I came late to Jane Austen. While everyone else was reading Pride and Prejudice for O Level I was with a group who were fast tracked, avoiding O Level English Literature, to use the time to read more. I wasn’t much impressed with the MGM 1940 film they watched of P&P: the young girls all seemed to giggle a lot and were dressed like shepherdesses. In the event I didn’t do A Level English Literature either. Jane Austen had to wait.
She had to wait until my adult reading years. I have read both P&P and Persuasion several times and her other novels at least twice. And biographies: Jane Austen, a life by Claire Tomalin and The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne. This second biography, despite its questionable title, is interestingly organised around objects in the author’s life.
But I had never read her ‘other works’, those novels or fragments that were not published in her lifetime: Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon. And then finally I couldn’t resist the temptation of a new Jane Austen.
I needed something to clear my palate after a rather dark novel recently and so I picked up Lady Susan. It is an early work, never published in her lifetime, although she did make a fair copy as if at some point she was preparing it for publication. It is an epistolary novel, told through 41 letters and a postscript in just 60 pages.
The story is somewhat racy, featuring a woman of questionable morals, a coquette. Not only is she sexually active with several men, but quite ruthless in her pursuit and use of them. Lady Susan is extremely lively and attractive and recently widowed, but she needs to leave the house of the Manwarings’ in a hurry. We learn from the opening letters that not only has she seduced Mr Manwaring but also a visitor intended for the Manwarings’ daughter. Lady Susan has plans for her own neglected daughter to marry him. She goes to stay with her deceased husband’s brother, where she is already in disfavour because some years before she tried to prevent his marriage.
For sport, and perhaps to keep her hand in, she ensures that the wife’s brother, Reginald de Courcy, becomes her intimate friend. It is testament to her powers that she succeeds in this when he already knew about her disgraceful reputation and when the mores of the time would usually prevent any intimacy between them. Her plans are ultimately thwarted, but not before we have been shown her full range of skills with men and women and her bullying cruelty to her daughter, Frederica.
Reading Lady Susan
It is a challenge to read a novel formed by letters. At first it was really hard to work out who all these people were, and their relationships. I solved my problem by making a chart. I had the same problem with Evelina, by Fanny Burney. In her introduction in the Penguin edition, Margaret Drabble suggests that epistolary novels were more popular in the late 18th early 19th centuries, for women in particular spent a great deal of time writing letters to family members and friends. Jane Austen herself was a voluminous correspondent. It’s how we know so much about her life.
Writing Lady Susan
In the introduction Margaret Drabble discusses the limits of the epistolary form. It was also the original idea for Sense and Sensibility and you can trace this in its plot. The author must introduce to the reader the correspondents and their social circle who are known to each other, but not to the reader. For the novel to be authentic every letter writer is, to some extent, unreliable, and at least self-serving.
The first letter is from Lady Susan, and shows Jane Austen’s skill in alerting the reader to something not quite right:
My dear brother,
I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted of spending some weeks with you at Churchill, and therefore if quite convenient to you and Mrs Vernon to receive me at present, I shall hope within a few days to be introduced to a sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with. (p43, letter 1)
So why does Lady Susan need a new place to stay so urgently, and why has she not previously met her sister-in-law? The answers to both these questions are revealed in letters between different correspondents and reflect no good upon Lady Susan.
The second challenge of the form is the frequent changes of point of view. The first letter is short, the second (also from Lady Susan, but to her confidante) gives us a different view of the events. The third is from the sister-in-law to her mother (hope you are still with me) giving her account of the inconvenience of the impending visit and some background and responses to Lady Susan.
And every letter must add something to the story, move it on, reveal something about the writer, its recipient and about Lady Susan. Again, it is a remarkable skill in one so young that Jane Austen achieves this.
At the end of the novel after 41 letters, Jane Austen gives up the letters and summarises the final events. Lady Susan gets her comeuppance, the dim but rich young man she selected for her daughter.
It is also a challenge to write a novel (in any form) in which the main character is evil, difficult to like or sympathise with. There are some – Lolita by Nabokov, Money by Martin Amis for example. They are both written in the first person, which may or may not be relevant. Lady Susan is reviled by all the letter-writers, except herself and her confidante. And they get plenty of opportunity to show this. Again, it is Jane Austen’s skill to make Lady Susan a real person, rather than a cipher for badness. Nice young women in challenging circumstances are much more sympathetic characters. It is surprising that a young woman of 20 was skilled enough to make such a good job of it.
But Lady Susan does provide us with the pleasures of a bad person justifying themselves and revealing their darker side in unguarded prose. Here is Lady Susan planning her attack on her sister-in-law’s brother, Reginald de Courcy. She has been complaining to her confidante about being bored at her brother’s residence.
There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority. I have disconcerted him already with my calm reserve; and it shall be my endeavour to humble the pride of these de Courcies still lower, to convince Mrs Vernon that her sisterly cautions have been bestowed in vain, and to persuade Reginald that she has scandalously belied me. This project will serve at least to amuse me, and prevent my feeling so acutely this dreadful separation from you and all whom I love. (p52 letter 7)
But the risqué subject matter was not to the taste of the new century, according to Margaret Drabble, which might have influenced Jane Austen’s decision never to publish. The terrors of the French Revolution and anxieties of the wars with France, together with reaction to the excesses of the Georgian period resulted in a changed view of morality, the introduction of what we have come to see as Victorian attitudes. People thought it was better to hide vice, along with ankles and sex generally, rather than explore it in novels.
A review can be found that considers Lady Susan alongside Jane Austen’s other novels, on Australian Whispering Gums here.
An interesting look at 2013 as a celebration of Jane Austen and associated events from the Los Angeles Review of Books in January 2014, Jane Austen, Feminist Icon by Devoney Looser.
Lady Susan by Jane Austen, in Penguin Classics series; included in the same volume are The Watsons and Sanditon. pp200
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