The reissue of the Oxford World’s Classic Northanger Abbey includes Jane Austen’s lesser known works: Lady Susan, The Watsons (a fragment), and Sanditon (Jane’s unfinished last work). As with Pride and Prejudice, this new publication comes with an introduction (excellently written by Claudia L. Johnson, but included in a previous edition) and a wealth of resources in the form of explanatory notes, source bibliography, and appendix. So much has been written about Northanger Abbey by experts whose knowledge of that excellent work eclipse mine, that I will concentrate on one of Jane’s more fascinating but lesser known earlier works, Lady Susan. This book was written around 1793-1794 (there are several date estimates) but it was not published until 1871 in Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen, almost a half century after Jane Austen’s death. While Jane recopied the book she did not revise it; it was evidently never meant for publication.
Author Joe Queenan included Lady Susan in his 2004 volume, The Malcontents: The Best Bitter, Cynical, and Satirical Writing in the World, Explaining why he chose this short work for his book, he writes:
Why did I choose Jane Austen’s less famous and somewhat atypical Lady Susan rather than an excerpt from Sense and Sensiblility, Emma, or Pride and Prejudice? Because as much as possible I wanted to use complete works rather than fragments, and because this little jewel is unbelievably vicious. Also , it is a superb example of the novel composed entirely of letters, and one can never have too many of those in a collection. – p 22.
If you have not read Lady Susan before, be prepared to encounter an anti-Jane heroine; a beautiful, manipulative, calculating, and self-indulgent widow; a woman so cold-hearted in her machinations that she puts her own interests ahead of her daughter’s, or anyone else’s for that matter. Having become accustomed to the innate goodness of Jane’s heroines, I had to read the following passage twice before I fully understood that Lady Susan was made of different stuff than Elizabeth Bennet or Anne Elliot:
I have been called an unkind mother, but it was the sacred impulse of maternal affection, it was the advantage of my daughter that led me on; and if that daughter were not the greatest simpleton on earth, I might have been rewarded for my exertions as I ought.
Sir James did make proposals to me for Frederica; but Frederica, who was born to be the torment of my life, chose to set herself so violently against the match that I thought it better to lay aside the scheme for the present. I have more than once repented that I did not marry him myself; and were he but one degree less contemptibly weak I certainly should: but I must own myself rather romantic in that respect, and that riches only will not satisfy me.
In this short passage Lady Susan reveals her true thoughts to her friend, Alicia Johnson, an equally cool and calculating character. Lady Susan pretends to be a loving mother and friend, but her frank words belie her actions, and she clearly exults in her talent for manipulating a situation (or man) to suit her needs. She lies without compunction to her sister-in-law, Catherine, a woman she disliked so intensely that she tried to prevent her marriage to her brother. Catherine, no simpering fool, mistrusts her unwanted house guest, and in most situations sees right through her.
The cat and mouse games played by the main characters set up the emotional tension in this novel. Lady Susan believes she is fooling everyone, although she is not. Her brash plans quickly unravel as her equally savvy opponents outmaneuver her, but before her downfall, she collects victims along the way, in particular Mrs. Mainwaring, whose marriage is destroyed by Lady Susan’s flirtation with her husband. Reginald de Courcy, Catherine’s brother, arrives on the scene full of mistrust and dislike for the non-grieving widow. Lady Susan effortlessly wraps him around her little finger until he learns the truth about her. In the end she marries Sir James, the young and foolish but rich young man she had chosen for her daughter.
As Jay Arnold Levine pointed out in ‘Lady Susan: Jane Austen’s Character of the Merry Widow, Lady Susan is reminiscent of the lascivious and hypocritical widows written about in 18th century Restoration literature, like Fielding’s Lady Booby and Tom Jones‘ Lady Bellaston. “Dangerously endowed with experience and independence”, Lady Susan “must be regarded as the culmination of the earlier phase of literary burlesque.”
Susan Anthony’s point of view differs from Mr. Levine’s, although it is not incompatible with it. In ‘The Perfect Model of a Woman’: Femininity and Power in Lady Susan, she writes:
Imperceptibly, we are drawn into this sparser imaginative world. We become alert to the cross-play of purposes, aware of suspect motivation, hidden agendas, and the deceptiveness of Language. Lady Susan gradually exposes the politics of family life and the machinations of women in a conservative, restrictive, and male-dominated society, founded on inherited wealth and policed by gossip: the option of ‘the world.’…Lady Susan makes apparent that money, power, and the freedom to act independently are the prerogatives of men. For a woman, even wealth cannot empower: it serves simply to license any fortune-hunter she is foolish enough to marry.
Jane’s epistolary novel is a remarkable and sophisticated achievement for a budding 20-year-old author. There are faults to be sure (Claudia Johnson calls Lady Susan’s world “cartoonish”), and the ending is abrupt and switches from the first-person letter to the third-person narrative, but one cannot mistake Jane Austen’s genius in telling this tale of a woman who “has the power to inflame” but not the power to direct her life. The book ends unhappily for our protagonist. As Susan Anthony observes, “Disappointment of a bad husband is Lady Susan’s fitting punishment,” but before that denouement, the reader has been taken on a splendid literary ride.
- Northanger Abbey: And Persuasion, Google Book
- Lady Susan: Classic Reader: Free Text
- Listen to Lady Susan at Librivox: Free Audio
- ‘Lady Susan: Jane Austen’s Character of the Merry Widow’, Jay Arnold Levine, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol 1, No. 4, Nineteenth Century. (Autumn, 1961), pp. 23-34.
- ‘The Perfect Model of a Woman’: Femininity and Power in Lady Susan, Susan Anthony, The Glasgow Review, Issue 2.
Image: Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffold, Mistress of George II, painted by Charles Jervas