I consider myself a huge fan of Jane Austen, and thought I had read, and re-read, everything she had written until I discovered Lady Susan. It is the first book she wrote, when she was about 19, but never sent for publication. It was published by her nephew in 1871, 54 years after her death.
The title refers to the main character, Lady Susan. And ‘boy is she a character’. This book is not written in the style of a typical Jane Austen novel, it is instead a series of letters from Lady Susan to her friend Mrs Johnson (Alicia). In these letters we see what Lady Susan is really capable of. The other letters, between the other characters, deal with the fall-out.
The book opens with Lady Susan, who has recently become a widow, inviting herself to the home of her deceased husband’s brother and his wife (Mr Charles and Mrs Catherine Vernon). All sounds lovely but nothing is as it seems with Lady Susan. She has outstayed her welcome with the Mainwarings, due to the fact that she is having an affair with Mr Mainwaring! “….she does not confine herself to that sort of honest flirtation which satisfies most people, but aspires to the more delicious gratification of making a whole family miserable”.
Lady Susan has a daughter Frederica but she does not have a maternal bone in her body. To her, Frederica “is a stupid girl, and has nothing to recommend her”. On her way to the Vernon’s she will deposit her daughter at a school in London. However, her plan is to marry Frederica off to a rich man so that she can continue to live a life that ‘suits the freedom of her spirit’. I found it a relief that that Catherine Vernon was not fooled by Lady Susan of whom she writes “She…..talks very well, with a happy command of language, which is too often used, I believe, to make black appear white”.
It’s not a long book, only about 90 pages / 41 letters, some very short, and it ends abruptly, not with a continuation of letters in the style of the rest of the book, but with a conclusion. It almost seems that Jane herself got fed up of Lady Susan’s antics and felt such a character wasn’t worthy of a grand finale. In the conclusion we see what Jane thought of Lady Susan when she writes “Whether Lady Susan was or was not happy in her second choice, I do not see how it can ever be ascertained; for who would take her assurance of it on either side of the question?”
Knowing that this was Jane Austen’s first foray into writing, I imagine that she decided not to have such a self-centred, amoral main character in her future books. There are minor characters in her other books that, if developed, could probably give Lady Susan a run for her money but I don’t think even they would lower themselves to Lady Susan’s standards. I’m thinking of Fanny Dashwood in Sense & Sensibility or Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice??
I love the way Jane Austen writes. I love her wit, sarcasm, observations and how she verbalises so wonderfully what the mind is thinking. I enjoyed Lady Susan for all of these reasons. It was too short for my liking so now I’m reading Mansfield Park (again!).
“Some books are so familiar that reading them is like being home again.” (Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ online catalogue here.