No. 3 in the series We Want More Austen!: Lady Susan
Imagine a Jane Austen heroine who is not a young virgin, but rather a recent widow in her thirties, in the midst of an affair with a married man. Imagine her at the same time scheming to separate another woman from the man she loves so that she can maneuver him into marrying her own daughter against her will. Doesn’t sound very Austenesque? Well, this is Jane Austen, the early edition.
In 1793 and 1794, when Austen was still in her teens, she penned a novelette in letters that is known today as Lady Susan. Unlike The Watsons and Sanditon, this story is complete, though the ending abandons the epistolary form for a rushed narrative summary. Austen could easily have conveyed the final scenes through letters, and that she did not implies that she got tired of the work or concluded that it should never be polished up for publication.
Lady Susan Vernon, by her own account possessed by the “desire of dominion,” is a beautiful and brilliant woman who devotes her period of mourning for her husband to schemes of manipulation. She is charming but utterly coldhearted; think Mary Crawford on steroids. (Any of you who have thought how much better Mansfield Park would be if Mary were the heroine, take heed of Lady Susan!) She is breathtakingly sociopathic, forever writing sentences like “I really have a regard for him [her brother-in-law], he is so easily imposed on!” to her friend and confidante, Mrs. Johnson. Of her friend’s husband she says he is “too old to be agreable, & too young to die.”
Mrs. Johnson is little better; she says things like “Since he will be stubborn, he must be tricked” and “Facts are such horrid things!” They egg each other on to immoral behavior, though Lady Susan is by far the worse of the two. The would-be-virtuous characters in the story fare little better: they are either clueless or are dragged into attempting deceptions of their own in reaction to Lady Susan’s schemes.
The tone of the whole work is satirical, but its cynicism is much harsher than the comedy of manners we see in the novels. There are elements of the literary spoofs that dominate Austen’s juvenile works (more of that in the next post); but here the greater focus is on the vices of the gentry, not their foibles. So we have infidelity, abandonment, discussions of ways to hasten the death of inconvenient relatives, and more, all presented in the baldest of terms.
Lady Susan is wickedly funny, and shows Jane Austen’s early gift for the clever twist of a phrase. Speaking of the man who comes closest to being a hero in the story, Lady Susan says, “This Reginald has a proud spirit of his own!—a spirit too, resulting from a fancied sense of superior Integrity which is peculiarly insolent.” After Lady Susan dumps her daughter off onto kinfolk, “tho’ inviting her to return in one or two affectionate Letters, was very ready to . . . [consent] to a prolongation of her stay, & in the course of two more months ceased to write of her absence, & in the course of two more, to write to her at all.” We laugh, but the laughter is uncomfortable.
In Lady Susan, the action and the ideas are darker and more exaggerated versions of anything we find in the novels. You might call it the movie version of the most shocking episodes in the books Austen saw fit to publish—which is ironic, because Lady Susan has been adapted for the screen and is due to be released as Love and Friendship next year: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3068194/. (Please note an error in the description: the story is set in the 1790s, not the 1970s.) Lady Susan is not for the squeamish, and definitely not for those who read Jane Austen for the romance.