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The JASNA AGM recently closed its workshops to online viewing. It was held virtually in early October. One workshop that resonated with me was Professor Theresa Kenney’s discussion of Reginald De Courcy as the hero in Lady Susan, an epistolary novel written by Jane Austen in 1794-95, when she was 19 to 20 years of age. I had the pleasure of viewing some pages of the manuscript during the exhibit about Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy in 2009 at The Morgan Library in New York. It was the first time that I saw Jane’s handwriting on a page close up and I felt as thrilled as a teenage groupie seeing her heart throb idol in person. As soon as I returned home I read the novel.

Seven years later, two friends and I saw “Love and Friendship,” in which Kate Beckinsale played the conniving Lady Susan Vernon. Needless to say, after viewing Professor Kenney’s AGM presentation, I rewatched the film and was struck by its faithfulness to Austen’s novella. It helped that the script took advantage of entire swaths of Austen’s dialogue in letters written by the main characters.

Introduction:

Professor Kenney in a talk entitled “Abjuring All Future Attachments: Concluding Lady Susan” spoke about the youthful Austen’s experimentation with Reginald as the hero. His status is not at first obvious. We know about him largely through the strong women swirling around his life and who write about him: his sister, Catherine Vernon; his mother, Lady De Courcy; Catherine’s widowed sister-in-law, Lady Susan Vernon; and Lady S’s confidant, Mrs. Alicia Johnson. These main characters reveal much about themselves as they write their true opinions of others behind their backs against the polite, entirely false conversation they engage in when speaking in person.

Deceptions and manipulations abound:

The central character is beautiful, mature Lady Susan, the daughter of a peer, widow of Vernon (no first name), who must find refuge after her dalliance with the very much married Mr. Mainwaring, in whose house she was a guest. And so Lady S appeals to the only available persons left to her, the reluctant Catherine Vernon, whose marriage she attempted to block to her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon. Catherine is no fool and has taken Lady S’s measure:

…if I had not known how much she has always disliked me for marrying Mr. Vernon, and that we had never met before, I should have imagined her an attached friend…She is clever and agreeable, has all that knowledge of the world which makes conversation easy, and talks very well, with a happy command of language, which is too often used, I believe, to make black appear white.- Catherine Vernon to Reginald De Courcy. Letter, VI

Reginald De Courcy, Catherine’s brother, having heard no good news about the beautiful widow, and influenced by his sister and mother, is disposed to dislike her, that is until he meets her and she wraps him around her little finger.

And so the fun begins, Austen style:

According to Prof. Kenney, Reginald’s character is more akin to Marianne Dashwood, Edmund Bertram, Harriet Smith, and Edward Ferrars, who fall violently in love with the wrong person and then miraculously recover a short time later to find a love worthy of them. Kenney termed this phenomenon “shifting affections.” Young Reginald is easily influenced in falling in love with the wrong person. At twenty-three he is quite young and still malleable, a fact not lost on the opportunistic Lady Susan or on his mother and sister, who are alarmed. Catherine writes to her mother, Lady De Courcy:

My dear Mother,—You must not expect Reginald back again for some time. He desires me to tell you that the present open weather induces him to accept Mr. Vernon’s invitation to prolong his stay in Sussex, that they may have some hunting together. He means to send for his horses immediately, and it is impossible to say when you may see him in Kent. I will not disguise my sentiments on this change from you, my dear mother, though I think you had better not communicate them to my father, whose excessive anxiety about Reginald would subject him to an alarm which might seriously affect his health and spirits. Lady Susan has certainly contrived, in the space of a fortnight, to make my brother like her. … I am, indeed, provoked at the artifice of this unprincipled woman; what stronger proof of her dangerous abilities can be given than this perversion of Reginald’s judgment, which when he entered the house was so decidedly against her! – Letter VIII

In the next letter, we gain a good sense of Alicia Johnson, Lady Susan’s confidant and partner in the devious plans intended to ensnare her unsuspecting victim.

My dearest Friend,—I congratulate you on Mr. De Courcy’s arrival, and I advise you by all means to marry him; his father’s estate is, we know, considerable, and I believe certainly entailed. Sir Reginald is very infirm, and not likely to stand in your way long. I hear the young man well spoken of; and though no one can really deserve you, my dearest Susan, Mr. De Courcy may be worth having.Mrs. Johnson to Lady S, Letter IX

This novella is filled with strong women. Two who will move heaven and earth to protect brother and son, and two who behave like a pair of rats intent on devouring the last piece of cheese in an alley. Interestingly, we only hear directly from Reginald in three letters. For much of the novel we see him only through the words and opinions of others, but some of those words are revealing. When his father sends him a letter of alarm due to Lady S’s increasing influence over him, Reginald tries to soothe him.

