Let's cut to the chase: The insufferable, manipulative Miss Lucy Steele has been SECRETLY ENGAGED TO EDWARD for four years! I know!
This makes so much sense - to Elinor and to us - when we think about Edward's conduct. Every time it started to seem obvious that Edward had feelings for her, he pulled back. He arrived at their house after being in Plymouth - WHERE LUCY LIVES - and was absolutely devastated/depressed. Why? Well, you've spent time with both Lucy and Elinor - wouldn't you rather hang out with Elinor? And wouldn't you be sad if you had a lifelong commitment to spend time with Lucy instead?
Let's get to the worse part: Lucy swears Elinor to complete secrecy, and Elinor promises not to tell a soul. With Elinor, this means not her mother, not Marianne - nobody.
Lets get to the worst part: Lucy may be ignorant, illiterate, and not particularly classy, but she is street-smart and manipulative. She has sorted out that Elinor likes Edward, and quite possibly suspects that Edward may like Elinor as well, and she wants not only to claim Edward as her territory, but to completely crush Elinor in the process. After telling Elinor that they are engaged, she proves it with the following things - all of which are symbolic of a secret engagement. (Some of these have come or may come into play with Marianne, so here's the full list.)
1. Lucy possesses a miniature portrait of Edward.
2. Edward's ring contains a lock of Lucy's hair. (By the by - I guess this means that Edward has a "type" of sorts, since given the earlier suppositions, this must mean that Lucy Steele and Elinor Dashwood have the same or similarly-colored hair.)
3. They correspond with one another. (Letters between unmarried young men and women were restricted to those who were engaged and those who were already related.)
4. He sneaks off to visit her about twice a year (under pretext of visiting her uncle, who may or may not know of the secret engagement).
Lucy toys with Elinor, saying perhaps she ought to break it off and asking Elinor's opinion on the matter - she's obviously fishing to see if Elinor is interested in Edward, as well as lording it over Elinor. And the mention of the correspondence is especially bitchy, because it does more than substantiate Lucy's claim that they're engaged - she waves Edward's letter to her under Elinor's nose, pretty much taunting her with it. She might as well caper about chanting "I got a le-tter and you go-ot nothing!", with possibly a "na-na-na-na-na-na" for good measure.
Elinor saw that it was his hand, and she could doubt no longer. This picture, she had allowed herself to believe, might have been accidentally obtained; it might not have been Edward's gift; but a correspondence between them by letter, could subsist only under a positive engagement, could be authorised by nothing else; for a few moments, 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.Poor, poor Elinor. She's just received soul-crushing news and she's not at liberty to tell a single person about it. And we've reached the end of Volume I. Am I right in thinking there's no way you can put this book down now? If you'd like to see a filmed version of this conversation, look no further - and with subtitles in Spanish!
"Writing to each other," said Lucy, returning the letter into her pocket, "is the only comfort we have in such long separations. Yes, I have one other comfort in his picture, but poor Edward has not even that. If he had but my picture, he says he should be easy. I gave him a lock of my hair set in a ring when he was at Longstaple last, and that was some comfort to him, he said, but not equal to a picture. Perhaps you might notice the ring when you saw him?"
"I did," said Elinor, with a composure of voice, under which was concealed an emotion and distress beyond any thing she had ever felt before. She was mortified, shocked, confounded.
Fortunately for her, they had now reached the cottage, and the conversation could be continued no farther. After sitting with them a few minutes, the Miss Steeles returned to the Park, and Elinor was then at liberty to think and be wretched.