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Reading Lady Susan

I am tired of submitting my will to the caprices of others; of resigning my own judgment in deference to those to whom I owe no duty, and for whom I feel no respect.

- Lady Susan

Image from SP Books.

Lady Susan, Austen’s epistolary novella composed in 1794, is the topic of both JASP 2023 and the upcoming virtual book club hosted by Jane Austen’s House. In this subversive novel, the titular heroine is a beautiful, manipulative widow who seeks an advantageous marriage for herself. Simultaneously she is scheming to force her daughter into a marriage solely for financial gain. Described as the “most accomplished coquette England”, Lady Susan is an unredeemable character who has no regard for social norms or the feelings of others. With its deliciously wicked heroine, elegant language, and sharp social commentary Lady Susan should not be disregarded as only a minor work.

Scholars believe Lady Susan to have been written between 1793 and 1795, when Austen was in her late teens. The manuscript of Lady Susan was first published in 1871 by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh in his Memoir of Jane Austen. It was in this biography that the novella was also given its name. It is the only known manuscript of an Austen novel to have survived.

Lady Susan manuscript. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Having worn out her welcome at the Mainwaring estate, Lady Susan seeks to stay with her brother-in-law, Mr. Charles Vernon. Despite his wife’s well-founded misgivings. Mr. Vernon has no scruples receiving his scandalous sister-in-law. Mrs. Vernon’s handsome and affable younger brother, Mr. Reginald De Court, is eager to have a first-row seat to witness the notorious Lady Susan in action.

Lady Susan is far from a model mother. She refers to her daughter Frederica as “the greatest simpleton on earth” with “nothing to recommend her." Lady Susan has always been cold towards Frederica, but trying to force her to marry the insipid Sir James Martin is a new low. (Jane Austen may have been inspired by the mother of her neighbor, the beautiful Mrs. Craven, who treated her daughters horribly. She was known to beat and starve them. Stove, Judith. "'The Cruel Mrs. Craven': Forced Confinement, Family Tradition, and Lady Susan." Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, vol. 42, annual 2020, pp. 127+)

Lady Susan reveals all her schemes and true motives to her friend, Alicia Johnson, who is just as immoral as she is. Alicia is in a loveless marriage with a sensible man who, frankly, deserves better, despite what Lady Susan might say.

Expecting to be only a spectator to Lady Susan’s guile, Sir Reginald instead becomes enchanted with her. Lady Susan is able to convince him that she is the innocent victim of a hate campaign.

Frederica thwarts Lady Susan's plans, first by endearing herself to the Vernons through her sweet nature, and then by running away from school out of fear of the forced marriage to Sir James Martin.

Sir James Martin's visit to Churchill makes clear what an unsuitable suitor he is; desperate, Frederica turns to Reginald. The rift this creates between Reginald and Lady Susan is confirmed when he meets one of Lady Susan's victims in London. Frederica eventually wins Reginald’s heart, and Lady Susan marries Sir James.

I can’t actually bring myself to like or defend Lady Susan. But there is something about a woman being able to hold her own in such a rigid, male-dominated society. I can