The father emplores him in Letter XII:

I hope, my dear Reginald, that you will be superior to such as allow nothing for a father’s anxiety, and think themselves privileged to refuse him their confidence and slight his advice. You must be sensible that as an only son, and the representative of an ancient family, your conduct in life is most interesting to your connections; and in the very important concern of marriage especially, there is everything at stake—your own happiness, that of your parents, and the credit of your name.”

To which Reginald answers:

My dear Sir,—I have this moment received your letter, which has given me more astonishment than I ever felt before. I am to thank my sister, I suppose, for having represented me in such a light as to injure me in your opinion, and give you all this alarm…I entreat you, my dear father, to quiet your mind, and no longer harbour a suspicion which cannot be more injurious to your own peace than to our understandings. I can have no other view in remaining with Lady Susan, than to enjoy for a short time (as you have yourself expressed it) the conversation of a woman of high intellectual powers.”

He goes on in a quite lengthy letter to blame his sister’s prejudice for not forgiving Lady S in opposing her marriage to Charles, and is convinced that the world has injured the Lady by questioning her motives, etc. etc. Yet Austen gives this hero short shrift in the narrative. We know very little about his thoughts and reasons for his actions, including being manipulated by Lady S. into feeling bitter towards Frederica, her young daughter, and thinking the girl worthless, even when it becomes clear that she “brightens” in Reginald’s presence.

In other words, Lady S has completely ensnared her sincere young man. He is as gullible with Lady S as Harriet Smith is with Emma, and just as changeable. This shifting of affection and lack of self-knowledge, as Prof. Kenney terms it, defines these characters, who are vastly different from Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy or Anne Elliot and her Captain Wentworth.

To be fair, Lady S does see some of Reginald’s good qualities (besides his inheritance). She writes to Alicia Johnson:

Reginald is never easy unless we are by ourselves, and when the weather is tolerable, we pace the shrubbery for hours together. I like him on the whole very well; he is clever and has a good deal to say, but he is sometimes impertinent and troublesome.”

She also understands her sister-in-law, Catherine, very well: “[Frederica] is in high favour with her aunt altogether, because she is so little like myself, of course.”

The Spell:

The letters ping pong back and forth, with Lady S only baring her true motives to her like-minded friend, Alicia. Mrs. Johnson’s husband, Mr. Johnson, has forbidden her to consort with Lady S, whom he has banned from his house, but Lady S still has Reginald, who is now set on marrying her.

Interestingly, Reginald is the hero in this tale, a weak one to be sure. His main redeeming quality is that when he learns of Lady S’s dalliance with Mr. Mainwaring his blinders fall off. We hear from him twice more and can feel his wrath in two scathing, but youthfully passionate letters:

…I write only to bid you farewell, the spell is removed; I see you as you are. Since we parted yesterday, I have received from indisputable authority such a history of you as must bring the most mortifying conviction of the imposition I have been under, and the absolute necessity of an immediate and eternal separation from you…”

and later:

Why would you write to me? Why do you require particulars? But, since it must be so, I am obliged to declare that all the accounts of your misconduct during the life, and since the death of Mr. Vernon, which had reached me, in common with the world in general, and gained my entire belief before I saw you, but which you, by the exertion of your perverted abilities, had made me resolved to disallow, have been unanswerably proved to me; nay more, I am assured that a connection, of which I had never before entertained a thought, has for some time existed, and still continues to exist, between you and the man whose family you robbed of its peace…”

screenshot of film-manipulated

Screen shot of Love and Friendship, with all females delighted at the results of Reginald’s and Frederica’s marriage.

The Spell is Removed: Young Reggie grows up!

A few more plot strings remain to be tied. Lady S is an execrable mother. She bullies Frederica and presses her to marry Sir Charles Martin, a dimwit, albeit a rich one. Frederica resists, raising her mother’s ire. Catherine, who loves the girl and pities her situation, takes her in. Lady S, it is obvious, loves no one but herself. She has, in the words of Prof. Kenney, “no time for romantic nonsense.” Her motherly instincts are for show only, and after a few months of separation her letters and attentions to her daughter peter out.

