Sunday, October 16, 2016

Jane Austen: Lady Susan (Boo, Hiss)

Jane Austen
"Lady Susan"

"Lady Susan" is one of those works whose length makes it difficult to categorize it.  Is it a short novel or a novella?  I guess I will put it in the novella category.  It wasn't published until 1871, fifty-four years after she died in 1817.  Why it took the family so long to release it is beyond me.  I found it a thoroughly delightful story, featuring one of those villains we (at least I do anyway) love to hate.  If this was a Gaslight Theatre production, the audience would be expected to boo and hiss whenever she appeared.

To be honest, this is a one character tale.  This is Lady Susan's story. The supporting characters are just that, there to provide fodder for Lady Susan's manipulations.    They are well-drawn but are overshadowed by Lady Susan.   What contemporary readers may find disturbing is that it is an epistolary novel, so the plot is carried forward by a series of letters passing back and forth among the various characters.

The letters  that I find most fascinating are those from Lady Susan to her friend, Mrs. Johnson.  In those letters, she seems to be completely honest about what is going on, perhaps.  The letters remind me of that theater convention, the "aside," when characters directly address the audience to reveal their innermost thoughts and motives while the other characters are oblivious of  what is being said.  One gains a more or less true picture of  her and her actions  by comparing her letters to Mrs. Johnson with the other letters she writes, and, of course, the letters written by the others entangled in her
machinations give us a picture of her effect on them.

The first letter in the work provides an excellent example: 

From Lady Susan's letter to Charles Vernon, the brother of her recently deceased husband.

"My dear brother,
     I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted, of spending some weeks with you at Churchill,  and therefore  if quite convenient to you and Mrs. Vernon to receive me at present, I shall hope within a few days to be introduced to a sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with."

This is followed by Lady Susan's letter to her friend, Mrs. Johnson.

"I take town in my way to that insupportable spot, a country village, for I am really going to Churchill.  Forgive me my dear friend, it is my last resort.  Were there another place in England open to me, I would prefer it.  Charles Vernon is my aversion, and I am afraid of his wife.  At Churchill I must remain till I have something better in view."

Some background information here is necessary.    Prior to Lord Vernon's death, there had been little contact between Charles and Lady Susan since Charles's marriage.   At that time, Lady Susan had worked hard to prevent Charles's marriage to that "sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with."  This is why she is "afraid of his wife."   Moreover, upon her husband's death, Charles had attempted to buy the family estate, but she had prevented it because she "could not endure that (her) husband's dignity should be lessened by his younger brother's  having possession of the family estate."  She did sell it eventually to someone else.  We never do learn why she was opposed to Charles's marriage or to the purchase of her deceased husband's estate.  I would think she would be happy to keep it in the family.

In the same letter to the Vernons,  Lady Susan also explains why she must leave the Manwarings at Langford:  "My kind friends here are most affectionately urgent with me to prolong my stay, but their hospitable and cheerful dispositions lead them to much into society for my present situation and state of mind; and I impatiently look forward to the hour when I should be admitted into your delightful retirement."

However, once again in her first letter to Mrs. Johnson, we learn a different tale.  Lady Susan writes of her position at Langford, "At present nothing goes smoothly.  The females of the family are united against me."  Mrs. Manwaring is jealous and "enraged" because Lady Susan "admitted no one's attentions but Manwaring's" and he has become madly in love with her.

We also learn of the engagement between the Manwarings's daughter and Sir James Martin.  But, as Lady Susan notes in her letter, she "bestowed a little notice (on Sir James Martin) in order to detach him from Miss Manwaring."   She goes on to say that, if people were aware of her motive, instead of condemning her,  "they  would honor me."  That motive was  "the sacred impulse of maternal affection," for she interfered with their engagement only in order to secure him for her own daughter.

She has a genius for duplicity, manipulation, and rationalization.  Regardless of how poorly she treats people, she always manages to find herself the injured party when they become angry at discovering just how she has used them or injured them.  And, no matter how difficult or embarrassing the predicament she finds herself immersed in, she manages to charm her way out of it.

She is a most marvelous character and I strongly urge you to make her acquaintance, if you haven't already done so..


  1. I have not read this. I think that id true of many as this is not Austen's most popular work.

    Based on your commentary, it sounds as if the brilliance that characterizes much of Austen's work is present here. I will put this on my list of things that i would like to read.

    1. Brian Joseph,

      It's an epistolary short work, so that tends to discourage many readers. It's a short work, and the focus, or so I think anyway, is on one character, so it really doesn't provide scholars and critics much, aside from Lady Susan, to discuss.

      On the other hand, I may be missing much as I'm so taken with Lady Susan that I don't see what else is going on. I will put it aside and pick it up again sometime down the road.

      When I get it back that is for I was talking about it to a member of a book group I'm in, and she immediately asked to borrow it.

  2. this sounds engagingly complex... i've never read a lot of Austen although i've read a bit about her; the above seems like an exercise in changing pov's combined with a character study of a woman using her wits to survive... tx for the post; i'll have to look into finding a copy...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Yes, the epistolary format clearly establishes the multiple POV very strongly. This also might discourage some readers.

      It is more than just survival, though. I would enjoy reading your comments after you finish it.

  3. Really, why the delay in publication? Was this an incomplete novel? Juvenilia? You see, I'm woefully ignorant of Jane Austen. Your "boo, hiss!" signpost, pointing to villainy, suggests Austen was trying something in the Gothic vein, somewhat like _Northanger Abbey_? Yes? No?

    Even though I am poised to dive into the pool filled with Mark Twain, perhaps I should stay dry and perambulate through Austen country. We've had Austen "discussions" before, and I forget whatever plans or promises I might have made (yes, I forget a helluva lot these days!), but I think I ought to follow up on your _Lady Susan_ morsel by finding out why Austen remains so damned popular with so many people. I have some theories (most dealing with post-post-modern yearnings for Romantic escapes from nihilism of the last 50 years), but we can talk more later.

    1. hahaha; i can picture diving into a swimming pool and surfacing only to see the upper part of Twain's face just above the water, peering at me disapprovingly...

  4. R.T.,

    It's an early work which, apparently, she never submitted for publication. It is in the epistolary format, so that may be one reason she never submitted it. In addition, the work can be seen more as a character study than a work with several fully developed characters.

    As far as I have read, it's a complete short work and last as part of her juvenilia.

    No, I wouldn't see it being in the Gothic vein,

  5. Yes, it is an early work. Austen's juvenilia consists of a good deal of murder, cannibalism, drunkenness, running mad, and Lady Susan caps this period off. Austen then decided to move to the more sympathetic and naive heroines. It's certainly fun to read!

  6. sunt_lacrimae_rerum,

    Yes, I think that was a wise tactical decision on her part: to avoid the sensational elements so that she could get her points across more easily without the distractions.

    And yes, it is certainly an enjoyable read.

  7. Check out the Whit Stillman film if you can. It's an excellent adaptation. Very witty.

    1. Di,

      I have seen Love and Friendship (why they changed the name escapes me) and really enjoyed it. I think it captured Lady Susan very well. I think it's the best adaptation of an Austen work that I have seen.