In Sense and Sensibility, Lucy Steele becomes the bane of Elinor Dashwood’s existence, the burr under her saddle, the mosquito whining in her ear. It is not simply that she has a prior claim to Edward Ferrars, which is bad enough, but the irritating way she rubs it in. Elinor endures it like a saint, of course, and we admire her for it. But sometimes I wish she hadn’t taken such a high road, that there had been another, more proactive, course of action open to her for dealing with her rival.
That’s the basis for this little tale I contributed to Bad Austen, a collection of short stories done in parody of Jane Austen’s writings (My other contribution, Woman of Wonder, is posted here). I thought you might enjoy it. We pick up the action at the point where Marianne has just learned that Edward has been secretly engaged to Lucy for years:
Miss Dashwood Gets Down and Dirty
“How long has this engagement of Edward’s been known to you?” Marianne demanded.
“About four months,” Elinor rejoined.
“What! And never a hint to your closest companions?”
“No doubt you would reproach me again for my reserve, and quarrel with me over my forbearance. Would you question the existence of my heart as well because I choose to suffer my disappointment in private?”
“Indeed, I do not ask the location of your heart, for I vouchsafe that you have an organ of that description beating within your breast, and it may well be as susceptible to tender sentiments as any other person’s. My question to you, Elinor, is this. Where is your fighting spirit? You have been grossly ill-used, and the time to take decisive action is come!”
“I admire your conviction, dearest, but what recourse is there within my reach? The courts can give no satisfaction; no law has been broken. What would you have me do? Challenge Lucy Steele to a duel?”
“A tempting notion, is it not?” Marianne sprang into a fencer’s stance and addressed a phantom rival with the cut and thrust of her imaginary saber.
“Marianne! Have you completely taken leave of your senses? Surely there can be no occasion for bloodshed.”
“Perhaps not, but I have heard of another equally satisfactory avenue for settling disputes.” Marianne clasped her sister’s hand. “Come, make haste!”
Her protestations notwithstanding, Elinor found herself unceremoniously dragged to her feet and from the room. Marianne was unstoppable. She collected their wraps and propelled them both out into the street, where they were fortunate to find a handsome cab standing at liberty.
“Where to, Miss?” the cabbie asked as the young ladies climbed in.
“Southwark. To Vauxhall, and don’t spare the horses,” Marianne ordered.
They were off with the crack of the driver’s whip.
Elinor, who had been carried thus far by the sheer force of her sister’s will, at last spoke out. “I must protest against this madness, Marianne. You intend to take us across the river and into the Borough at this time of night? And unescorted? Only think what our mother would say to such a scheme!”
“Mama will never know. Besides, it would be well worth any price for the chance to see you settle your score with Lucy. It was, in fact, by overhearing her speak of the contest tonight that I learnt of it myself. According to her information, this form of entertainment is quite the thing here in London now, so you need not be squeamish.”
Her scruples laid to rest by these reassuring words, Elinor’s mind eased from concern to mere curiosity. As long as no breach of decorum was involved, a new diversion would be welcome. One could not go to the opera every night of the week, after all. But how a Vauxhall amusement could render any amendment to a broken heart, Elinor could not begin to fathom.
“Be patient,” Marianne answered when asked. “You will see soon enough.”
Elinor’s bewilderment only increased upon their arrival, however, for she heard sounds of a great tumult emanating from the vast tent to which her sister steered her. “This cannot be entirely proper,” she said. “Ladies and gentleman never raise their voices in such a manner at the theatre or at a ball.”
Marianne pressed ahead, taking no notice. Another moment and they were both inside the canvas enclosure, hemmed about on all sides by crowds of unruly persons, many of whom were of dubious lineage.
Elinor stood transfixed for a long moment, not believing her eyes. “B-but Marianne, those t-two young ladies …” Elinor pushed forward for a better view. “They seem to be …”
“Yes, they are indeed!” Marianne confirmed. “Glorious, is it not?”
“I hardly know. I would not have imagined such a thing possible … or prudent,” Elinor murmured, tilting her head this way and that as she followed the movements of the female contenders. An inner voice whispered that she should be repulsed, that she ought to turn on her heel and flee the den of iniquity at once. Yet she found that she could not; she was irresistibly drawn to the spectacle before her.
The singular visage of Lucy Steele suddenly appeared amongst the onlookers across the way, and, when their eyes met, Elinor shot her a pointed look through the steamy atmosphere betwixt them. Lucy nodded, accepting the silent challenge. As if by some audible signal, they started towards each other at the very same moment. The crowd cheered, apprehending that some considerable augmentation to the evening’s entertainment was forthcoming.
With an expression of exhilaration overspreading her countenance, Elinor cast caution to the wind, hoisted up her skirts, and waded into the mud-filled arena to meet her adversary.
“For four months, Marianne, I have had all this hanging on my mind, without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature… It was told me, it was in a manner forced on me by the very person herself, whose prior engagement ruined all my prospects…” (Sense and Sensibility, chapter 37)