Mrs. Palmer informs the Dashwood sisters that she and her husband will be leaving shortly to entertain guests at their own home at Cleveland. She tries to persuade Elinor and Marianne to go to town with them that winter or to join them at Cleveland for Christmas. She enlists the support of her husband, who rarely joins in his wife's discussions except to offer a cynical comment about the weather. Mrs. Palmer enjoys joking about her husband's droll humor and dry wit, though Elinor realizes that, with such a foolish wife, Mr. Palmer has no choice but to act this way.
Mrs. Palmer tells Elinor that her home is right near Willoughby's estate in Combe, though he is rarely there. She also relates that she saw Colonel Brandon in town earlier that week, and he confirmed her suspicion that Willoughby and Marianne are "attached" to one another. Mrs. Palmer adds that Colonel Brandon would have liked to marry Mrs. Palmer if only her parents had not had such high standards. Of course, the prudent Elinor knows to take Mrs. Palmer's observations and claims with a grain of salt.
When the Palmers return to Cleveland, Sir John Middleton invites Anne and Lucy Steele, two young ladies from Exeter, to visit at Barton. In an attempt to foster ties of friendship between the Steeles and the Dashwoods, Sir John praises each pair of sisters to the other. However, when they actually meet, Elinor and Marianne are annoyed by the way in which the Steele sisters indulge Lady Middleton's children and discuss where the greatest population of genteel young men can be found. Elinor accepts that Lucy is clever, but she finds her ill-read and sorely lacking in education. However, for their part, the Steele sisters are fond of the Dashwood girls, and Lucy Steele makes a considerable effort to become close with Elinor.
Sir John mentions the name of Edward Ferrars in one of his numerous attempts to gently tease Elinor. Upon hearing his name, Anne remarks that she knows him very well. One day soon after, while they are walking together from the park to the cottage, Lucy asks Elinor if she has ever met Edward's mother, Mrs. Ferrars. This question mildly surprises Elinor; she assumes that Lucy must be somehow connected to Robert Ferrars. She is utterly incredulous when Lucy confesses to her that she has been secretly engaged to Edward for four years! Edward was a pupil of Lucy's uncle in Plymouth, and that is where their relationship began. Lucy says that they have been forced to conceal their engagement because Lucy has no fortune. However, as she informs Elinor, Edward wears a ring with a lock of her hair in it as a constant reminder of their attachment. Elinor, astonished and sick with grief, can hardly believe Lucy's confession.
In contrast to the Dashwood sisters, the Steeles lack education, refinement, and integrity. Anne Steele is nearly thirty, plain-looking, and rather simple-minded, whereas the Dashwood girls are in their late teens, beautiful, and insightful. Twenty-three-year-old Lucy Steele, although shrewd, smart, and pretty, lacks any real elegance and grace and never received the benefits of a good education. In their shameless obsequiousness toward Lady Middleton, the Steele sisters provide a definite contrast with the polite yet always honest Dashwood girls.
When Elinor comments on Lucy's lack of education, she is not referring to formal education in "public" schools such as Eton or universities such as Oxford; these were reserved solely for genteel men. In Austen's day, few people perceived the need for higher education for women. Austen herself studied briefly under the private tutelage of a Mrs. Cawley, the sister of one of her uncles, and spent a short period of time at a boarding school in Reading; this was her only education outside of her family. Within her family, however, she studied drawing, painting, and piano. Women of the genteel classes were expected to acquire these skills, or "accomplishments." In this novel, Elinor is accomplished in drawing while Marianne is an accomplished pianist. But the Steeles have no such skills to recommend them. Since the main purpose of these accomplishments was to help a woman acquire a husband, Elinor had even further reason to be surprised when the unaccomplished Lucy Steele announced her secret engagement to Edward Ferrars.
Austen ends Part I of the novel with Elinor's disappointment and astonishment upon learning of Lucy's secret engagement to Edward. Although this chapter (22) links directly to the next (23), Austen interrupts the plot at this point to focus on her central character. Lucy's revelation is a critical turning point in Elinor's thinking even if not in the development of the story because the eldest Miss Dashwood's slim hopes of eventually marrying Edward are now completely dashed. Only in the next chapter will she begin to digest this news with her characteristic sense and rationality: she reasons that Edward's engagement to Lucy must have been the product of a youthful infatuation rather than a lasting, genuine affection.