Editor's note: once you read how much fun Delicia had discussing Lady Susan, you're going to want to secure your spot at JASP2023 for further discussion of this novella and Austen's other Teenage Writings.
If she [Lady Susan] were a man she would have soared in that society.
-Quote from Jane Austen’s House virtual book club attendee
Jane Austen’s House in Chawton, England, held their second virtual book club of the year which was focused on the novella Lady Susan. We hope that this recap will give you new insights to your reading in preparation for JASP 2023 and encourage you to participate in future virtual events for Jane Austen’s House.
Jane Austen’s House virtual books clubs usually consist of a short quiz, the book’s context, and challenging discussion questions. Discussion questions are always provocative and inspire participants to delve deeper into the reading.
Can you answer a few of these questions and fill-in-the-blank statements from the quiz? (Answers are at the end of the article.)
1. What is the name of Lady Susan’s daughter?
2. What is the name of the house where Charles and Catherine Vernon live?
3. “Where there is a disposition to dislike, a __________ will never be wanting.”
4. Who is Alicia Johnson?
5. “_________ are such horrid things.”
Background to Lady Susan
Lady Susan was written around 1792 when Austen was about 19 years old. It’s debatable how this novella measures up to Austen’s later works, but we can all agree that it’s an impressive literary work for a 19-year old. Austen may have led a relatively sheltered life, but she had incredible psychological insight and an astute understanding of human nature. There is a grittiness in Lady Susan that shows that Austen knew that the world is not always kind. We can see Austen’s talent for social commentary coming through.
Lights, Camera, Action!
When it comes to Jane Austen adaptations we are gratefully spoiled for choice. But why is there only one film adaptation of Lady Susan? As far as the solitary adaptation of Lady Susan, attendees argued that It’s just not the Jane Austen people are expecting. We have a fixed idea of Austen that Lady Susan threatens. Especially for film adaptations, Jane Austen is treated as a romantic writer and not a satirist (though true fans know those are not mutually exclusive categories). Lady Susan’s epistolary format may also make the story harder to adapt.
Another question worth pondering is why the title was confusingly changed to Love and Friendship, the title of one of Austen’s juvenilia works. Attendees theorized that the title Love and Friendship gave the film a softer appeal. Attendees also considered that the filmmaker may have been modeling Austen’s other Hollywood successes: 1995’s Sense and Sensibility and 2005’s Pride and Prejudice. One attendee thought that love and friendship are portrayed in a cynical manner, and that the revised title may have been intended to draw attention to this satirical viewpoint. (JASP attendees will have the opportunity to watch Love and Friendship and participate in a Q & A with director Whit Stillman.)
Lady Susan and the 18th Century Literary Heroine
In discussing Lady Susan’s character and her role as the heroine, attendees considered whether Austen was perhaps testing out the idea of an antiheroine. Or perhaps she was playing with the idea of the ideal 18th century literary heroine.
In Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, the titular character is a virtuous maidservant who eventually reforms her disreputable employer, Mr. B. A year later Eliza Haywood published the satirical The Anti-Pamela; or Feign’d Innocence Detected which features a Pamela-esque character that pretends to be innocent in order to become a noblewoman. In the same year Henry Fielding also published a satire of Pamela titled An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews, or Shamela. In this parody Pamela’s true nature is not virtuous. She is the corrupt daughter of a London prostitute who intends to entrap Mr.B. Perhaps Austen may have been playing with this idea of an unvirtuous leading lady who pursues her own interest with no regard for social norms or the feelings of others. Lady Susan’s long-suffering daughter, Frederica, bears similarities with Richardson’s Pamela Andrews. Both young women take the moral high ground and are subsequently rewarded.
A Portrait of Lady Susan
Now the book club leaders guide us into an analysis of Lady Susan’s character with probing questions to help us better dissect this controversial heroine. Does Lady Susan actually care about anyone? One attendee believes in today’s world she'll be called a narcissist. Another attendee believes that she cares for her friend and her brother-in-law’s fortune. It was observed by another contributor that she seems to genuinely care for Manwaring, whom she almost sees as an equal.