Reginald leaves to lick his wounds, but his mother and sister are always looking out for him, as well as Frederica. The author writes in her conclusion, “Frederica was therefore fixed in the family of her uncle and aunt till such time as Reginald De Courcy could be talked, flattered, and finessed into an affection for her.” And, so, Austen demonstrates that Reginald, a hero with the same weak qualities as a Mr. Bingley or Edward Ferrars, is managed by the real power in the family – the women, although, he has in his favor the quality of realizing his deficiencies and, more importantly, he has a heart.

De Courcy and Frederica marry. And so I ask you fair reader: Who had the happier union? Reginald or Lady S?

Conclusion

Inquiring reader, I hope I have persuaded you to read or reread Lady Susan, a novella that surprised me on the first and second reading. I didn’t think that I would like reading a book that consisted of letters, but was so enthralled with the story that I read it in one sitting.

Just think. Jane Austen wrote this novella during a creative spurt in her early life. In 1794-95, she wrote Lady Susan and in 1795 she wrote Elinor and Marianne, the epistolary version of Sense and Sensibility. In 1796, she began writing First Impressions, the precursor to Pride and Prejudice. What a fertile period for a budding author! And what creativity! At 19, 20, and 21 years of age she laid the groundwork for two great novels and one experimental foray into the many complexities of what makes a hero. While, like Mr. Darcy, Reginald has great wealth, which, according to Prof. Kenney gives him alpha status, he is a bit of a wuss, masterfully controlled like a puppet by female relatives. In the end, Lady S is hoist by her own manipulative petard. She has no recourse but to marry Sir Charles Martin to maintain face and a fortune. Uggh. What a fitting ending.

Austen’s three novels, written in such a short time, laid much of the foundation for her greatness. She would rework them over the years, with only one, Lady Susan, published posthumously years after her death. After a lifetime of reading her works, including her Juvenilia, I remain in awe of her immense talent.

Resources:

Lady Susan, Jane Austen, Project Gutenberg Online Book

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/946/946-h/946-h.htm

Lady Susan, Jane Austen, Librivox Audio

https://archive.org/details/lady_susan_0811_librivox

“Love and Friendship,” Amazon Prime movie

Lady Susan: List of Characters: Austenprose

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Detail of the North Side of Portman Square

Detail of the North Side of Portman Square

Inquiring readers: For two weeks, Laurel Ann, my blogging partner at Jane Austen Today, has been blogging about Lady Susan at her own blog, Austenprose. Lady Susan was published posthumously in 1871, almost 80 years after Jane Austen wrote this short epistolary novel. When one reads the book, one is struck by the number of letters Lady Susan writes to an address on Upper Seymour Street. This is where her friend Mrs. Johnson (Alicia) lives. It was Alicia who famously wrote at the end of the book:

I would ask you to Edward Street, but that once [Mr. Johnson] forced from me a kind of promise never to invite you to my house; nothing but my being in the utmost distress for money should have extorted it from me. I can get you, however, a nice drawing-room apartment in Upper Seymour Street, and we may be always together there or here; for I consider my promise to Mr. Johnson as comprehending only (at least in his absence) your not sleeping in the house. – Mrs. Johnson (Alicia) to Lady Susan, ca. 1805

The houses along Upper Seymour Street in Westminster, which is situated near the Marble Arch (then known as Tyburn) near Hyde Park Corner, are tall, narrow, and four stories high. Edward Lear, the Victorian writer of charming limericks, lived in a house that has been converted to a hotel (Image below). I stayed on the 3rd floor a decade ago and can attest that the stairs are steep!
edlearfront_small

Living at this location off Oxford Street was considered a moderately respectable to fairly good address during the Regency era.  Upper Seymour Street is close to Hyde Park, and within easy walking distance to Mayfair and St. James’s, where the upper crust lived and visited each other when they stayed in London. Upper Seymour Street is actually situated in Marelybone, just around the corner from Portman Square and one block over from Upper Berkeley Street, an area that Jane Austen and her sister, Cassandra, knew well:

Upper Seymour Street and Portman Square

Upper Seymour Street and Portman Square

The Countess de Feuillide looked out from her windows in Upper Berkeley Street towards Portman Square, waiting for her cousin Cassandra to arrive. It still pleased the Countess to be know by her former title rather than as plain ‘Mrs Austen’, and she was always gratified by tradespeople and others who thought to humour her vanity in this matter. – Jane Austen: A Life, David Nokes, 1998, Google Books

