It’s an unusual place to start with Jane Austen (1775 – 1817), but you can’t say no to free books, I find. Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon is a compendium of Austen’s major unpublished and unfinished works, discounting her juvenilia. Lady Susan was written when she was near twenty, in the epistolary style favoured by the 18th Century but quickly given up in the next. The Watsons hails from 1804 or so while the family was at Bath and was laid aside when the death of her father robbed her of motivation. Sanditon was written as her own health failed and was never completed. The Penguin omnibus is indispensable for Austen enthusiasts and entertaining enough to form a good introduction for those driven by happenstance or eccentricity to begin here and it also contains a wonderful plethora of engaging footnotes and introductions (critical, social and textual) by Margaret Drabble.
I have written so much on the subject of Sanditon in particular and am intent on posting more regularly so have decided to write about all three works separately.
Lady Susan has a simple plot: Comely but conniving widow Susan Vernon seeks her latest diversion seducing Reginald, the antagonistic brother of her sister-in-law Catherine while also determining to marry her daughter Frederica off to a rich, gauche young man the latter abhors. She basically invites herself to stay at Churchill with Catherine’s family to pursue these aims, but she must also take care to keep her true nature and prior scandals hidden from this respectable family’s view. Letters are traded among the characters, Susan gloats, the good women wring their hands and then an abrupt upswing concludes the novel with just desserts all around. Jane Austen’s renowned social commentary is in its infancy, as Drabble admits in the first and last footnote for it that “one looks in vain for obscure points of meaning or social detail in Lady Susan. There are none.”
Lady Susan probably dates from 1793-4. A fair copy was made, indicating that Austen liked the result of her early work, but she never made a whisper about publishing it and it was left to her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh to bring it to light in his Memoir, published in 1871. It’s a slight work, 60 pages in the old Penguin edition, a novella by modern standards. Once you sort out who’s who the letters fly back and forth and it’s a breezy read.
Although by far the shallowest of the three little books Lady Susan does have an advantage over the others by possessing a beginning, middle and end. Turns out, to gain full satisfaction from a novel an ending really IS required, experimentalism be damned – although Sanditon and The Watsons will remain in my memory far longer, they live or die based on how much the reader is willing to put into them after the standstill is reached. Lady Susan takes you on a short, charmingly old-fashioned ride at the close of which you dust your hands, pronounce judgement and move on to the next entertainment.
Austen quickly abandoned the epistolary form as her storytelling technique of choice and it’s not hard to see why. The chief pleasures of the form are its found-document facade of reality and the psychological and narrative trickery you can get up to when several people narrate the same events. Austen found it a stilted, artificial convention and the novel comes to a rushed and willfully sarcastic conclusion: This correspondence, by a meeting between some of the parties and a seperation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post Office revenue, be continued longer. Pragmatism and letter-writing are not a good fit.
Making this early work my official introduction to Jane Austen, without any earlier experience of her vaunted genius, I could still see glimmers throughout the work of the foundations of that praise. There’s an observant wit in action here that always strikes sparks. Susan’s blasé quote “where there is a disposition to dislike a motive will never be wanting…” rings of truth. The veiled fascination which Reginald de Courcy attempts to hide from Catherine and which brings him to Churchill to gawk at “the most accomplished coquette in England… – engaging at the same time and in the same house the affections of two men who were neither of them at liberty to bestow them – and all this, without the charm of youth…” becomes a direct foreshadowing of the ease with which Lady Susan seduces him.
Susan herself is a wonderful villain, charming on the surface and acid underneath. Her seductions are practiced not for money but for fun. She sets her sights on Reginald and says with relish “I have made him sensible of my power, and can now enjoy the pleasure of triumphing over a mind prepared to dislike me, and prejudiced against all my past actions.” Being a melodrama at heart, Lady Susan needs someone to gloat to and so Austen introduces Mrs. Johnson, her dear friend Alicia with whom she plots, schemes and snipes. Yes, it robs Lady Susan of a measure of devious subtlety, as a Susan with no one to play confidant would tax the reader to uncover the disparity between her honeyed missives and the damages being played out in other accounts; still it gives clarity to proceedings and also functions to keep Susan’s sheer villainy grounded. Susan and Alicia’s affection remains steadfast even as her plans fall apart and when she warmly claims that “Our friendship cannot be impaired” it reveals the malicious schoolgirl underneath the ruthless widow. Just enough character-building to keep her from being cartoonish, not enough to wreck her villainous disposition.
It’s impossible to find a review that doesn’t single out Lady Susan as the star, because Austen gives her no competition. You read it for her and it keeps the novel fun. Catherine is not an interesting woman, Reginald is deluded and the desperate Frederica, a natural draw for the reader’s sympathy, is only given a single short letter of self-expression. I am decidedly of Frederica’s party, however, as a promising character given short shrift by her own author. Downtrodden and neglected as she has been her whole life, she nevertheless has the pluck to run away from boarding school (she doesn’t make it far but that’s not her fault) and to take advantage of loopholes in her mother’s orders while knowing the cost these rebellions will have. Susan’s malice, her treatment of her daughter as a dumb animal and a prop in pursuit of fortune, is quite chilling. Although she is an intelligent, independent, and worldy woman she is against Frederica’s receiving any education at all, putting her in school to keep her out of the way and blithely dismissing the subject: “Not that I am an advocate for the prevailing fashion of acquiring a perfect knowledge in all the languages arts and sciences; it is throwing time away; to be mistress of French, Italian, German, music, singing, drawing etc., will gain a woman some applause, but will not add one lover to her list. Grace and manner after all are of the greatest importance. I do not mean therefore that Frederica’s acquirements should be more than superficial, and I flatter myself that she will not remain long enough at school to understand anything thoroughly.”
On the other hand it is said of Frederica that “Though totally without accomplishment, she is by no means so ignorant as one might expect to find her, being fond of books and spending the chief of her time in reading” so she’s the one who gets my vote. Lady Susan, for all her vaunted sophistication, has a rather parochial mind.
What ends up being the least impressive aspect of the work is the ending. Austen’s plot deflates into a lackluster denouement in which Susan’s schemes are foiled by happenstance as things just sort of work out for the best. The conclusion, in which Jane switches to third-person prose with an almost audible sigh of relief, is hasty and more acerbic than the situation called for. One rather suspects that she was just tired of writing letters. Her epistolary fragment Elinor and Marianne dates from the same era as Lady Susan and with the retirement of this style Sense and Sensibility, and Jane Austen as she is known and loved today, was born.
If however, you haven’t read any Austen and come across a reasonably priced edition of Lady Susan, don’t think to yourself “oh what a terrible place to start with Jane Austen,” because it really isn’t. It’s short, entertaining and attractive, well-paced with ups and downs, letters penned in triumph and sorrowfully recanted the next day and if you read it first you can flaunt your iconoclastic reading habits.
Footnote: I have used quotation marks in all excerpts from the text for the sake of clarity, as letter writing is closer to dialogue than to narration. This is obviously not part of the original text.