I recently had the chance to re-read Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. Most readers will know it is part of her minor works, and that it was adapted to the big screen in 2016, confusingly under the title Love and Friendship. The story, written as a short epistolary novel, follows the vicious Lady Susan, a beautiful and manipulative widow with bags of charm, no scruples and a sharp wit.
The Original Schemer
Lady Susan is an exceedingly charming woman who has mastered the arts of social interaction and successful flirting with the sole purpose of personal benefit. Her character is similar to that of other shrew females we meet in Jane Austen’s classic novels. In particular, she makes me think of a more mature and sophisticated Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility.
Both Lucy and Lady Susan are delightful yet ambitious, and experts at turning people’s beliefs around, even when they are most predisposed against them. Remember how cunningly Lucy manages to be forgiven by the terrifying Mrs Ferrars? Lady Susan would no doubt approve of her behaviour.
But [Lucy Steele’s] perseverance in humility of conduct, and messages, in self-condemnation for Robert [Ferrars]’offence, and gratitude for the unkindness she was treated with, procured her in time the haughty notice [from Mrs Ferrars] which overcame her by its graciousness, and led soon afterwards, by rapid degrees, to the highest state of affection and influence.
Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 50
A Preview of a Classic Rogue
In Lady Susan, we also come across early sketches of the sort of scoundrels that pepper Austen’s novels. For example, Mr Mainwaring, Lady Susan’s intermittent lover, is clearly an older but equally attractive version of Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. Handsome Mr Mainwaring is rather philandering in his ways, and Mrs Mainwaring’s story has chilling echoes of orphaned Miss Grey and her fortune of £50,000.
Poor Mainwaring gives me such histories of his wife’s jealousy. Silly woman to expect constancy from so charming a man! But she always was silly—intolerably so in marrying him at all, she the heiress of a vast fortune and he without a shilling: one title, I know, she might have had, besides baronets. Her folly in forming the connection was so great that, though Mr. Johnson was her guardian, and I do not in general share his feelings, I never can forgive her.
Lady Susan, Letter 26
A Timeless Plotline
Another figure of Lady Susan that we find in subsequent Austen novels is the young woman set against marrying the man that her family has decided is perfect for her. In Lady Susan, the protagonist’s adolescent daughter, Frederica, steadfastly refuses Sir James, the rather stupid but wealthy suitor that her mother wants her to marry (and who has more than a passing resemblance to Mansfield Park‘s Mr Rushworth).
Frederica’s gesture reminded me of two equally stubborn, if vastly different, Austen characters. The first one is Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, who declines the marriage proposal of another silly man, the ridiculous Mr Collins. The second one is timid Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, who declines the marriage offer of wealthy Henry Crawford against the wishes of her adoptive family, the Bertrams.
Getting Away With It
Jane Austen’s readers know that, at the end of her novels, characters with less than respectable behaviour don’t always get what they deserve. For example, in Sense and Sensibility, scheming Lucy Steele manages to marry wealthy Mr Ferrars — although one might argue that, with such an alliance, Fanny Dashwood suitably gets her karmic comeuppance.
Along the same lines, Lady Susan’s protagonist, in spite of her manipulative tricks and traps, is not punished by the author. At the end of the story, Lady Susan gets married for a second time to a man of fortune. Only, in a wonderfully wicked twist, Lady Susan’s new husband is Sir James, a wealthy man a decade younger than herself whom she had long intended for her daughter.
A Less Perfect Austen
Lady Susan allows us to glimpse a much less polite version of Jane Austen. Jealousy, greed and wickedness are always present in her classic novels, but they are hidden under a veneer of respectability, which Lady Susan does without. Perhaps the crudeness is due to the lack of subtlety of the beginner, or the fact that, as the story was never intended for publication, the author didn’t censor her words.
In a way, Lady Susan makes me long for the dark stories that Jane Austen might have written if she had had more time. The main character is as amoral and fierce as Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, even if the façade is much more subdued and civil (after all, the setting is Regency England rather than pre-Revolutionary France!).
The story is raw and at times over-the-top, and the style is less polished, but Lady Susan has plenty of passion and intriguing characters, and is also good fun. If you haven’t read it yet, I definitely encourage you to add it to your book list for 2019.
Have you read Lady Susan, and if so, what did you think of the story and its main character?