|The novel was presented in three volumes.|
To continue ... last night I read through chapter 22, the end of volume 1 in the novel, and the clearest digression the movie makes from the actual story is in how it arranges the events. In the novel, before Lucy Steele arrives Col. Brandon departs in a rush, Willoughby leaves soon thereafter, Edward comes for a week's visit and leaves, and Mr. and Mrs. Palmer come for a visit as well. Both Dashwood sisters experience the sad departure of a beau, and Mrs. Jennings and Sir John see Edward and Elinor together and quickly surmise a little romance under the surface. This is crucial.
Lucy Steele (who is older than Elinor by a few years) and her sister (who is 30!) are cousins of Mrs. Jennings. Anne Steele is aware of her sister's secret engagement to Edward Ferrars. She hears Sir John teasing Elinor about him. So everyone knows there's a flirtation between Elinor and Edward. Lucy and Anne know this. Lucy still confides in Elinor. As I read this portion, I asked myself why is Lucy confiding in Elinor if she knows people are gossiping about a romance between Edward and Elinor? The passage is subtly rendered, but I think Lucy is testing Elinor. Lucy wants to know if her engagement is secure. She quizzes Elinor superficially concerning Edward's mother, what kind of woman she is. But Elinor can tell her nothing, and Lucy already knows Mrs. Ferrars is the kind of woman who will strongly disapprove of the engagement. No -- Lucy's real goal here is to inquire into Elinor and Edward's attachment. Consider these truths: the fact that Edward had just visited Lucy's family in Plymouth before coming directly to Barton, and that Lucy followed him there as soon as possible; the fact that Edward has delayed revealing the engagement to the 24-year-old Lucy while enjoying the company of the younger 19-year-old Elinor; the fact that Lucy is intent on disclosing to Elinor all the details of their engagement and the gifts exchanged as if to prove to her her prior claim; the fact that Elinor herself is surprised that Lucy would tell her of it when she's under such distress to keep it secret. She has her sister Anne as a confidante; why does she need Elinor, a woman whom her fiance clearly admires? Lucy's goal is to pry into Elinor's heart. Elinor puts up a steely resolve against it.
The effect of this news on Elinor is complicated. She's crushed that the man she loves (and who she's certain loves her) has been engaged to another woman for four years. Her heart is broken. But Austen also notes her disappointment in his clear duplicity -- that's he's withheld this information from her, and that he's expressed more-than-friendly regard for her in spite of this other pre-marital attachment. A man ought not do that. If he is engaged, he should keep a fair distance from other young women. Edward did not. This offends her; she tries to maintain her "security of Edward's honor and love" -- because with news of Lucy's engagement, not only does Elinor doubt his love, she also doubts his honor.
The two ladies share this confidence as they walk along the road from Barton Park to the cottage. They are not whispering in a drawing room near Mrs. Jennings's big ears. In addition to Lucy's testimony, Elinor must see a small framed picture of Edward's face that Lucy carries, and then a letter from Edward to Lucy, in his own hand. She is wretched. Finally Lucy reveals that the lock of hair set in Edward's ring is her own gift to him.
No normal woman could bear up under such horrible news without revealing an ounce of distress, but Elinor is able. She has such practiced self-control, such mastery over her feelings. "She was almost overcome -- her heart sunk within her, and she could hardly stand; but exertion was indispensably necessary, and she struggled so resolutely against the oppression of her feelings, that her success was speedy, and for the time complete."
She's stunned not just by the loss of Edward's love or the realization that he and Lucy are a couple -- it's the horrible truth that she is in love with a dishonorable, deceptive man! Could Marianne retain her composure under such news? Could Marianne control her violent emotions? Never. The plot is designed to reveal and glorify Elinor's most sterling trait: self-control, composure, strength of will and mind. Her faith in Edward is deeply shaken, but so is her trust in herself. How did she make such an error as to entrust herself to a dishonorable man, a lying man, a two-timing man?
In this light, both sisters' relationships with their suitors is viewed more accurately, and as usual Austen presents a fascinatingly complicated situation. The sisters are different as night and day, but knowing what we know about Willoughby, it seems their men are very similar. In fact, at this point in the story, Willoughby seems to be a true and loving suitor, while Edward is presented as a blackguard. As we end Volume One, certainly this is the situation. Col. Brandon is the father of an illegitimate daughter; Edward is a deceiving philanderer, and Willoughby is a true-hearted lover. It appears Marianne's mantra is true at this point: One can never truly love a second time. Brandon cannot, and Edward cannot. Only Willoughby is free to love, and he loves Marianne. Now Jane Austen must unscramble all these falsehoods and vindicate her heroine!