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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’t help admiring her at least a little - the way that she is able to scheme to get what she wants - and feeling quite sorry that she wasn’t able to use her acumen for better purposes. How great she would’ve been in Parliament! Today I can see her as a powerful female CEO or a high government official. The opportunities for her in modern times would’ve been endless. While I certainly don’t think Austen wants us to root for Lady Susan or to defend her actions, I don’t think we are meant to outright dismiss her either.

Underneath the calculating and devious character of Lady Susan is perhaps a criticism of Georgian England’s limitations on women. And what else is there for an impoverished widow in that time to do but seek financial support from a man? And of course, as the later Mrs. Bennet knows, to marry off a daughter to the first eligible rich male that comes along? Lady Susan certainly acts without any sense of propriety or care for anyone’s feelings, but her motives are not so out of bounds for a woman of that period- which Austen would have fully been aware of.

Portrait of Samuel Richardson (wikipedia)

The letter format was perfect for Jane Austen to practice her skills in character study that she would become a master at in her mature novels. Many novels in 18th century England were written in letter form. Author Samuel Richardson, who Jane Austen greatly admired, was a master at the epistolary form. He believed that letters could be used to accurately depict character traits and motivations. Indeed, epistolary novels were quite the fashion because readers felt more engaged and intimate with the characters.

With Lady Susan you definitely feel like you’re reading through someone’s mail or diary. You’re aware of everyone’s honest thoughts, machinations, and motives. And you have one up on each character. I for one could barely hold on to my chair, wanting to swoop into the story and knock some sense into Sir Reginald De Courcy.

Like all of Jane Austen’s juvenilia we see her mimicking what she is reading and what is fashionable. Lady Susan was no exception. A common plot device in 18th century English novels featured attractive young women resisting the advances of older, treacherous men. In Lady Susan it’s the reverse. The male predator is a middle-aged widow, and the unassuming damsel is a young man.

One of the most captivating things about Lady Susan is that she manages to attract suitors who are significantly younger than she. Jane Austen makes a great point of this with the novella’s last line: "For myself, I confess that I can pity only Miss Mainwaring; who, coming to town, and putting herself to an expense in clothes which impoverished her for two years, on purpose to secure him, was defrauded of her due by a woman ten years older than herself." She may be bad, but she's also a Girl Boss.

Be sure to book your tickets for the Lady Susan virtual book club here. All proceeds for tickets goes towards maintaining Jane Austen’s House. JASP2023 will also feature a screening of Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship (2016), adapted from Austen’s Lady Susan, and a special guest appearance from the director!


Lady Susan would never miss out on a good time, and neither should you!

Register now to secure your spot at JASP 2023 - June 15-18, on UNC Chapel Hill's beautiful campus!


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