Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Classics Club: Lady Susan

(some spoilers included)

One of the earlier works by Jane Austen, Lady Susan is a novel that really changed my opinion of its author.  While I would regard Austen as a romantic writer in general (I am more into the misery of the Brontës' style of writing), I found Lady Susan really showcases Austen's sarcastic and sometimes mean description of the noble class. It is a treat for anyone enjoying the witty world of the "comme il faut" society and all the true work that goes on behind the scenes...

Lady Susan is written in an epistolary form, which meant that I read it in no time, including my giggling between the letters.  We deal with Lady Susan Vernon, a 4-month widow, in search of a new husband for herself and her daughter.  In her second youth (i.e. in her mid-thirties), she can still take the world by a storm with the help of her looks, her wit and her manners.

This is age where the only means of communication is through letters - every little idea, wish and comment is written down in great detail for the reader to discover (how they were not afraid that someone would discover them and create mayhem, I wonder...)

Lady Susan writes to her brother-in-law to inform him that she intends to visit them after depositing her daughter to a boarding school:

"My kind friends here are most affectionately urgent with me to prolong my stay, but their hospitable and cheerful dispositions lead them too much into society for my present situation and state of mind; and I impatiently look forward to the hour when I shall be admitted into Your delightful retirement"

Aahhh... it does sound cheeky, doesn't it?  And yes, shortly afterwards we are informed of the real reason for this visit, in a letter to her best friend:

"I have avoided all general flirtation whatever; I have distinguished no creature besides, of all the numbers resorting hither, except Sir James Martin, on whom I bestowed a little notice...Mrs. Mainwaring (is) insupportably jealous .. and so enraged against me...It is time for me to be gone; I have therefore determined on leaving them"

Well, a little scandal never hurt any well-to-do family.  As long as one disappeared for a bit, all was well in the world and peace could be restored...

I was impressed with Austen's ability to change between the official façade and the real background of each story; no sympathy for any character, no vain effort to conceal or improve the situation at hand.  What is even more impressive is the ruthlessness she bestows upon Lady Susan as regards her daughter:  Lady Susan thinks of her as "the greatest simpleton on earth" and she will need to go to boarding school "till she becomes a little more reasonable" -- i.e. until she agrees to marry the man dear Maman has in store...

Lady Susan has all the negative qualities one can even imagine - yet, I could not come to dislike her.  If anything, Austen presents her in such a light that I was actually amazed she could pull so many tricks and come out (mostly) unharmed.  I came to admire her for her survival skills and her determination to conquer the world.  She justifies every action she takes and she seems to really believe in her own true and kind character:
"this want for cordiality is not very surprising, and yet it shows an illiberal and vindictive spirit to resent a project which influenced me six years ago, and which never succeeded at last"
Why she wonders at her sister-in-law's mistrust towards her?  why, because Lady Susan moved Heaven and Earth so that Mrs. Vernon would not marry her husband's brother...such a tiny little thing, how could one bear a grudge after all these years???

But then, the opportunity arises:  Lady Susan meets Reginald, Mrs. Vernon's brother, and makes it her mission to conquer him, "to humble the pride of these self-important De Courcys" - so Lady Susan can hold a grudge herself...

The story goes on to portray a series of exchanges of letters (I suspect at the speed of our emails even...), where in the end Austen has to intervene. She turns into prose to provide the last details of this story, before we lose any interest in the truth behind the letters.  Mrs. Vernon manages to get rid of her sister-in-law, Lady Susan's daughter escapes from her mother and lives happily ever after with the Vernons, and Lady Susan herself escapes the worst, only to come back triumphant marrying someone much younger than her (stealing him, of course, from a woman half her age!)

I thoroughly enjoyed Lady Susan, not only because of its theme (I suppose it's like watching a modern-day soap-opera - you know it's trash, but you love the back-stabbing!).  More importantly, it brought to light Austen's skill to point to her society's faults without mercy.  I assume this may have been the reason she chose to publish it so much later...


  1. This is the only Austen book which I haven't got around to reading but I'll be on the look out for it now. Thanks.

    1. it's really a treat to read!

  2. I always wondered what Lady Susan would be like as a novel. Austen was a bit in love with the epistolary format (S&S started as one).

    1. I have to say, the epistolary form suits Lady Susan completely. It leaves the rest of the subject matter to the (vivid) imagination of the reader...




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