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Austen-Curious Reader: The Mistress of Deceit - "Lady Susan" pt. 2

By Eden Iazeolla

Hello to all my Brilliant Jane Austen Juvenilia Enthusiasts!

I cannot believe that we have finally arrived at the last “Austen-Curious Reader.” We have come quite a long way from our very first blog covering “Frederic and Elfrida,” and one could say I am becoming more sentimental with each word I type. With this being said,

I could think of nothing more fitting than writing about the final letters of “Lady Susan” for our final blog farewell.

In the previous blog, I began to touch on Lady Susan’s villainous tendencies in the first half of the story. What I did not know was that her manipulation and mischievousness would only grow stronger in the latter half. It was almost to the point where I began to respect and admire Lady Susan for her lack of repentance and “get what she wants” mentality. It was honestly quite impressive that not only was Lady Susan manipulating Mrs. Vernon, Frederica, and Reginald - but also ME! However, her charms did not take hold of me for long because I could not stop one word from ringing throughout my head while reading, which was ‘gaslight, gaslight, gaslight.’

The term “gaslight” originated from the 1944 film, “Gaslight,” written by George Cukor (I would highly recommend watching it – it's streaming on HBO Max 😉). At the beginning of the film, a young woman named Paula marries Gregory. Shortly into their marriage, Paula began to experience strange occurrences around their home, such as the gas lights dimming on their own. Gregory tells her that she is simply imagining these odd occurrences and slowly begins to manipulate her into believing that she is going insane. As Paula's mental state deteriorates, Gregory's true motives are revealed, and she must fight to regain her sanity and protect herself from her husband's devious plans. In the end, the film has become a classic example of the “gaslighting” technique, which is defined as “Psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.” This definition comes from Merriam-Webster, which selected "gaslighting" as the word of the year in 2022.

Essentially, our dear old friend, Lady Susan, is ahead of her time, and often embodies this term and utilizes the technique on almost all of the characters in the novella to convince them that her character is gentle and amiable. Throughout the novella, Lady Susan consistently tries to gaslight Mrs. Vernon, who is one of her biggest critics. In one scene, Mrs. Vernon relays a conversation she had with Lady Susan to her mother. She writes that Lady Susan said to her

‘I never had the convenient talent of affecting sensations foreign to my heart … I had

no idea that I should ever love you as I do now.’

And, in response to these feelings, Mrs. Vernon writes to her mother perplexed, admitting,

what can one say of such woman, my dear mother? Such earnestness, such solemnity of

expression! And yet I cannot help suspecting the truth of everything she says.

In this instance, we see the conviction of friendship that Lady Susan is thrusting on Mrs. Vernon, and then we see, in response, Mrs. Vernon questioning her own powers of reason. However, although Mrs. Vernon’s opinion wavers at times, she does hold out against the “mistress of deceit.”

One of my favorite parts about “Lady Susan” is that young Austen chose the epistolary format. If it were not for this, then we would not be as clued into Lady Susan’s plans and intentions, making it harder to see when she is gaslighting and manipulating the other characters. The format itself mirrors many of the characters' feelings towards Lady Susan because as their feelings go back and forth on whether Lady Susan is who she says she is, the letters are in constant circulation, going back and forth between each character.

Now, what I find the most interesting about Lady Susan’s deceit is that it is shown to only work on the men in the story. As seen in the example from Mrs. Vernon’s letters, Lady Susan’s manipulation does not quite infiltrate Mrs. Vernon’s strong beliefs, and the same could be said for Mrs. Mainwaring.

In the case of Reginald versus Lady Susan, he is embarrassingly fooled over and over again into believing Lady Susan’s intentions were nothing but upstanding. In a letter he exchanges with his father, Reginald writes

I know that Lady Susan in coming

to Churchhill was governed only

by the most honorable and

amiable intentions; her prudence

and economy are exemplary.

Now, if one imagines Reginald’s pliable mind next to Mrs. Vernon’s brick wall of one, it highlights the strength Mrs. Vernon was able to maintain against Lady Susan. Both Lady Susan and Mrs. Vernon are heroines who have personalities that reimagine the 18th century woman. Lady Susan is someone who does not play by the rules and is driven completely by her own desires, with no repentance. Mrs. Vernon is a woman who refuses to give in and stands firm in her beliefs against those who may disagree, like her brother.

Due to the shame culture in 18th century, it is surprising to see Austen write such characters into existence, ones that embrace their own agency and confidently pursue their own desires. I mention shame culture because at the time, there were certain expectations of women in social settings, such as “grace and manner.” If women did not adhere to these standards, they were often judged and discounted. Specifically, we see the effects of shame culture take place with Frederica in the text, when many characters find her to be boring and incompetent due to her lack of education. In the end, Austen rewards Frederica, having her marry Reginald, the man she loves. In addition, although Lady Susan is manipulating and shaming Frederica and the other characters, showing everything but “grace and manner,” she is given no punishment for her actions. By situating her female characters in this way, rewarding and punishing those who do not meet the standards of society, Austen provides a stark contrast to the “expectations,” that shame culture produces. This makes Austen an incredibly progressive and daring artist at her time.

Engraving by William Hogarth - "A Taste in High Life"

It is not only in just “Lady Susan” that Austen writes this heroine type, because she first introduces this type of character in her first Juvenilia piece, which she wrote when she was only twelve years old. Because this process and development started so early in “The Beautifull Cassandra,”it has been a joy to see how the desires of these heroines have grown as Austen has grown. For instance, it makes sense that a 12-year-old would write a heroine who just wants free ice-cream and a day of freedom. And, it also makes sense that seven years later the same author would rewrite this same type of heroine to be a woman who is a mistress, a seductress, and masterful. Austen's work in her earlier years has only gone on to set the stage for her more mature work. Her later heroines, such as Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, are just more mature and skillfully written women who are crafted for a similar purpose, which is to question and critique what it means to be a woman living in the 18th century.

McMaster is also one of our panelist this JASP - Read her interview here.

In addition, this year has been dedicated to seeing how Austen’s skill as a writer and entertainer has matured and changed throughout the Juvenilia. Her nonsensical humor took me a while to understand. I felt when I began this process that I should read the Juvenilia incredibly seriously, often overlooking the satire and parodies she was executing. However, I learned that the Juvenilia serves as a great tool to see how Austen built and practiced her

development as a satirist, making her later works funny and effective. I think my personal favorite satirical piece was her mocking and critiquing sensibility in “Love and Friendship.”Please leave in the comments below what your favorite is. I would love to do some rereading this summer and to read your favorites would be extra special (especially when I begin to feel sad about this blog segment coming to an end).

It has truly been a pleasure to share my Jane Austen Juvenilia experience with you all. Now I can officially say that I have not only read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies but also her entire Juvenilia collection! I must say that I am more Austen-Curious than ever, so please leave your favorite Austen novel in the comments below.

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns please comment down below or dm us on any Jane Austen Summer Program social media. And, as always if you have any “Lady Susan” related thoughts or tidbits, please share!

As JASP draws near, we will be posting updates and reminders here. You can also find us on Instagram (@Janeaustensummer), twitter (@jaustensummer), Facebook (@janeaustensummerprogram) or TikTok, so if you are in need more JA and more JASP, please check that out (@janeaustensummerprogram)!




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