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Austen In Boston's Virtual Book Club Recap: Lady Susan

Declicia reminds us of the joys of discussing Austen's works with fellow readers - just like at JASP! Remember that FIRSTJASP2023 will get first-timers 20% off of registration fees, and that current middle- and high-school teachers, as well as K-12 students, also enjoy discounted registration!


We are back with another Austen In Boston virtual book club recap. The highly spirited book club dissected Lady Susan. There is so much laughter and interesting ideas in these virtual books clubs! No one takes themselves too seriously but everyone still offers an incredible understanding and sharp analyses of the reading. JASP 2023 will center on Lady Susan so we hope Austen In Boston’s discussion can help prepare you for this year’s program, and whet your appetite to (re)read this story of this scandalous heroine.

Written in 1794, when Austen was 19, this epistolary novella describes the machinations of the beautiful and devious titular character. Recently widowed, Lady Susan is able to lure single and married men alike. After causing havoc with the Manwarings -- having seduced the married Mr. Manwaring -- Lady Susan descends upon her affable brother-in-law, Charles Vernon, and his wife, Catherine, at their Churchill residence. When Catherine’s brother, Sir Reginald, comes to watch this famous coquette in action he becomes her latest victim.

Desperately Seeking Lady Susan

After the background information, we discussed the available adaptations. Whit StilIman’s 2016 period comedy Love & Friendship is the only film adaptation of Lady Susan that Austen fans have. (Note: JASP 2023 attendees will have the opportunity to watch the film and participate in a Q & A with Whit Stillman!) I must say that the discussion leader is the best hype man this film can have. The group shared their love of this underrated Austen gem. Attendees agreed that Kate Beckinsale should have won ALL the awards. Her comic timing was perfect, and she embodied Lady Susan’s character flawlessly. And of course the lovely Ms. Beckinsale certainly looked the part. While her performance was critically acclaimed, she didn’t receive the accolades she deserved. No Oscar or BAFTA nominations! Seriously?!

Lady Susan is by no means the easiest of Austen's works to adapt due to its epistolary format but Love and Friendship is a stellar movie that brilliantly captures the biting satire and social commentary. Although attendees could not imagine anyone else tackling this role, is there another actress you’d like to see as Lady Susan? If there is ever another adaptation, I’d like to see how Hayley Atwell does. (Atwell played Mary Crawford in 2007’s Mansfield Park.)

First Impressions

Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan

Our facilitator asked the key question: do we like Lady Susan? I must say that the overall opinion of Lady Susan’s character was more positive from this group than attendees at the Jane Austen’s House discussion. Some participants were forgiving of her scandalous character and devious behavior. They admired an eighteenth-century English woman who was able to hold her own in a rigid society.

Attendees noted similarities between Lady Susan and Sense and Sensibility’s Lucy Steele. Lucy is Edward Ferrars’ scheming fiancee who dumps him when his fortune is irrevocably transferred to his younger brother, Robert Ferrars.

Similar to Lucy Steele, Lady Susan manipulates people and situations for her own benefit without any regard for others. In Sense and Sensibility, Lucy gets two very eligible bachelors despite her low social status and becomes a very wealthy woman in the end. Both women are able to fascinate men, even when those men are determined not to be fascinated. Robert Ferrars visits Lucy to convince her to call off the engagement to Edward and winds up engaged to her himself. Sir Reginald DeCourcy is similarly determined to dislike Lady Susan, well aware of her reputation before he meets her in person, but he falls in love with her before he knows what hit him.

Me at the beginning of the Lucy Steele discussion

Putting aside my contempt for Lucy Steele, I had to admit that while Lucy’s behavior -- like that of Lady Susan’s -- is appalling, Georgian England society is partly to blame. Lucy Steele was poor and had to make a good marriage to secure her livelihood. Likewise, Lady Susan found herself in dire financial straits and needed to make good marriages for both herself and her daughter, Frederica. With rare exceptions marriage was the only way a woman in that time period could be taken care of. If a woman did not marry she would be dependent upon the generosity of her male relatives. Viewed in this context, it's possible to suggest that Lucy’s actions were admirable– not from a moral sense of course, but from a practical one. She had the opportunity to marry a man with a fortune and was able to convince him to marry her. Similarly, Lady Susan is driven by a sense of need to find a husband to provide financial support and social protection. It's interesting to note that after this youthful experiment, Austen kept women like this on the margins of her novels, though clearly still acknowledging their existence, and sometimes giving them what looks an awful lot like a happy ending.

“Oh Mother…”

Participants touched on Lady Susan’s quest to marry Frederica off to the wealthy but silly Sir James Martin. Is Lady Susan any worse than Mrs. Bennet? While readers, and the daughters in question, may wince at the strategies these mothers employ, Lady Susan and Mrs. Bennet are pragmatic in recognizing that marriage is central to their daughters' future security and well-being. Both mothers also seem to have placed more emphasis on training their daughters to catch husband than to be wives. Luckily for the Bennet girls, those who wanted a more solid education could turn to their father. Fredericka has seek her help elsewhere.

Bad Girls Do It Well

How would we rank Lady Susan among Austen’s other unlikeable women such as Lucy Steele, Mrs. Norris, Fanny Dashwood, or Caroline Bingley, just to name a few? Participants felt that Lady Susan is more sympathetic and likable compared to the aforementioned women. This perception of Lady Susan is largely due to the epistolary format. In contrast to other Austen foils we know of her actions and motives and hear about them in her own voice, presented as rational efforts to secure her and her daughter's futures. Austen's youthful exuberance is on full display in presenting the back-and-forth of letters, as well as the things Lady Susan says about her in-laws in the privacy of her correspondence. Perhaps, ironically, because readers know all of Lady Susan's misdeeds, we detect less duplicity. She may be able to manipulate Sir Reginald, Mr. Manwaring, and, to a lesser extent, Charles Vernon but she is not getting one over on us. Lady Susan doesn’t pretend to be respectable, in contrast to other Austen foils. As the ‘biggest coquette in England’ her vices and reputation are well-documented.

To Recap…

The brilliant comparisons of Lady Susan to Sense and Sensibility and, to a lesser extent, Pride and Prejudice demonstrates that Austen’s teenage writings are not so far removed from her mature novels. I certainly had my preconceptions challenged and gained new perspectives on both Austen’s early works and the major novels. Even when you've read the novels (and watched the films) time and time again, talking with a new group of readers - like at JASP! - can reveal new insights.

Please be sure to join Austen In Boston for future virtual events. Special thank you to Austen in Boston and Jane Austen’s House for featuring the teenage writings and Lady Susan and for allowing us to write blogs about their events.


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