First: I have never watched the Dawn Treader movie. I am operating solely from the book canon for the purposes of this oneshot.
Second, if there was one moment that to me seemed the absolute nadir of an otherwise fairly strong book, it was the moment in VoDT when Lucy, while reading Coriakin's book, was suddenly extraordinarily vain and struck by the temptation to say a spell that would make her the most beautiful girl in the world. It came out of nowhere with no foreshadowing, was never brought up again, and this sort of vanity was never shown to be a part of Lucy's character before. Given Lewis's track record with his female characters, I'm struck with the horrible suspicion that we're supposed to believe that Lucy could suddenly be so vain because she's a girl, since vanity is such a stereotypically feminine flaw.
But, as it stands, this did happen. So, I am driven to ask, why did it happen? This is an attempt at an explanation.
I own nothing.
"Then it changed and Lucy, still beautiful beyond the lot of mortals, was back in England. And Susan (who had always been the beauty of the family) came home from America. The Susan in the picture looked exactly like the real Susan only plainer and with a nasty expression. And Susan was jealous of the dazzling beauty of Lucy, but that didn't matter a bit because no one cared anything about Susan now."
—Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 130
The book, and the chance it offered to its reader, awakened a great many not-so-deeply buried feelings in Lucy Pevensie, feelings she did not like to think about. They caused her shame, these feelings, shame and guilt. Even when she did not act on them, even when she did not do so much as acknowledge them, these feelings put a strain on Lucy's relationship with her sister and prowled at the edge of her awareness for every waking moment of her life.
For as long as Lucy could remember, she could discern a difference in the way she and her sister were treated, a difference that was sometimes subtle, and sometimes not so subtle. People were just… nicer to Susan. They paid her more attention and were more likely to give her help or assistance if she asked for it, and do so gladly. Lucy didn't think that it was that Susan was older, or that Susan was naturally more polite than Lucy. Even when Lucy got to be the same age Susan had been during one of these incidents, even when she was at her most polite, strangers were just nicer to Susan.
It was only natural that this disparity in the sort of treatment the two sisters received, when Lucy was still unaware as to the reason why, confused Lucy, and annoyed her. Why should people be nicer to Susan than they were to her? What was it about Susan that made everyone treat her so differently?
And sometimes, though Lucy did not like to admit it, maybe she was not so kind to Susan as she ought to have been, because of her irritation. After all, she reasoned; Susan got so much kindness from the people they met on the street, that surely she would not miss some withheld from her by her sister. Then, Susan always looked so hurt when Lucy was short with her, and Lucy regretted it. But her frustration did not abate.
Not until Lucy reigned as a Queen of Narnia, did she understand what the difference was.
The Calormene emissaries never could resist laying the flattery on thick when their master wanted something. As Peter and Edmund were at the moment absent from Cair Paravel, Queens Susan and Lucy were today the recipients of this particular emissary's sweet talk.
"O Queen Susan, whose great beauty and grace makes the sun seem as though dim in my eyes, O Queen Lucy whose kindness and good cheer lights the halls of this palace, I have come to you on the behalf of the Tisroc (may he live forever)…"
And while the Calormene emissaries never failed to lay the flattery on thick, rarely was an omission made without a reason. So it was Susan's beauty, then, that granted her the sort of treatment she was accorded.
Lucy Pevensie was no fool. She knew she was not ugly, nor even what some would call plain. She knew that lustrous golden hair, rosy cheeks and bright blue eyes were considered charming by most, if not all, of those around her. She knew that she was pretty. But Lucy also knew that she could not compare to Susan in terms of looks—tall, gracious Susan of the long black hair that never seemed to frizz, Susan of the pale, clear complexion that never blotched or broke out in acne, Susan of the long eyelashes, Susan of the high cheekbones and patrician nose, Susan of the wide gray eyes. Lucy was pretty, but Susan was beautiful.
And Lucy Pevensie, who had lived ten years or twenty-five, depending on what time you went by, knew enough of this world and the one she had been born in, to know how it worked as regards to women.
"We thought the Duke would have been pleased if the King's Majesty would have married his daughter, but nothing came of that—"
"Squints, and has freckles," Caspian interjected shortly, as though that explained everything. And for him, and for everyone else in the cabin (sans, perhaps, Eustace), it did explain everything.
Lucy swallowed hard, her throat suddenly constricting. "Oh," she muttered. "Poor girl." She looked away, praying that none of the men, nor Reepicheep, nor Eustace, nor especially Edmund, would see the look on her face.
Poor girl indeed. Her personality, her feelings on Caspian's rejections, even her name, this was all irrelevant in the face of two things—the Duke of Galma's daughter squinted, and had freckles.
The Duke of Galma's daughter had freckles and squinted, so Caspian could deride her for it in front of witnesses without any objections or disapproval being raised over his lack of discretion. She could be passed over for marriage based on these disqualifications, without any regard for her father's wealth or political clout, and no one thought to call Caspian unreasonable for doing so. The Duke of Galma's daughter had blemished skin and poor eyesight, so no one came to her defense when she was ridiculed for these traits in public.
