Jane Austen Week: Nancy Steele

This week, I am going to explore some of Jane Austen’s secondary characters, one from each novel. Today, I am focusing on Nancy Steele from Sense and Sensibility.

As much as I love the 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the exclusion of Lucy Steele’s sister, Nancy, does not make a whit of sense. In the novel, Nancy is the silly and irrational foil to her controlled and manipulating sister. Nancy loves nothing more than to chat about “beaux”, and her nonsensical speeches bring comic relief to what is at times a very dark book. However, she is also necessary to the structure of the novel and removing her somewhat impacts the integrity of the plot and Lucy Steele’s character.

It is difficult to think of what environment could possibly have produced the Steele sisters. Lucy is clever, but she is also calculating. Cold-heartedly, she holds onto a man whom she knows loves another woman. But she does not care. She wants to make a good marriage, and it does not seem like she is much interested in whom she marries or whether his feelings change as long as he is rich. Only caring about her marriage prospects, she pretends to want to be friends with Elinor, but secretly is out to tell her to back off of what is hers. She is the exact opposite of what a heroine should be. Her sister, similarly, lacks moral substance. She has very little of either sense or sensibility and is in fact the one who ruins her sister’s plot.

I think it is a fault of that otherwise brilliant film adaptation to exclude Nancy. Lucy is smart and can read others well. She would know better than to tell Fanny Dashwood that she was secretly engaged to Edward, who was due to inherit as the elder son, though he had no interest in gaining wealth or power. Nancy is absolutely required, Nancy who cannot control her tongue and does not have the sense to stay quiet. She is needed to advance the plot, to reveal the secret to the entire cast of characters, and to set in motion the events that will lead to a happy ending for Edward and Elinor.

As I have been thinking about Austen’s minor characters, I have found that so many of them are essential to the plot. Foolish Nancy Steele is the one who outs her sister Lucy’s secret engagement, and it is that which eventually leads to Mrs. Ferrars disinheriting Edward. Without Nancy, there is a possibility that Mrs. Ferrars might have been persuaded to accept Lucy as a match for Edward, if given time. She was already well on her way to doing so, but not quite there, when Nancy gave away the secret. Lucy finally won that approval after marrying the other brother, Robert, who benefited from Edward falling out of grace and inheritance.

As readers, we know that Lucy is cunning, but she also possesses an immense power to make a good impression on important people. Without Nancy, it is impossible to say how the novel would have turned out. Thinking about the minor characters and the amount of planning that went into them has given me a new appreciation for Jane Austen and her masterpieces.

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