“Lady Susan,” Jane Austen’s Epistolary Novella

One summer, when the planet was still habitable, before the glaciers melted and the butterflies began to die, I lugged around a Modern Library edition of The Complete Novels of Jane Austen in a basket I used as a purse.  To match my Austen enthusiasm,  I often donned my “Regency mod” outfit: a green, embroidered, empire-waist mini-dress, worn as a top over jeans. 

Some friends have asked, “Was the Austen book a fashion accessory, too?” 

No, I read it.

My favorite of Jane’s novels are Emma and Persuasion, but of course I enjoy them all.  And yet I have never been drawn to her early work and unfinished novels.  That, I think, is the line between the Jane Austen fan and the  Jane Austen fanatic and/or scholar. 

 I have nary a Jane Austen cup or Jane Austen greeting card.  But  I recently DID acquire a Jane Austen fashion accessory:  a beautiful yellow Penguin hardcover edition of Sanditon, which also includes her early works, Lady Susan and The Watsons.  Time to read her early stuff!

And I have just finished Lady Susan (1793-94), an entertaining epistolary novella.  It is a fascinating romp, actually a bit more raucous than Austen’s published books, more in the spirit of the eighteenth century.

 The villainous heroine,  Lady Susan, is a beautiful thirty-five-year-old widow.  She is a siren: Women, beware! On long visits to friends’ estates, she  flirts with married men and steals the  hearts of susceptible fiancés of hysterical young women.  The men chase her, the women are shattered, and her reputation is mud.  She  has to leave Langford, because the husband, Mainwaring, has fallen for her, and she has appropriated the affections of Sir James, who is attached to the daughter of the house.

Taking no responsibility means Lady Susan has a clear conscience.  She writes a gossipy account of her reasons for leaving Langford in a letter to her co-villainous best friend, Mrs. Johnson.

At present, nothing goes smoothly; the females of the family are united against me. You foretold how it would be when I first came to Langford, and Mainwaring is so uncommonly pleasing that I was not without apprehensions for myself. I remember saying to myself, as I drove to the house, “I like this man, pray Heaven no harm come of it!” But I was determined to be discreet, to bear in mind my being only four months a widow, and to be as quiet as possible: and I have been so, my dear creature; I have admitted no one’s attentions but Mainwaring’s. 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, in order to detach him from Miss Mainwaring; but, if the world could know my motive there they would honour me. 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.

At Churchill, the home of her in-laws, Lady Susan is charming to her late husband’s brother, Mr. Vernon, and his wife, Mrs. Vernon, and their children. Without appearing to flirt, she soon enchants Mrs. Vernon’s brother,  Reginald de Courcy.  Mrs. Vernon, who knows Lady Susan’s reputation,  recognizes the danger of Lady Susan’s fascination, and warns her mother that Reginald should be brought home on some pretense if possible. 

And then a wrench is thrown into the works:  Lady Susan’s nervous, downtrodden daughter, Fredericka, is expelled from school for running away (she wasn’t much of a runner:  she made it only two blocks). 

Lady Susan’s supremacy is temporarily shaken when Fredericka wins the sympathy of the Vernons and Reginald.

Will Lady Susan be banished or the ultimate victor?  The suave manipulator can convince anyone of just about anything.

This book is great fun, though there isn’t much depth, and the ending is really just a précis of who’s marrying whom.

And I agree with Margaret Drabble, who in the introduction praises the potential of Lady Susan and wishes Austen had pursued it.

Drabble writes,

One cannot leave Lady Susan without a word of regret.  What a pity it is that she never, in her mature work, returned to the subject of a handsome 35-year-old widow.  What scope there would have been, what choices offered.   Perhaps one should be grateful that she attempted it at the age of twenty. before she decided she could not or should not handle such a theme.

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