This post is from my only Jane Austen podcast, because her tremendous novel-in-letters Lady Susan contains one of the truly great Appalling Women in British Fiction. We all enjoy a villain, but there is something particularly enjoyable about a female villain, especially when she’s written for readers who expect women to be pure, perfect, and positive. It’s even better when the role that woman plays in the novel is also expected to be pure and perfect, for instance the role of a mother.
Lady Susan is part of what is known in the trade as juvenilia, Jane Austen’s very early work, never published in her lifetime, but kept presumably for her private entertainment. She wrote Lady Susan in 1795 or 1796, when she was around nineteen or twenty years old, and it is astonishing. It’s in the very fashionable epistolary mode: a novel written as letters. Late eighteenth-century novelists used this form a lot, and one of the most famous epistolary novels, Fanny Burney’s Evelina, is held to have been an important influence on Austen.
Lady Susan is also very much like a play: it’s pared down, and focused on the effects of one character on a parade of others. But the most surprising thing about it, as the literary production of a younger daughter living at home in a country rectory, is its calm assumption of the wickedness and gullibility of human nature, and the ease with which sexual relations are tolerated in polite society. In this novel Jane Austen is writing about things it is pretty likely her parents would really wish her not to know much about, but she does it anyway, with the confidence and technique of a writer twice her age.
The novel is very short (it takes only about an hour to read), structured as 41 letters, ending with a conclusion. Lady Susan writes 16 of these letters: we hear her voice more often than we hear the opinions of any of the other characters, and this is a good thing, because she is the liveliest, most cunning and most plausible creature in the novel. I’m going to give away the plot completely here, but it’s necessary: you won’t grasp the full wickedness of her character without the spoilers.
Lady Susan has been widowed for only four months, but when the novel opens she has already had a passionate affair with Mr Manwaring, a married man, in whose household she has been staying for some months, while carrying out a major flirtation at the same time with Sir James Martin, which breaks off his engagement to Mr Manwaring’s young sister on account of his passion for Lady S. That’s the kind of woman we’re dealing with: economic with her sexual currency, securing the fervent attention of two men at the same time, and utterly ruthless in the pursuit of her own desires.
Lady Susan has a teenage daughter, Frederica, whom she has neglected all her life, but plans to marry off to Sir James once she herself has finished dallying with him. But Frederica is so distraught at the idea of marrying Sir James, who is a meaningless fop, that Lady Susan decides to send her away to school in London, as a punishment, until Frederica gives in and agrees to marry who her mother wants. So she’s an evil mother too. However, we should pause for a moment to consider the economics of Lady Susan’s situation. She herself needs to marry, to have an income, and her daughter must marry as well, so in arranging a reasonable marriage for Frederica (for Sir James is not a vile old man, nor an impossible Cit: he’s just a fool), she’s doing what a mother ought. However, as the reactions of Frederica’s aunt make clear, Lady Susan is behaving cruelly to her daughter: in this novel (otherwise why write such a delicious farrago for pleasure?) affection and compliance in a marriage are desirable in marriage, and force is not.
Lady Susan’s affair with Mr Manwaring has not gone smoothly, since Mrs Manwaring is incandescent with rage about it, as is Miss Manwaring, and so Lady Susan thinks it advisable to look for somewhere else to visit. She can’t set up house yet in London, as she is too recently widowed to socialise in public, so she invites herself to stay with her late husband’s brother, Mr Vernon. Mrs Vernon loathes Lady Susan, because she had tried her best to prevent the Vernon marriage. Mrs Vernon is also suspicious about what Lady Susan plans to do now in their quiet country house. Lady Susan is momentarily nonplussed as to how she can advance her own situation, but her resourcefulness is part of her charm: she will enter a situation and leave it with grace and good humour, and be always ready to take advantage of anything promising that may present itself. She is very like Madame de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses, with her sheer cold-blooded nerve and strategic thinking, but, as Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin says, it’s unlikely that Austen would have been allowed to have read that really scandalous novel, unless her naughty cousin Eliza, married to a French nobleman, had slipped her a copy.
