make a few historical adjustments, they can read Sense and Sensibility in a way that clarifies their options.