Not even Lucy.
Something Lucy had noticed about Narnia from the moment she was installed as Queen of that land was that chivalry existed here and in the lands around it. Chivalry existed here, straight out of the age of knights and courtly love; imagine that! But as Lucy soon came to realize, chivalry was only parsed out to a very specific sort of woman, and even then, unequally too.
She must be high-born. (Sometimes it amazed Lucy, the way the human Lords of her court treated women of common birth, even the otherwise courteous Lords, such as Peridan. How would they react, to learn that their Queens were common "peasant" girls, back in the land from which they came?)
She must be classically feminine. (Queen Lucy the Valiant rode into war at any opportunity. Queen Susan the Gentle rode into war only when a wrong so dire had been done, so dire that she simply could not let it stand. Prince Corin enjoyed Lucy's company, but it was Susan he adored as a friend, as a mother, and perhaps as other things, as he grew older.)
And most importantly, she must be beautiful, and the more beautiful, the better. (Lucy did not envy Susan her entanglement with Rabadash of Calormen, not for what it later became, but in the early days of his pursuit of her, back when he played the gallant prince, Lucy reflected that no one had ever pursued her so passionately.)
Lucy knew that her tomboyish-ness, that her eagerness to ride into battle and her willingness to wear Caspian's clothes in the absence of any women's clothes, these things were tolerated without comment only because she was a Queen. Even then, she had been considered less of a woman for it. Corin had always remarked that she was "as good as a man, or at least a boy", and no one ever considered how much it hurt Lucy, to have her femininity, her very identity as a woman, put in doubt because of her willingness to shed blood in the defense of her kingdom. She hid the calluses that sprung up on her palms, knowing how people already talked about her, and unwilling to expose herself to any more whispers that branded her "mannish."
Why did I have to be "as good as a man, or at least a boy" to be all these things? Why couldn't a woman ride into war without anyone feeling the need to compare her to a man, to explain why she was there? And then, even more than a man, I was called a "boy." A grown woman riding into battle, with the best arms and training that could be procured in all the land, her accomplishments and efforts were oftentimes not even considered equivalent to a man's. I was "as good as a boy." My efforts and contributions were considered equal to those of a green lad with little training and less experience. I was either made masculine, or made childish.
The Duke of Galma's daughter doesn't have the shield of queenship to protect her from ridicule. She has freckles, and squints. Does she spend long hours outside? Does she spend long hours poring over books, perhaps to help her father in the running of his duchy? She could be athletic and well-learned, possessed of a good temper, quick wit, and keen mind. She could be responsible and practical. But none of this matters. She squints and has freckles. She's not "enough of a woman." She's too masculine for Caspian. And in this language of chivalry, everyone understands why that makes her unsuitable to be the Queen of Narnia.
Here, Lucy knew that she would have respect. She knew that she would be listened to, paid deference to—far better treatment than she could expect of almost anyone back in England. She knew that none of the men on the Dawn Treader, and especially not Reepicheep, would ever treat her poorly, or be rude to her. But she also knew that this was not the result of any personal affection they had for her; these men could be perfectly affectionate to a woman, and still be rude to her, still not listen to her, still not respect her. These men respected her because she was a Queen.
And what would have happened, if Susan had been brought here too? Well, Lucy knew what would have happened. She would still have been respected, still would have been listened to, but they would listen to and respect Susan first. Susan's opinion would be asked first, Susan's opinion would be given the most weight, and Lucy knew that it wouldn't have been because Susan was older.
It was no better back in England. Back in England, no one bothered trying to hide behind the code of chivalry to explain why they treated some women well and others less so. No one ever said it was because some women were more beautiful than others, but in England, people were significantly less subtle about this sort of thing anyways.
In England, Susan Pevensie was "the beauty of the family." Lucy did not get so much as a passing glance or a mention in comparison to her, except for adults to cluck in sympathy about how plain she was in comparison to Susan.
But I'm not plain! Lucy wanted to shout. You only think I am because you're comparing me to Susan.
In England, no one cared about Lucy's love of classical literature, Susan's love of swimming, or their shared passion for archery. All anyone seemed to care about was that Susan was beautiful, and Lucy was not. "Beautiful" was the only compliment anyone ever seemed capable of giving to Susan, and of Lucy, the kindest anyone ever said was that she was a "nice-looking girl, but not as pretty as Susan." And even though Lucy would have far rather been complimented on her grasp of Greek mythology or her skill with an archery bow, it stung deeply to be considered plain, to always be judged against Susan's beauty and found lacking.
By now, she'd gotten used to most of the boys at school paying her attention until a prettier girl crossed their line of sight. Once a prettier girl had stepped into the room, for most of the boys it was as though Lucy Pevensie had never existed. They didn't pay nearly so much attention, showed even less respect and consideration for her than they had before, and were at times downright rude.
