Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, a Treasure Trove of Sorts

I had a long list of books to read over the holidays, but I must admit that I was less diligent than I would have liked. In the end, I am ashamed to admit that I only got through half a volume, but what a volume it was. Mr Claus, who knows me very well, gifted me Jane Austen’s Shorter Works, a delightful compilation of her less known short stories, novellas and unfinished novels.

I had been curious about Austen’s minor works for a long while and had even read some fragments already on my e-reader, but I must admit that nothing beats the thrill of opening an exquisitely bounded book. I’m a voracious reader, and digital formats have been a revelation in the last few years, enabling me to enjoy many more stories on the go. However, I found that reading an old-fashioned book made me slow down in my reading, and the experience has been completely different.

My first impression upon reading the book is that Jane Austen was a born storyteller. In these earlier and rougher works, her words are cruder and her style less polished than in her novels, but the Austen feelings and passion and the well-rounded characters that we all know and love are all there. At the same time, the pieces allow us to glimpse a much less genteel version of Jane Austen. I was particularly surprised at the powerful and vicious Lady Susan, the main character of the short epistolary novel with the same name, a manipulative widow with bags of charm, no scruples and a sharp wit.

Lady Susan was adapted to the big screen in 2016 (confusingly under the title Love and Friendship, which is a different minor work by Jane Austen). I must admit to not having seen the film yet, although it has been on my to-watch list for a while, so I cannot say if it is faithful to the original. However, if it is, I’m in for a treat. Lady Susan‘s protagonist is as amoral and fierce as Marquise de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, although her façade is much more subdued and civil. After all, the setting is Regency England rather than pre-Revolutionary France.

Lady Susan is a still beautiful and exceedingly charming woman who has mastered the arts of social interaction and successful flirting with the sole purpose of personal benefit. Her character has early echoes of some of the harpies we meet in Jane Austen’s classic novels. In particular, she made me think of a more mature and sophisticated Lucy Steele of Sense and Sensibility. Both ladies are 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?

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

Speaking of Sense and Sensibility, I was also surprised to come across an older but equally attractive version of Willoughby in the pages of Lady Susan, in the character of Mr Mainwaring, Lady Susan’s intermittent lover. Unsurprisngly, handsome Mr Mainwaring is rather philandering in his ways, to the dismay of his unhappy wife. The story of the Mainwaring’s marriage immediately made me think 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 large 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

Another figure of Lady Susan that we come across in other Jane Austen’s 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 teenage daughter, Frederica, refuses Sir James, the rather stupid but wealthy suitor that her mother wants her to marry.

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 refuses another silly man, the ridiculous and unforgettable Mr Collins. The second one is timid Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, who declines the marriage offer of wealthy Henry Crawford, one of Austen’s most charming rogues, against the wishes of her adoptive family, the Bertrams.

Reading Lady Susan has made me long for the dark stories that Jane Austen might have written, had she had more time. Jealousy, greed and wickedness are always present in Jane Austen’s classic novels, but they are always hidden under a veneer of insinuation and respectability. Lady Susan shows a very different Austen, one that is not afraid to dig out the evils of the world, acknowledge their presence and look at them in the eye. I wonder if the moral transgressions of Lady Susan are because it was perhaps never intended for publication and as a result, the writer didn’t censor her words.

As for Lady Susan’s destiny (spoiler alert): she never gets what she deserves in the end. Just like cunning Lucy Steele, who manages to marry wealthy Mr Ferrars, Lady Susan picks a man of fortune as her second husband. Only, in a wonderfully wicked twist, Lady Susan chooses Sir James, a rich man a decade younger than herself whom she had long intended for her daughter. It’s a scandalous yet perfect ending to an excellent read.

Lucy Steele, no doubt, would have been impressed.

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