While the character traits of Miss Steele seemingly leave much to be desired in the area of respectability by today's standards, her actions can be clearly understood when the setting and time is examined during which Sense and Sensibility was written. In England during the early 1800s, the economic future of a young woman depended solely upon her entering into a marriage with a man of means. Life for women in the 1800s was completely dictated by male rule, and if a young woman was not successful in "winning" a husband for herself, her future was bleak, indeed.
A woman could not announce her intention to remain single without attracting social disapproval, nor could she follow a desired profession since all professions were all closed to women. In a situation so utterly desperate, desperate measures were clearly in order, and Lucy Steele merely did what she had to do to in order to give herself a life containing at least some measure of hope as opposed to one of poverty and desperation.
For women living in Great Britain in the 1800s, old English laws sculpted a life for them that was in some opinions similar to the worst conditions of slavery. The law of primogeniture, in which the first-born son inherited the estate or office of his father with little or no provision being made for the females left behind, helped set the grounds for acts of female desperation. While the social customs and expectations stemming from old laws of discrimination require a substantial leap of imagination today before then can even be reviewed, the fact remains that they were in existence until the most recent past.
At the time in which Sense and Sensibility took place, those who were wealthy due to an inheritance looked down upon people who worked for and earned their living. This view was primarily the result of a culture in which an upper-class monarchy had long ruled over the lower class masses at its leisure. With no other means of securing a decent future, it was both necessary and socially expected that a young woman make a good marriage that would ensure her economic future. Women of no fortune often could not attract husbands, however, because the barons generally desired to marry women who might add to their own estate's worth. This is the reason that the other seeming villain in the novel, John Willoughby, married for reasons of money rather than love. Under old English law, all property owned by the woman were immediately transferred to the husband upon marriage. Thus, Willoughby's act was also one to ensure his economic future although it ended his prospects for his emotional happiness.
Although Austen somewhat irritatingly refers to most of her characters repeatedly by their surnames rather than their first names, and sometimes provides at least two or more members of each family in such a way that the reader is forced to attempt to interpret to whom the author is referring or projecting actions, the desperate situations of the various females - as well as that of Willoughby - are presented and examined in her book.
While many women today are able to choose careers for themselves, and choose whether or not to marry and have children, this is a relatively new status for those of the female gender. Not all women today enjoy the status, but in the 1800s, this status was not available at all to women in Great Britain. Living in a state similar to slavery, they had little choice but to obey the men in charge of their lives, partly because men held all the resources and women had no independent means of subsistence. According to William Blackstone's comments on English law, marriage was considered strictly as a civil contract with little regard to individual passions. Of marriage, itself, Blackstone observed, "the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during marriage (Blackstone)."
The situation as chronicled in Austen's book begins with the account of the Dashwood family, which had been "long-settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park (Austen, 1)." They were in the wealthy class of landowners with inheritances known as the "gentry." When the elder Dashwood dies, however, instead of leaving the estate to the presumed rightful heir - his nephew Henry who, with his family had been living at the estate and caring for the elderly Dashwood - all are shocked to find that the estate goes instead into the possession of Henry's son by a previous marriage, a Mr. John Dashwood and John's four-year-old son, Harry. When John's father, Henry, dies shortly thereafter, his wife and three daughters who are half-sisters to John Dashwood then find themselves in a new and extreme situation of having no male to provide for them, and no way of providing for themselves. After John's wife moves into the estate thus openly displaying her claims to it, the women who had been living there until the death of the husband and father were forced to move to a rental cottage.
Had the three daughters of Henry received the inheritance that was rightfully theirs, the gentry would have considered them ideal choices for marital contracts. Without wealth, however, their beauty, talents and charm might be noted, but were without economic value. Lucy Steele enters the picture even more desperate than the Dashwood girls because she has even less to offer. Already desperate enough to be willingly involved in a secret engagement for four years, when her "intended" loses his fortune to his brother, she quickly marries the brother - not because of passions and love, but because she realizes she will have no financial provision in her future unless she marries it.
How this state of cultural desperation for women, in general, came about can be traced back into the dim and darker ages when certain shifts in philosophy took place. Women were not always without a voice, they were not always without protection under the law, and were not always regarded as slaves who must be obedient to male dominance or risk wrath and punishment with disobedience. Those moments of equality, however, were short-lived in the past, and for the most part were superseded as quickly as possible with laws designed by the ruling males to further protect the ruling males.
With some irony, the discriminatory concepts can be traced back to early theological views which were perpetuated by those fortunate enough to have received educations, and therefore were capable of writing about and furthering their personal views: the early church patriarchy. Evidence indicates that as late as the 1790s, the Malleus Maleficarum, a handbook for witch hunters, examiners, torturers and executioners written in 1486 by Dominican monks, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, was still being used as a proper tool in which women could be legally accused of, and then sentenced to death for being sorceresses.
With the Malleus, which was formally authorized by a Papal Bull written by Pope Innocent VIII, open hunting season was declared on women, especially herb gatherers, midwives, widows and spinsters. Estimates suggest that as many as seven million women were executed during the centuries of the European witch hunts, with entire female populations of townships sometimes being rounded up and summarily dispatched (Malleus). The disregard for females was not limited only to the European mind, however. Transcripts of the infamous Salem witch trials suggest that the Malleus Maleficarum was referenced during the prosecution by Nathaniel Hawthorne's great-grandfather, a Puritan judge (Bishop).
With the rights of women long eroding over the course of centuries, and with little hope for change because women were without vote or voice in the formation of laws, women simply had to live with their lot as outlined and handed down by the males in charge. In Great Britain, during the setting of Sense and Sensibility, the primary duty of the woman was to bear heirs (hopefully male) for the estate. Most women had little choice but to marry even though upon doing so everything they owned, inherited and earned was automatically transferred to their husband. Without voice, property or rights, only a woman's husband could seek prosecution for any felony committed against the women. Additionally, rights to the woman's body did not belong to the woman, but belonged to the husband. This was assured by law, as well as with marriage vows in which the woman, herself, swore an oath to obey her husband.
By the end of the 18th century, individual liberty was being hotly debated. The lack of rights of women was being questioned (Martin-Bowen). While the prospect of losing all that one owned by way of marriage might have seemed a harsh loss for those women fortunate enough to have means, for the Lucy Steeles it was not a concern. She had nothing to give to the marriage except the hopeful prospect of future heirs. Although she might not have married for…