Lady Susan

“She does not confine herself to that sort of honest flirtation which satisfies most people, but aspires to the more delicious gratification of making a whole family miserable.”

I did after all decide to forego Sense and Sensibility in order to participate in the group read of Lady Susan at Austenprose, and am quite glad I did so. It forced me to take a deeper look at the work than I might have otherwise, and also enables me to read the insightful opinions of others. Check out Laurel Ann’s series of posts if you’re interested!

This epistolary novelette  is the border between Austen’s melodramatic juveneilia and later widely read works. It lacks the polish and refinement of her later works, though a clean copy rewritten in 1805 suggests that she later considered revisiting it. What it wants in plot, however, it makes up for in wit and characterization, perhaps providing a side of Jane not seen in her other novels. In addition, the heroine is a stark contrast from her usual fare.

Lady Susan Vernon, recently widowed, must leave her current lodgings and stay with the family of her husband’s brother in the country. Her reputation precedes her, however, and Mrs. Catherine Vernon is right to be worried when her younger brother Reginald seems to take an interest in “the most accomplished coquette in England.” Meanwhile Lady Susan is  bent on forcing a loveless match onto her fifteen-year-old daughter Frederica, to make her a fortune and be rid of her. The action is conveyed in letters mostly between Lady Susan and her equally conniving confidante Alicia Johnson, and between voice of reason Catherine Vernon and her mother Lady de Courcy.

Isabella Thorpe is unpleasant, and Lady Catherine odious, but Lady Susan is downright malicious. Being privy to her innermost thoughts I personally was able to escape the seduction she practices so well on most characters, but if not likable she is nevertheless intriguing. Lady Susan is a mistress in more ways than one. She thrives on control, and only seems to like those characters whom she is able to manipulate or use to her advantage (which seems to be mostly men). At the same time, however, she has full confidence in her power of eloquence and attempts to disarm even her opponents. Austen shows off her irony when Lady Susan complains that she is “tired of submitting [her] will to the caprices of others!”

While Lady Susan herself is convincing and fully rounded, younger characters like Frederica and Reginald lack the depth and maturity of later Austen creations. Of Frederica we only have the conflicting reports of her mother and aunt, while Reginald comes across primarily as fickle and foolish. Commenters pointed out that other Austen heroes make mistakes in their judgment, most notably Darcy and Edmund, but in my opinion poor Reginald has more error and less redemption. Nothing like Henry Tilney! It seems his folly is primarily meant to emphasize the prowess of Lady Susan.

There are some interesting consequences of the epistolary form for this novel, as in the various letters we see different sides of the characters. Catherine Vernon’s wary account of Lady Susan’s demure behavior and deceptively syrupy tone is a marked contrast to the titular character’s letters to Alicia, in which she reveals all her machinations. This is even more true for characters like Mr. Vernon and Frederica whom we only know through the descriptions of others. In addition, the absence of a reliable third-person narrator means that every event or written opinion is open to interpretation. Is Lady Susan ever sincere, or does every sentence have a hidden agenda? The form also has limitations for Austen, however, especially in that it is not conducive to dialogue. This takes away some of the immediacy of the story, which is especially apparent in the conclusion. However, I don’t believe Lady Susan could have been as effective in a narrative format, and if Austen had expanded the ending and added a bit more anecdotal dialogue the result would have been more satisfactory.

As I mentioned, her wit is fully present in the novelette, especially from the pen of Lady Susan. We are treated to quips such as “facts are such horrid things,” and “artlessness will never do in love matters.” She goes on to say that grace and manner alone will bring suitors, and that jealousy is the best support for kindling love! You cannot help but marvel at her social knowledge, even at a young age.

The discovery of this much-overlooked story reminded me all over again of why I love Jane, as her writing itself can often be lost in the flurry of films and spin-offs. Not that I mind them, course! This is my third read for the Everything Austen Challenge.

Updated to add: I was fortunate enough to win the giveaway for for the Penguin copy of Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sandition. I look forward to reading the other included works. Thanks again Laurel Ann, for this an all you did in hosting the soiree!

Published in: on September 14, 2009 at 2:43 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I loved reading it as part of the Soiree also. I think it really enhanced my reading of Lady Susan.

  2. I haven’t read this short novel (for shame!), and now you’ve got me curious. Love the in-depth review and character sketches. Great post, and good luck with the rest of your Everything Austen challenge items!

  3. […] Ontranto by Horace Walpole, More Die of Heartbreak by Saul Bellow, Chekhov’s Major Plays, and Lady Susan by Jane […]

  4. […] Lady Susan, by Jane Austen (group read) […]

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