“[Marianne] was sitting by Edward, and in taking his tea from Mrs. Dashwood, his hand passed so directly before her, as to make a ring, with a plait of hair in the centre, very conspicuous on one of his fingers.
‘I never saw you wear a ring before, Edward,’ she cried. ‘Is that Fanny’s hair? I remember her promising to give you some. But I should have thought her hair had been darker.’
… He coloured very deeply, and giving a momentary glance at Elinor, replied, ‘Yes, it is my sister’s hair. The setting always casts a different shade on it, you know.'” (Sense and Sensibility 128).
Of course, this leads to one of the more painful episodes for Elinor – everyone, including herself, assumes that the hair in the ring is not, in fact, Fanny’s, but Elinor’s. Her mother and sister think she’s given him some, but she knows she hasn’t, so figures he must have somehow stolen it (I’m not sure how – secretly cut it off when she wasn’t noticing? Bribed the maid, perhaps, to pick it out of her hairbrush, or cut a piece when she’s doing Elinor’s hair? Whatever…). So then this hair ring becomes “that flattering proof of [his affection] which he constantly wore round his finger” (132), bolstering her hope in his love for her. And then she is shattered to find that the ring is the very opposite: it’s proof of his engagement to another woman whose hair the ring contains – not Fanny’s, not Elinor’s, Lucy’s. Poor Elinor.
One of the things that surprises me in this episode is how Edward, the wannabe clergyman, tells such a bald-faced lie – not even “bending the truth a little”, but just flat-out lying. I suppose to Austen’s society, concealment and politeness are more important than truth (this isn’t the only instance in her novels where that becomes apparent). So much for “I cannot tell a lie, sir” – who was that, George Washington? Or Abe Lincoln? I wonder if puritanical America set a different value on truth-telling than Georgian England. Perhaps in the latter, maintaining social connections and the rules that governed them (e.g. ‘keep your word of honour’) had a higher value than abstract moral precepts such as ‘truth’ – individual morality vs. collective values. So, if it is a choice between breaking your promise of secrecy and telling a lie, you lie. Just my guess, though.
The other thing I wonder about is why he keeps wearing the ring even when he’s not with Lucy – why does he keep this reminder of his unwanted engagement on his finger all the time? But probably he would have made a promise to her to keep wearing it, and while he can, apparently, lie, he can’t break a promise. Not Edward, that’s the whole point of the plot of this story. No matter how much he regrets having given his promise, he is honour-bound to keep it, and keep it he will, even if it kills him.