After Austen’s death, several unpublished works remained. One of those was “Susan,” a short novel that made fun of the convention of Gothic fiction. Originally, it had been sold to Benjamin Crosby & Co. in 1803. Shortly before Jane’s passing, her brother Henry bought back the still unpublished manuscript from Crosby for £10 (the amount advanced for the privilege of publishing the story). Needless to say, Crosby had no idea at the time of his 1803 purchase that he held a manuscript from “A Lady,” the authoress of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.
Although ill, Austen made some changes in the story line, most obvious was the renaming of the heroine to Catherine Morland. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were released after Austen’s death. But what of her “Juvenilia”? Three unfinished (but nearly complete) manuscripts remained, along with other snippets and poetry. Among those was a complete novella (about 23,000 words in total) entitled “Lady Susan.” If you have not read it, join the Austen Authors’ Read-Along. “Lady Susan” is written in letter format (epistolary style), which are in first person, with the ending being summed up by a third person narrator. [The Austen Authors’ Read-Along Team has posted the letters and has offered lots of insights into the time period and Austen’s intentions. Please join the conversation if you have not done so previously. You will not regret it.]
At the level of narrative, for example, national romances from Sydney Owenson‘s The Wild Irish Girl (1806) are marked by a tendency to switch narrative style in their concluding moments: there, epistolary gives way to third person narration, while The Absentee, as with many of Maria Edgeworth’s Tales of Fashionable Life, shifts from third person to first person form in its concluding letter. Elizabeth Gunning’s The Exile of Erin (1808), is an elaborately conceived epistolary fiction in which letters from multiple correspondents travel between generations, countries, and continents and registers at once the continuities and discontinuities between the languages of sexuality and politics. These were the type of books that Austen would have read and upon which she modeled her writing.
Some assume the story was written when Austen was about twenty years of age. The watermark on the paper she used for the manuscript is 1805. Why was “Lady Susan” not published along with the other novels that made an appearance after her death? Many argue the length of “Lady Susan” did not lend itself to publication in a time when publication was often a hardship on the author. Others would say the nature of the character of Lady Susan was not in line with the image Austen’s family wished to portray to the world of first their sister and later their favorite aunt.
Austen’s niece Caroline said in a letter to James Edward Austen Leigh (1 April 1869) that “Lady Susan” was written “when the nonsense was passing away and before her [Jane Austen’s] wonderful talent had found its proper channel.”
Like me, I am certain many of you plan to view “Love and Friendship” over the Memorial Day weekend. If you plan to do so, know that the character of Lady Susan is NOT your usual Austen fare. Lady Susan is beautiful and enchanting, excessively so. [Heck, Kate Beckinsale plays her…enough said.] Lady Susan is also quite amoral. She is an amorous and sensual widow.
The letters that comprise the story line allow Austen to reveal Lady Susan’s personal thoughts without the “filter” of a third person narrative. We learn of her seduction of a married man, Mr. Manwaring…of her flirtations with Sir James Martin, supposedly to detach him from Miss Manwaring so he could take up with her daughter Frederica instead, etc. Lady Susan is not the type of character for whom the audience with cheer, but she is one for whom those who read the story will know empathy.
The image of the “squeaky clean” Jane Austen does not completely fit with the character of Lady Susan. Our “Jane” is a vicar’s daughter. She does not have knowledge of sexually manipulative women! LOL! One must remember that this story was written in the mid 1790s. The style and the use of the letters would be acceptable by those of the era. Austen read such stories herself. However, by the end of King George III’s reign (1820) tastes had changed. Moreover, Henry Austen, who saw to the publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion after his sister’s death, may have thought Lady Susan resembled his late wife. In the 1790s when Jane wrote the novella, Eliza de Feuillide was also a flirtatious widow. Did “Cousin Eliza” serve as the model for Lady Susan? Henry’s biographical notes upon his sister describe Jane as “thoroughly religious and devout.” The story of “Lady Susan” would not lend itself well to that image.
Although quite young at the time, in the novella, Austen controls the tension and the tone of the piece. She employs the techniques of what could be called black comedy. [A black comedy (or dark comedy) is a comic work that makes light of serious, disturbing and/or taboo subject matter.] Critics say, “The reader’s complicity is constantly caught and compromised during the course of the narrative.” (The Free Library)