Lady Susan doesn’t have the traditional qualities we love in our Austen heroines, but some attendees grew to like her. This lukewarm likability is owed to the epistolary form. Unlike other Austen bad girls such as Sense and Sensibility’s Lucy Steele we know Lady Susan’s inner thoughts and motives instead of gathering second hand knowledge through the lenses of the novels’ heroines.
Will the Real Austen Heroine Please Stand Up?
Lady Susan may be the titular character, but is Frederica the real heroine of the story? Frederica is a sympathetic young woman who is by no means a simpleton, contrary to what her mother may think. She is quite resourceful when she approaches Sir Reginald in an attempt to get out of marrying Sir James, effectively weaponizing Sir Reginald’s affection for her mother for her own benefit. She doesn’t yield to her mother’s wishes and openly defies her by running away from school. With her sweet temper she is able to endear herself to the Vernon/DeCourcy clan. Frederica seems to possess at least some of her mother’s mental prowess and obstinacy, but unlike her mother, she has a strong moral compass.
Attendees noted similarities between Frederica and the main Austen heroines. She refuses to marry someone she doesn’t love. She loves reading and playing the piano. She is quite clever, and marries the man she loves in the end. I’m definitely getting some Elizabeth Bennet/Anne Elliot vibes here.
Is Lady Susan the worst of the Austen mothers? Attendees certainly think so. Austen mothers such as Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Dashwood may have their faults, but we get a sense that they do love their children and don’t mean any harm. One participant notes that Lady Susan cares for Frederica only as an extension of herself and a reflection of her own reputation. Gender roles come into question as participants wonder how the relationship would be if Frederica were a boy? He would be funding her lifestyle thereby having some dependency on him. This may change the dynamic with Lady Susan having to be more careful in causing trouble. Some attendees felt that she may still overstep. For example, she did attempt to stop her brother-in-law’s marriage to Catherine. So she may not be afraid to bend a son to her will.
How are men portrayed in Lady Susan? They are easily manipulated, foolish, and lacking good sense. Lady Susan successfully persuades Sir James Martin that he is in love with Frederica. Charles Vernon gives his wayward sister-in-law numerous chances to govern her behavior with no indication that she will ever abide. And then, of course, there is Sir Reginald DeCourcy who despite all his knowledge of Lady Susan’s unscrupulous behavior and his dislike of her character falls under her spell within just a few days. These men are certainly no Mr. Darcy or Mr. Knightley. Attendees describe them as rather bland. One participant quips, “Their bank accounts are their most attractive quality”.
Epistolary novels were very popular in the eighteenth century, but does the format work for this story? While attendees were generally not fans of the epistolary form, they felt that it worked very well for Lady Susan. Characters can be less restrained about their feelings and motives, and readers are privy to all the conversations. An attendee noted that she felt like she was reading someone’s diary. Oh dear, I really shouldn’t be reading this but…..
A Closing Question. . .
My favorite part of Jane Austen’s House virtual book clubs is the dinner party question because who doesn’t love food and good company? Of course everyone’s idea of good company varies. Do we want a fine example of eighteenth century politeness, or do we want a potential modern-day boxing match? Let’s see which trios some attendees chose and why.
Sir Reginald DeCourcy, Mr. Manwaring, Sir James Martin
“ I want to see how these men are together”.
Frederica Vernon, Sir Reginald DeCourcy, and Charles Vernon
“Frederica plays the piano, Sir Reginald seems like a good person, and Charles Vernon is such a jolly character”.
Catherine Vernon, Lady Susan, and Frederica Vernon
“There will have to be lots of wine at this dinner party”.
(Netflix’s Anne Elliot's got them covered.)
Sir James Martin, Alicia Johnson, and Catherine Vernon
“Catherine would be alarmed by such company”.
My three choices would be Frederica Vernon, Mr. Manwaring, and Alicia Johnson. Frederica and I can discuss books, possibly, current events. I’d want to see for myself what Lady Susan likes about Mr. Manwaring. Alicia Johnson and I have very similar names so that makes us automatic besties. And perhaps Frederica and I can be a good influence on her. Which trio would you choose and why?
We hope this recap gave you some fresh perspectives on Lady Susan. Be sure to join Jane Austen’s House for other virtual events!
Quiz Answers: Frederica 2. Churchill 3. Motive 4. Lady Susan’s friend 5. Facts