That was the gist of it. Susan was "beautiful", so she was worth more. By comparison, Lucy was "common", so she was worth less. The only thing that hurt more than this revelation was the realization that more than anyone else, Lucy resented Susan for their differing lots in life.
I am pitiful, she decided bitterly. Aslan's faithful servant, Queen Lucy the Valiant, is envious of her sister's beauty. Queen Lucy the Valiant is less kind to her sister than she ought to be, because Queen Susan the Gentle is treated more courteously than she is thanks to her beauty. Queen Lucy the Valiant wants to become more beautiful.
It was pathetic, Lucy told herself, to wish for this, to wish to be more beautiful, so that she would be treated better. She ought to be able to persevere, to not notice or be bothered by the differing degrees of courtesy extended to women based on how pleasing they were to look at. She ought to be better than this.
But no matter how much she told herself that, it couldn't scrub that yearning away from her heart. So when she saw a spell in the magician's book that could make her beautiful beyond the lot of mortals, Lucy's very hands shook with the desire to say the words that would grant her beauty.
And the thing that made Lucy feel the most shame of all?
It was the face of Aslan that stopped her from casting the spell. That, and nothing else.
When she came home from America, Susan was just as beautiful as ever. No, even more so now. She'd grown breasts and hips, had begun dressing more like a woman, and the difference it made was enormous, even for someone as naturally lovely as Susan Pevensie. She looked more like a woman of eighteen years than a girl of fourteen. And Lucy, going back to being outshined by her sister, yet again, swallowed down on her envy as best she could.
"Oh, I hate these shoes," Susan groaned softly, stopping to crouch low on the steps and rub her ankles.
Susan had been invited to a party recently by one of her classmates, and had taken Lucy along with her. For herself, Lucy hadn't thought much of the party. Parties here were never quite as bright, lively or scintillating as parties in Narnia had been; parties were never complete without a Faun on the flutes or a dance around a crackling fire pit. Add to the fact that everyone there treated her like a little girl (which is to say, like an imbecile totally incapable of rational thought), and Lucy grew very bored, very quickly. But Susan was happy, quite happy there, so Lucy said nothing and did not press her sister to leave.
A consequence of that was that it was quite dark once Susan and Lucy were able to tear themselves away and head back towards home. It had been raining recently, and the slick pavement gleamed in the lamplight.
The shoes Susan was talking about were high-heeled leather pumps, black and shining. Lucy could understand why Susan might be in pain from wearing them; there was blood crusted on Susan's heels and the shoes looked incredibly unsupportive. "Why did you wear them, then?" Lucy asked, frowning down at her sister.
Susan looked up at her and smiled faintly. "I am constrained by fashion, I'm afraid." Susan was indeed very fashionable, with her purple cotton dress and its fitted waist, her fitted black jacket, those pumps, and her gloves and nylon stockings. The only way in which Susan didn't seem the absolute picture of what was fashionable among young women was the lack of makeup on her face, and her long, straight hair.
Be it in Narnia or in England, Susan was the very picture of fashion and feminine beauty, at least in Lucy's eyes. Lucy did not particularly want to look the way England thought fashionable young ladies should look, but when Susan dressed that way, it looked… nice. Susan could make sackcloth look nice.
Lucy would have loved to be so beautiful.
Then, Susan took her shoes off before standing up, smoothing down her skirt as she did so. "Susan!" Lucy protested. "You're going to get your stockings dirty. You'll have to throw them away."
Susan didn't look at Lucy as she responded. Instead, she cast her eyes all around the street as she said, "I was going to have to throw them away anyways, Lu, thanks to the blood. It'll be easier to walk without these things on." She holds out her hand. "Will you hold my hand, please?"
Lucy scowled at her sister. "Susan, I'm ten years old. Or twenty-five, but either way I'm too old to be holding your hand. Why—"
The pleading look Susan cast at her stopped any further protests dead in their tracks. "Please?" she asked quietly, an odd tightness in her voice.
Lucy took her hand, and they started off down the street again.
As they walked, they passed by a group of three young men. These young men stopped their progress down the hall to look very hard at Susan. One of them whistled. Lucy clenched her teeth; they did not even seem to see her, but as usual, Susan's good looks and attention to fashion turned many heads.
Except, Susan didn't seem very happy to have their attention.
Her shoulders stiffened and her grip on Lucy's hand grew so tight that it was almost painful. Lucy looked up at her sister's face, frowning. Susan did not seem to notice her scrutiny. She stared straight ahead, her gray eyes glassy and full of some emotion that Lucy couldn't identify, but didn't like the looks of. Her lips were mashed together. Lucy squeezed her sister's hand reassuringly.
Lucy was still envious of Susan's beauty.
But suddenly, she wasn't quite as envious as she used to be.