When people think of Jane Austen, they most likely and blamelessly think of beautiful yet prim genteel young women, grand houses, formal balls (just formality in general, perhaps), and a rather soggy Colin Firth coming out of a lake. I might be generalising here, but I think that most casual observers think of Austen and her novels as being somewhat straight-laced. Lady Susan will quickly cure anyone of that delusion.
Most likely written in 1794, when Austen was just 18 or 19 years old, Lady Susan subverts everything you think you might know about Jane Austen. In fact, it subverts the norms that Austen herself would later set in her six ‘main’ novels. If we look at her six more well-known works, her eldest heroine is the 27-year-old Anne Eliot from Persuasion. Lady Susan is 35. In the other novels, where there is a specified age gap, the ladies marry older than themselves. Lady Susan’s conquests are mostly around a decade younger than herself. Women who are overtly sexual in Austen’s other novels are vilified and face severe comeuppances – Louisa Musgrove falls from the Cobb in Persuasion, whilst Mansfield Park’s adulterous Maria Bertram is banished by her family to another country to live with the detestable Mrs Norris. Lady Susan, however, delights in seducing young men and never really faces any serious consequence, just bobs happily along, one dalliance after another. Perhaps most significantly, in her six major novels marriage is seen as the goal and salvation for the majority of female characters (e.g. by marrying Mr Darcy, Lizzie Bennet is saving herself and her family from inevitable destitution and homelessness). In Lady Susan the titular character wields marriage as a weapon.
Marriage is a key theme in Lady Susan. Unlike Austen’s other single protagonists, Lady Susan starts the book as a fresh widow. This sets the tone for the other marriages depicted throughout this epistolary novella. With nothing but her husband’s name and title, she stays with the Manwaring family and she starts the novel needing to flee their estate; not only has she had an affair with Mr Manwaring, oh no, this succubus has also been having it on with the Manwaring’s young daughter’s beau. So on she goes to Churchill, the home of her brother-in-law, Mr Vernon, and his wife, Cath (as well as their numerous offspring). Although seemingly happily married, following the theme of bad matches, it soon becomes clear than Mr Vernon is a feckless and spineless peripheral character who never does much of anything. The only other married couple in the book are Mr and Mrs Johnson; the wife, Alicia, is seemingly the only person who Susan holds in genuine affection and is her closest confidant. This is what Lady Susan has to say of their relationship: “Of what a mistake you were guilty in marrying a Man of his age! – just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the Gout – too old to be agreeable, and too young to die.” Ouch.
Soon into her stay at Churchill, Cath’s much younger brother, Reginald De Courcy, arrives. Young – check. Handsome – check. Air to a nice fortune – check. But most importantly of all, he is ready and willing to worship the ground on which Lady Susan treads. And so her sights are set, despite the subtle revulsion of Reginald’s sister who is the only one who truly sees Susan for what she is.
Everything is going swimmingly until Lady Susan’s sixteen-year-old daughter Frederica arrives, having been kicked out of her London boarding school for an escape attempt. If the mothers of Austen’s other novels are, at worst, ineffectual, Lady Susan is a downright bitch. And that’s why we love her. She is the polar opposite of what Austen’s society would have expected a woman to be, right down to her anti-maternal feelings. She describes Frederica as a “stupid girl” with “nothing to recommend her” and is trying to marry her off to someone she knows her daughter cannot stand and who, most likely, would mistreat her. This is where things get truly interesting; just as Lady Susan has turned Reginald De Courcy’s head, Reginald then turns Frederica’s. The rivalry between mother and daughter, the cruelty from one to the other, is enthralling. It is tantalising to think how this could have been developed if an older, more experienced Austen had given Lady Susan the same treatment she gave to Elinor and Marianne, another juvenile epistolary novella better known to us today as Sense and Sensibility.
So what character archetype does Lady Susan fill? She is clearly the main protagonist, but I wouldn’t call her a hero. But neither is she (exactly) a villain. I would perhaps class her as an antihero, and what a brilliant one she is. She is a delectable subversion of all that Austen’s society (as well as ours, to an extent) dictated a woman should be. She is shamelessly sexual, and uses that sexuality to manipulate those around her; in a world where women were totally reliant on men for shelter and finance, she turns her sexuality – referred to as her “dangerous abilities” – into its own kind of currency. Through seduction and manipulation, Lady Susan achieves independence and, for this, we love her. She is described as “the most accomplished Coquette in England”, a title I think Lady Susan would have worn with pride.
Don’t be intimidated by its epistolary format. Austen herself was a great letter writer, and her expertise in this area definitely comes shining through. It is unique, again, from her other novels in that whilst they are all in the third person, in Lady Susan we get direct windows into the thoughts of almost all of the named characters. Not only that, but we get the delight of seeing how the characters change depending on who they are addressing in their letters. For example, when she writes to Cath Vernon, Lady Susan is all doe-eyed earnest innocence; when she writes to Alicia Johnson, she is glimmering with wickedness and pride. These 41 letters all feel so real, illustrating what is at the heart of this novel: a clandestine, not-so-genteel war between Lady Susan and Cath Vernon as she tries to save her brother from the clutches of this black widow. This is a literal war of words that glitters with delicious bitchiness
I wouldn’t recommend that an Austen virgin start their Regency reading voyage with Lady Susan, largely because you have to know Austen’s other works to understand that you are reading the juvenilia of a genius. It raises that age old ‘death of the author’ question – would I have enjoyed this book as much if I hadn’t known it was written by Jane Austen? Well, I probably wouldn’t have read it in the first place if I hadn’t known it was an Austen. But would I have found it so intriguing, so entertaining, so enthralling? I think I would have. Not only for its sharp wit and pithy writing, but for the total kick-ass bitch of a heroine, the antithesis of Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price. This is Jane Austen at her most playful, her most wicked, and her most modern. Give Lady Susan a chance and you, like Reginald De Courcy, will soon fall under her lavish, seductive spell.
Favourite quote: “Lady Susan possesses a degree of captivating deceit which must be pleasing to witness and detect.”
Similar books: Quicksand by Junichiro Tanizaki; The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde; My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier.