…our party is enlarged by Mrs. Vernon’s brother, a handsome young man, who promises me some amusement. There is something about him that rather interests me, a sort of sauciness, of familiarity which I shall teach him to correct. He is lively and seems clever, and when I have inspired him with greater respect for me than his sister’s kind offices have implanted, he may be an agreeable flirt.
(from Lady Susan in Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon, page 52)
Lady Susan is a very short novel (less than 100 pages) by Jane Austen, considered one of her “minor works.” It was likely written in 1793 or 1794, but it was not published until after her death. Lady Susan is an epistolary novel, and it’s the only novel I’ve read by Austen with a horrid “heroine” — but that’s what makes her so interesting.
Lady Susan Vernon is a recent widow who had an affair with a married man, whose wife’s jealousy, along with her efforts to find a husband for her daughter, have prompted her to flee and stay with her brother-in-law and his wife. Lady Susan is a very selfish person who acts horribly toward her daughter, Frederica, who refuses to marry the man her mother has chosen for her. In addition to stringing along Manwaring, the man with whom she had the affair, Lady Susan sets her sights on her sister-in-law’s brother, Reginald, much to Mrs. Vernon’s dismay. While Lady Susan’s close friend, Mrs. Johnson, indulges her despite the fact that her husband wants her to end their relationship, Mrs. Vernon sees Lady Susan for who she is and takes pity on Frederica.
I enjoyed Lady Susan and its overly dramatic characters, but the limitations of the epistolary novel are evident. There is little character development, and the primary voices in the book are Lady Susan’s and Mrs. Vernon’s, though a few minor characters chime in here and there. Because the book is written in letters, the conversations and actions are being retold after they happened, and they lose some of their immediacy.
Still, Lady Susan is highly entertaining. I found it interesting how Austen put a woman in the role of a shameless adulterer, though Lady Susan’s seeking another husband with a fortune is similar to the storylines in her more well-known novels. However, what’s different and intriguing is that Lady Susan is much older than the men she hopes to attract. And while I couldn’t like her or have much sympathy for her in the end, she certainly was amusing. Another must-read for Austen fans!
Disclosure: Lady Susan is from my personal library.
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