When fellow blogger Adam over at Roof Beam Reader described Jane Austen’s Lady Susan as “saucy” I immediately had two thoughts: 1) I must read this book immediately, and 2) I have the title for a future blog post! When the name Jane Austen comes to mind, one thinks of genteel heroines, formal balls, and happy endings where the girl ends up with the right guy (following some misdirection of course). It all seems quite straight-laced and proper. Well forget everything you thought you knew as Lady Susan shows a completely different side to the woman who penned such classics as Emma and Pride and Prejudice.
Written in 1794 when Austen was still a teenager but not published until 1871, the title “heroine” of this novel is a far cry from the genteel and kind-hearted Elizabeth Bennet. In fact, I use the term “heroine” in the loosest since of the word as Lady Susan Vernon could actually be considered more of an anti-heroine or villain. A manipulator who loves nothing more than seducing both single and married men, she has the reputation as “the most accomplished coquette in England.” This is a title to which she takes a measure of pride. Lady Susan views her assets of beauty and charm as the means of bending the male persuasion to her will and demonstrating her dominance over her female counterparts.
“There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority.”
See what I mean by saucy? Sexuality is often met with severe consequences in the main novels of Jane Austen. Louisa Musgrove suffers a horrendous fall in Persuasion. The adulterous Maria Bertram of Mansfield Park faces banishment for her sins. Lady Susan doesn’t meet any such dark outcomes; she just continues along with her wild ways perfectly content to just be herself. She is also the oldest of Austen’s main characters at the age of 35, several years apart from 27-year-old spinster Anne Eliot of Persuasion. When we are introduced to her, Lady Susan is a recent widow, arriving to stay with her brother- and sister-in-law, Charles and Catherine Vernon. Mrs. Vernon is none too pleased for the visit as we learn that her unwanted guest attempted to halt her marriage to Charles some time ago. When Catherine’s brother arrives about a week later, he soon becomes the latest victim to fall under Lady Susan’s seductive spell. It is interesting to note Austen’s treatment of male characters in this novel. Most of them appear downright idiotic as their complete refusal to see past all of the false charms. Unfortunately, I can’t defend my gender too strongly as men continue to be led astray by the wanton manipulations of the fairer sex. Perhaps the brilliant Ms. Jane understood the timelessness of certain types of stupidity.
Another difference in Lady Susan from the main six is in the treatment of that holiest institution called matrimony. In Austen’s major novels, the marriage plot serves as a means of salvation for most of her female characters. However, Lady Susan uses the concept of marriage as another weapon in her arsenal. As a fresh widow, the novel begins with her need to flee the estate of the Manwaring family due to her affairs with the married Mr. Manwaring as well as the daughter’s young beau (quite a busy lady indeed). Lady Susan has her own daughter named Frederica who she is desperately trying to marry off to a wealthy but quite loathsome suitor. After getting expelled from her boarding school, the sixteen-year-old Frederica also arrives to stay with the Vernons. Catherine becomes quite attached to the daughter who is completely opposite in nature to her domineering mother. The only other married couple in the book is Susan’s friend and confidante Alicia Johnson. Although she is the only person to which our main character seems to genuinely respect, this does not save Mrs. Johnson from Susan’s wicked tongue:
“Of what a mistake you were guilty in marrying a Man of his age! – just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the Gout – too old to be agreeable, and too young to die.”
With friends like these right?
The situation at the Vernon estate becomes more interesting with both the arrivals of Lady Susan’s daughter as well as Catherine’s brother Reginald. At this point, our anti-heroine goes from sauciness to downright deplorable as we see from her interactions with her child. Further complications arise when Frederica becomes enamored with the young Reginald. Despite her reputation of wickedness, I can’t help but really like the character of Lady Susan. She is the perfect mirror opposite to all of Austen’s main characters and a rebel to society’s ideas of what a woman should be. Rather than become dependent on a man for comfort and financial support, Lady Susan uses her “dangerous abilities” to advance in the world. Also, she wears her coquettish nature with pride.
Another appeal to this work which could also be called a drawback is the epistolary format. Writing letters was one of Austen’s strengths, and she uses her skills in this area brilliantly. I remember an old school assignment where we had to write a letter about the same event but to two different people. Reading this book reminded me of that assignment as we get to see the many different “faces” of Lady Susan. She can be completely genteel and elegant in one letter while dark and mischievous in another. Due to the limitations of this structure, Austen would abandon the epistolary format and write novels in the more traditional third-person style. It was a lot of fun to see Austen’s wit and clever banter on display through Lady Susan’s letters.
In addition to Lady Susan, my copy also had two incomplete works by Jane Austen. Last year, I reviewed a completed version of The Watsons titled Emma Watson by Joan Aiken. It is a shame that Austen abandoned this work as it contained the bones of yet another classic with some truly outstanding characters. It is believed that Austen stopped writing it due to the loss of her father. As the main character’s father was severely ill, this work perhaps was too autobiographical for its writer at the time. Fortunately, the name “Emma” would be recycled by Austen for use in another novel (you may have heard of it). I recently reread The Watsons and was drawn to this passage near the end when Emma is in the sanctuary of her father’s room:
“In his chamber, Emma was at peace from the dreadful mortifications of an unequal society, and family discord-from the immediate endurance of hard-hearted prosperity, low-minded conceit, and wrong-headed folly, engrafted on an untoward disposition.-She still suffered from them in contemplation of their existence, in memory and in prospect, but for the moment, she ceased to be tortured by their effects.-She was at leisure, she could read and think,-though her situation was hardly such as to make reflection very soothing. The evils arising from the loss of her uncle were neither trifling, nor likely to lessen; and when thought had been freely indulged, in contrasting the past and the present, the employment of mind, the dissipation of unpleasant ideas which only reading could produce, made her thankfully turn to a book.”
This is great stuff, and it is quite tragic that Austen left it incomplete. In regards to her other unfinished work called Sanditon, you can read my review of a completed version by “Another Lady”, as well as my thoughts on the original work called “The Beautiful Tragedy of Jane Austen’s Final Novel”. In my opinion, this one is the stronger work of the two as I love the setting as well as the possible new directions Austen was taking her writing before her untimely death.
If you are an Austen virgin, I wouldn’t recommend starting your journey with Lady Susan, mainly because you have to know Austen’s main works to understand that you are reading her juvenilia. As an Austen aficionado, it is highly recommended reading. It is intriguing to consider the possibilities had Austen worked this little epistolary book into something much grander, or if she had approached it later in her career following some of her successes. Lady Susan showcases a playful side to Austen who created an intriguing character that refused the role society had in mind for her.