October 2014 meeting: Lady Susan – a vicious jewel?

AustenLadySusanPenguinPrepared by member Jenny.

Jane Austen’s early work, “Lady Susan” presents critics with an enigma.

How could a country parson’s daughter in her late teens portray such an evil character as Lady Susan?

Critics have been at pains to find answers:

  • Was it an act of defiance written when her father presented her with a writing desk hoping to discourage her flirtatious behaviour? (Noakes)
  • Did Jane Austen’s adventurous, worldly and flirtatious cousin, Madame La Comptesse Eliza De Feullide, widow of a French nobleman, provide the role model? She could possibly have lent Jane a copy of Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses or told her about it.
  • Yet another source could have been her friend Martha Lloyd’s grandmother, Mrs Craven, who tyrannised no less than three daughters into fleeing the family home.
  • Restoration literature could have played a part with Fielding’s Tom Jones character Lady Bellaston “dangerously endowed, experienced and independent (Jay A. Levine) or Congreve’s Lady Wishford? Certainly Lady Susan was a consummate actress.(Park Honan)
  • Jane Austen following the tradition of the evil man or rake may have upended the idea by creating a female version (Janet Todd) – the unashamed adulteress who coldly assessed the situation, enslaved men and victimised her daughter of whom she was sexually jealous.
  • Whatever fired Austen’s imagination, Jane, according to Claire Tomalin, may have written herself into a dangerous corner – been too clever, too bold, and too black which made her decide to censor that part of her mind that interested itself in women’s wickedness, especially sexual wickedness. It was only reignited briefly with Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. Her letters give occasional hints of it.

The fact that Jane copied the story out nine or ten years later shows she had some pride in the work. Perhaps her family disapproved of it. She may have realised that the vogue for epistolary novels was over, hence her complete reworking of Elinor and Marianne. The atmosphere of sexual licence was passing and lady authors probably were not expected to deal with such matters.

Whatever the answers to these questions may be, Lady Susan provides the most remarkable example of the worst type of Regency predator on polite society capable of parodic imitation of pliant, graceful femininity set against her outrageous inversion of ordinary values – a comic monster of “misconduct.”

We see not only Austen’s critique of society but also that of the conduct book in Lady Susan’s mouthing of John Locke’s educational principles in support of her cruel treatment of her daughter, Frederica.

Lady Susan coolly dupes a chorus of gullible men, with her beauty, charm and cunning leaving her readers somewhat aghast – especially when she admits her behaviour to her confidante, Alicia Johnson.

But the work really is a hilarious comedy, perhaps the bridge between her outrageous juvenilia and her carefully reworked mature work.

It may be unbalanced with such domination on the part of Lady Susan. The characters may be somewhat cartoonish (Claudia Johnson). Male characters especially are underdeveloped.

However many of the later ideas and characters find their seeds in this work. Serious reading is applauded while the “prevailing fashion for acquiring a perfect knowledge in all Languages and Arts and Sciences is derided by Lady Susan as gaining a woman some applause but will “not add one lover to her list.” One thinks of Lizzie Bennett and perhaps her sister, Mary. Characters dominated by pride such as Emma, Mrs Norris and Lady Catherine De Burgh are possible descendants of Lady Susan as is the arch manipulator, Lucy Steele.

Jane Austen’s mature style with its witty dialogue and free indirect speech was not enabled by the epistolary style. Lady Susan does not develop as a character and doesn’t appear likely to do so.

The denouement is wonderfully theatrical with Alicia absent when Reginald de Courcy calls but Mrs Manwaring and Mr Johnson are finally able to make the young man recognise his danger. He does not dare visit her again.

She is not discountenanced by her fall. Far from it she states:

I am tired of submitting my will to the caprices of others; of resigning my own judgement in deference to those to whom I owe no duty, and for whom I feel no respect. I have given up too much have been to easily worked upon …

Does she honestly believe her own fabrications? As her confidante, Alicia states: “Facts are such horrible things.”

Lady Susan takes the only expedient course in the conclusion which Austen suddenly tacks on the end. Having offloaded her daughter onto the Vernons, she rides off into the sunset as the wife of Sir James Martin, no doubt to create further havoc wherever she may be.

Other versions of Jane Austen’s work:

Members who visited the UK recently noted that a production of Sense and Sensibility was presented at Stirling Castle in August and a rendition of Persuasion will be performed at the King’s Lynn Arts Centre on Thursday, 27th November at 7.30pm. Meanwhile we look forward to the possibility of a movie of Lady Susan starring Sienna Miller.

A fascinating quiz concerning the letters contained in Jane Austen’s mature novels inspired us to include them as a discussion topic next year.


November’s meeting will focus on Jane Austen’s Vulgar Characters. Check sidebar for details

Jane Austen’s birthday (and Christmas) will be celebrated with a lunch in mid-December. Check sidebar for details.


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