Lady Susan’s strategy with the Vernons is to persuade Mrs Vernon that she is really very fond of her, and of the dear Vernon children too: why, she’s almost memorised all of their names already. Mrs Vernon isn’t fooled, and is a little nervous as well. Her dashing younger brother Reginald is coming to stay, because he has heard such glorious stories about Lady Susan from a friend who had recently visited the Manwarings, and so he wants to view this dangerous, glamorous woman for himself. Lady Susan naturally sees her opportunity, and within a very few letters, Reginald is captured, has completely refuted all the stories about Lady Susan that he’d been spreading a week or so before, and his sister, mother and father are in despair.
The magnificence of Lady Susan’s tactics endears her to the reader. She is a predator, as Claire Tomalin says, and gets all the best lines. This is what she says about her daughter: She is a stupid girl, and has nothing to recommend her.
On education: to be Mistress of French, Italian, German, Music, Singing, Dancing, Drawing etc will gain a Woman some applause, but will not add one Lover to her list.
On her enemies: There is an exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predetermined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority.
I have never yet found that the advice of a Sister could prevent a young Man’s being in love if he chose it.
What kind of gossipy games was Jane Austen playing with her friends to come up with lines like these? Or did she pick them up from the theatre, from plays by Oliver Goldsmith or Sheridan?
Lady Susan’s plans are upset when her daughter tries to run away from school (after another threat that she will have to marry Sir James), and so she has to be brought to stay with her mother at the Vernons’ house, getting in the way of her mother’s flirtation with Reginald, and giving Mrs Vernon yet another reason to loathe her sister-in-law. If Lady Susan could control all the actors in this farce, she would have exactly what she wanted, but her behaviour is too outrageously insincere to keep Mrs Vernon docile, and her attractions are too powerful for the men under her thumb. Sir James arrives at the Vernons’ house unexpectedly, inviting himself to stay. He seems quite happy to flirt with the mother while expecting to marry the daughter, and Reginald is beginning to realise that Lady Susan’s behaviour is somehow only acceptable and reasonable when she explains things to him herself. Now what can Lady Susan do?
Her solution is to retreat to Town, to stay near her best friend Mrs Johnson, another wicked woman but one unhappily still possessed of a grumpy old husband. Lady Susan grandly tells Reginald that he must not visit her in London, since she has a reputation as a recent widow to maintain. Annoyingly he follows her, just as Mr Manwaring, still mad for love of her, shows up in London as well, and Mrs Manwaring gets hold of Reginald to Tell Him All. It’s a splendidly farcical situation, told in a series of increasingly hurried and exasperated letters between Mrs Johnson and Lady Susan. Having to rapidly decide between Reginald, who needs a lot of soothing because he is a truculent young devil, and Mr Manwaring, who is at her feet for ever, Lady Susan takes the easy, but more socially risky option, and drops Reginald, in a sorrowful, self-sacrificing way, to encourage the Manwaring divorce more thoroughly. Mrs Johnson is forbidden by her furious husband to write to her dear friend Susan ever again, and Lady Susan’s last letter to her bosom friend is to fervently wish that Mr Johnson will drop down dead of the gout as soon as possible. In this friendship alone she is constant, but every magnificent heroine needs a confidante.
There is no getting away from the fact that Lady Susan is a heroine. She totally dominates the action, and never meets anyone worthy of her. It is such a pity that Austen did not yet have the experience or observational powers to create a Mr Darcy or a Captain Wentworth for Lady Susan, but she would have walked over both of them. Lady Susan needed a tempestuous, storming, totally masculine shouty hero, or a supremely cold and eyebrow-lifting master of deviousness, perhaps like the Duke of Avon whom Georgette Heyer would create two centuries later. Jane Austen had not decided yet how she would draw her male characters. It’s rather indicative that she never returned to the Lady Susan model: the nearest we get to a wicked woman in the rest of her fiction is Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, or Miss Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, but neither of these have the really impressive sense of self-preservation or the callous planning of Lady Susan. We are not worthy.