North side, Portman Square, 1812

The nouveau riche, whose ambition was to enter Society, moved as close to the “action” as they could. In 1772, Lady Home, a 67-year-old widow,  made plans to move to Portman Square. This area of London was just beginning to be developed, and, as the image at right attests, the houses (Rated 1 and 2) were big and spacious.  Lady Home had been twice widowed and had become rich from the money she inherited from her father and first husband, Sir Nicholas Lawes, Governor of Jamaica. Her second husband, the 8th Earl of Home, was a dissipated spendthrift. Their marriage in 1742 was one of convenience, for while she got the title, he most definitely married her for her money. In 1744 the earl deserted Lady Home just months before she was to give birth to their child, who, sadly, did not survive. The earl died in 1761, leaving Lady Home a widow once again and free to act as she pleased.

Home House Today

Home House Today

Very little is known about Lady Home’s life until she began to build her grand house in Portman Square. In the early 18th century, Henry William Portman had developed 200 acres of meadow passed down from a Tudor ancestor and turned them into Portman Square. In 1755 he began issuing the first housing leases. Lady Home took a 90 year lease from William Baker in June 1772, on which she was permitted to build a brick house. By 1774, builder Richard Norris was close to completing the house, which had been designed by the architect James Wyatt. His claim to fame was The Pantheon which had opened in 1772 when Mr. Wyatt was just 26 years old.  In 1775, Lady Home fired Wyatt and hired his archrival Robert Adam to complete the interior. One of the most unforgettable features of Adam’s design was the breathtaking  neoclassical stairway under a glass dome.

Stair case

Stair case

Stair case, view down

Stair case, view down

Staircase

Staircase

Skylight above staircase

Skylight above staircase

Adam details, Music room

Adam details, Music room

William Beckford, who came from another wealthy plantation-owning family, and who also lived in [Portman] square, described her as: ‘.. the Countess of Home, known among all Irish chairmen and riff-raff of the metropolis by the name, style and title of Queen of Hell…’ He went on to describe her extravagant and eccentric behaviour. She entertained other wealthy Caribbean plantation owners and was related to many of them. She also had royal connections. – BBC History, The business of enslavement

In reading about Lady Home, I was struck by her ambition and audacity, and began to compare her to Lady Susan. Publicly deserted but her husband, Lady Home chose to remain in London and entertain in high style. She successfully made a life for herself on the fringes of society, but, despite her wealth, she was never quite accepted among the haut ton. She lived and entertained in the house from 1776 to 1784, the year that she died.

Adam fireplace

Adam fireplace

In an interesting aside, Robert Adam and James Stuart were also the architects of Montagu House, which was built for Mrs. Elizabeth Montague in the northwest corner of Portman Square. The house, known as the ‘Montpelier of England’, became famous for its meetings with the literary world. The Blue-Stocking Club, named for the informal blue stockings that many in the group wore, invited intellectuals to discourse on a variety topics.

Library

Library

Lady Home’s Etruscan bedroom reflected the current interest in antiquities. The house almost did not survive. From 1989 to 1996, the house was listed on the 100 most endangered sites, and extensive renovations did not begin until 1998. Today the house is part of a private men’s club.

Etruscan room, Home house

Etruscan room (bedroom), Home house

Two portraits by Gainsborough hung in her house, depicting the duke and duchess of Cumberland. The duke was the brother of George III and the duchess related to Lady Home through her first husband. It has been suggested that Lady Home’s motive for building such a large and elegant house when she was a widow who had no children was to entertain the Cumberlands. – BBC History, The business of enslavement

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Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford possessed the beauty and hauteur of Lady Susan

Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford possessed the beauty and hauteur of Lady Susan

If six Jane Austen novels have left you craving for more of her fine writing, and you have not yet read Lady Susan, perhaps now is the right time to read this unusual novel. Epistolary in form, the letters between Mrs. Vernon and her mother, and Lady Susan and her friend, Mrs. Johnson, reveal a calculating woman who will use her daughter and fool around with her friend’s husband in order to get what she wants. Early on the reader learns what an unnatural and unloving a mother Lady Susan is to her daughter, Frederica. Not once does the reader feel sympathy for this anti heroine. Read my review of the novel in this link, Lady Susan, A Vicious Jewel.

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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.

More Links:

  • ‘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.

Image: Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffold, Mistress of George II, painted by Charles Jervas

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