Having just finished reading a book about Jane Austen, the time seems right to join Frances in the Art of the Novella challenge by reading Lady Susan, Austen’s epistolary novella most likely written in the 1790s but not published until after her death.
Lady Susan is a series of 41 letters exchanged by Lady Susan Vernon, a widow in her late 30s, and various friends and relations who write to and about her. Lady Susan is a schemer, and everyone knows it. She charms men away from their wives and breaks relationships that do not please her. Some of her schemes are intended to get a good match (by Lady Susan’s estimation) for her daughter Frederica, but she’s also looking for a match for herself—and maybe a little amusement in the meantime. She wheedles her way into homes where she’s not wanted, and she convinces the men around her to see things her way. The women are, by and large, unconvinced.
As for me, I sort of loved to hate her, and sometimes even loved her. Her treatment of her daughter is abominable, especially when we see Frederica’s letters that express such strong fear of her mother. But I can’t help but admire Lady Susan’s desire to please herself in a time when every social interaction was hemmed in by the sometimes unreasonable definitions of propriety and acceptable behavior. Yes, Lady Susan is wrong for coming in between Mr and Mrs Mainwaring, but is not Mr Mainwaring equally culpable for letting himself be won over? The various letter writers perceive him as well-nigh helpless against her charms. She, and only she, is the villain. Pfft.
What makes this novella so interesting is that we never get a straightforward account of what Lady Susan has done. Every character, Lady Susan included, writes in such a way as to defend his or her own character. And so, every character is to some degree guilty of obfuscation, even if it’s accidental. As Reginald De Courcy writes, we must remember “how little the general report of anyone ought to be credited; since no character, however upright, can escape the malevolence of slander.” It’s possible that everyone in this book is both a slanderer and a victim of slander. That’s the book’s genius. It’s what people say about others that makes the story; what they do hardly matters.
In comparison to Austen’s other books, Lady Susan cannot help but appear slight. Its short length means that none of the characters are as well-developed as in her full-length novels. There’s less growth because there’s less time—although there are perhaps just as many reversals in affection as in her longer books. It feels like an idea or a demonstration of wit, rather than a full-blown narrative. That doesn’t mean it feels incomplete; it’s just different. And sometimes different can be a very good thing.