It is a truth universally acknowledged – I know this is a tired old joke but I seem programmed to do it – that Jane Austen fans will collect multiple editions of her works. There are many reasons for this behaviour, but one of them is our interest in different introductions. And so, although I already had a copy of Lady Susan, in the Minor works volume of R.W. Chapman’s The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen, I bought the Penguin edition for my Kindle because it had an introduction by Margaret Drabble. And I have a second confession to make: this is a rereading, but my reason for rereading has little to do with the reasons I gave in my recent post on Flanagan. The reason is simple – my local Jane Austen group decided to schedule it for our October meeting. I was happy with that. As far as I’m concerned all bets are off my usual “rules” when it comes to Jane Austen.
If you’re not an Austen fan, you may not have heard of Lady Susan. It is a complete novella that sits between her Juvenilia and her adult novels. It was written, we believe, in 1793/4 when Austen would have been 18-19 years old, but was not published until 1871, well after her death, when her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh included it in his memoir of her. It is epistolary in form, something she tried again with Elinor and Marianne. While this latter one she rewrote in her well-known third person omniscient voice, retitling it Sense and sensibility, for some reason she didn’t go back to Lady Susan. One reason might have been its subject matter.
“the most accomplished coquette in England” (Reginald of Lady Susan)
Lady Susan is a beautiful, 35-year-old widow of four months, who is already on the prowl for a new, wealthy husband. The novel opens with her needing to leave Langford, where she’d been staying with the Manwarings, because she was having an affair with the married man of the house, and had seduced his sister’s suitor, Sir James Martin. She goes to stay with her brother-in-law Charles Vernon and his wife Catherine, whom she’d done her best to dissuade him from marrying. She’s not long there before Reginald, Catherine’s brother, arrives to check her out because, from what he’s heard,
Lady Susan possesses a degree of captivating deceit which must be pleasing to witness and detect.
Of course, the inevitable happens and the artful Lady Susan captivates him. Meanwhile, Lady Susan wants her 16-year-old daughter, Frederica, to marry Sir James, the man she’d seduced away from Miss Manwaring – but sweet, sensible Frederica wants none of this weak “rattle” of a man.
You’ve probably worked out by now that this is not Austen’s usual fare. Lady Susan belongs to the 18th century tradition of wickedness, lasciviousness and adultery, forced marriages, and moralistic resolutions. The novel’s characters tend to be types rather than complex beings, and it is racily written, with a broad brush rather than a fine pen. And yet …
“Lady Susan is not wholly a villain” (Margaret Drabble)
This is also where Austen’s mature touch starts to appear. For all Lady Susan’s self-centred “bewitching” machinations, she is also, as Drabble says, “witty, energetic, intelligent and charming”. Drabble and other critics argue that Lady Susan’s spirit can be seen in characters like Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and, particularly, Mary Crawford who, like Lady Susan, comes from London where she moved in “fast” circles. How could a teenaged country parson’s daughter imagine into being such a duplicitous character? Austen was, we know, a great reader and read the gothic novels of her day. She also knew the behaviour of Mrs Craven, the mother of her neighbour Mrs Lloyd. According to Drabble, Mrs Craven “had treated her daughters shockingly, locking them up, beating them and starving them, until they ran away from home …” just as Lady Susan’s daughter ran away from school. And, as her letters demonstrate, Austen was capable of bite.
We don’t know why Austen didn’t pursue this book, besides making a good copy of it in 1805, or why she didn’t try again to write about a beautiful 35-year-old widow.
Hints of what’s to come
All this is well and good, and I loved the read, but my main reason for reading these early Austens is their insight into the writer to come – her wit and irony, and her commentary on human nature. Lady Susan, having been written on the cusp of her maturity, is particularly interesting in this context. The melodrama, for example, is toned down, compared with the books Austen would have been reading. Frederica isn’t locked up as she might have been in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (my review), there are no rapes as we see in Richardson’s Clarissa. Austen is moving, in other words, towards the naturalism of her favourite topic, “3 or 4 families in a Country Village”.
I love Austen’s irony, and there’s plenty in evidence here. A good example is when Reginald, completely convinced by Lady Susan, writes to his father of how she has been misrepresented, saying that this
may also convince us how little the general report of any one ought to be credited … I blame myself severely for having so easily believed the scandalous tales invented.
The joke is on him because, of course, he should believe these “scandalous tales”. One of the complexities of the novel is this issue of gossip – who should believe what and whom? As Austen readers know, gossip plays a significant role in her characterisation and plots.
Other ideas and themes that we see in later novels also appear in Lady Susan. Bad mothering is one. Another, more specific, is this delightful comment on accomplishments, reminding us of the discussion between Mr Darcy, Miss Bingley and Elizabeth at Netherfield. Lady Susan writes to her equally scheming friend Alicia Johnson:
Not that I am an advocate for the prevailing fashion of acquiring a perfect knowledge in all the languages arts and sciences; it is throwing time away; to be mistress of French, Italian, German, music, singing, drawing etc., will gain a woman some applause, but will not add one lover to her list.
And then there’s that main reason I love Austen – her terse, pithy commentary on human behaviour. There’s much in Lady Susan, including
but where there is a disposition to dislike a motive will never be wanting
Silly woman, to expect constancy from so charming a man!
Have I convinced you to give it a go? I do hope so.
in Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
London: Penguin Books, 2003
Kindle Edition EISBN: 9780141907901
Available in e-text.