Lady Susan

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.

More Reviews: Lifetime Reading Plan, Iris on Books

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16 Responses to Lady Susan

  1. Heidi'sbooks says:

    I loved exploring this side of Jane Austen. What a joy to find I had actually missed reading this earlier.

  2. I have a huge compilation book of Austen works and Lady Susan is the only one from it I haven’t read yet. I’m fascinated by its epistolary format. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. This novella pleasantly surprised me. I loved how villainous Lady Susan was!

    • Teresa says:

      She was terrible, but I had to respect her for just going for what she wants. I kind of loathed all the people talking about her as much as I did her.

  4. Melody says:

    I loved this one–one of the things I most love about Austen is her wit, so this novella really hit the spot.

  5. Having bought the whole TAOTN series I own this one, but finding out that it is an espitolary novella just moved way to the top of my list. I think I am only getting to about half of the 42, I am going to make sure this one is a part of that. I love the letters in Jane Austen’s novels so I am very curious about a whole story through letters.

  6. Emily says:

    Wow! The female villainy, epistolary frame, reversals of affection and lack of reliability in any one writer STRONGLY remind me of Les liaisons dangereuses. Do you suppose Austen read it?? What a scandalous thought. Somehow I can’t imagine upright, domestic Jane Austen, however cutting her wit, making her way through the scenes where Valmont writes letters to one mistress using the naked body of another mistress as a desk…but I would love to think I’m wrong. If this was written in the 1790s the Laclos would have been the salacious new thing. I don’t even know if Austen read French or when Laclos was first translated into English…intriguing.

    • Emily says:

      Wait – remembering Northanger Abbey, she definitely read The Monk, which is far more salacious than the Laclos. So maybe…

      • Teresa says:

        This isn’t nearly as salacious as the Laclos, and a lot of the reliability issues are under the surface (and mostly an inevitable consequence of the form). But still perhaps she did read it or at least hear about it and decide to play around with something similar. I don’t know how common epistolary novels were at the time.

  7. My favorite character is always the villain, without them the would be no obstacles for the other characters to overcome. So I think Lady Susan sounds like my kind of story. Good post!

  8. Nishita says:

    This is one of my favorite Austens, precisely because I could not make up my mind at all about some of the characters. I think I have re-read this book almost as many times as P&P :)

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