Lady Susan by Jane Austen

One day in May, a friend of mine floated the idea of going to see the new Austen film, Love and Friendship. I had been vaguely aware of the film, but wasn’t aware it was an Austen adaptation; I knew of the existence of Lady Susan, but it had never been on my To Be Read list. Of course, this intrigued the English Literature student in me and, before the week was out, I had got hold of Lady Susan and read it. As a novella, it didn’t take long. At the time of writing this, I have not seen the film nor read the other Austen work which inspired the film’s title: Love and Freindship (not a typo!). By the time this is posted, I will hopefully have done both and will be working on getting posts up about them. (Later update: reworked my post schedule so my review of the film Love and Friendship will be up next week.)

Lady Susan is an epistolary novella detailing several incidents which take place as Lady Susan Vernon goes to stay with her brother and sister-in-law; known for her manipulation, Lady Susan disrupts the lives of the Vernons as she plans to move herself up in society. First things first, I love epistolary narratives: aside from the more personal tone, there’s something so intriguing about the space between the action of the narrative and the recounting of the narrative. The fact that Lady Susan involves letters from many different characters to many different characters adds another dimension to the novella; the reader is able not just to see the personal relationship between several characters, but also to see the differences in the ways in which they address each other. The letters from Lady Susan to Mrs Johnson, for example, are vastly different to the letters from Lady Susan to Reginald De Courcy. One is her confidante, the other someone she is trying to manipulate.

I am not sure if there has been much written about the characters in Lady Susan. I presume so since, although not one of her most famous or popular works, it sheds a great light on Austen’s worldview in contrast to the time in which she is writing. It is the female characters on which the novella primarily focusses, with the male characters simply mindless pieces in the wider game that is being played. From Mrs Johnson, to Lady Susan, to Catherine Vernon, the women are all thinking ten steps ahead of the men in their lives, making plans for the advancement or peace of mind of themselves and their families.

Lady Susan, as the eponymous character, is no traditional heroine nor is she particularly likeable. However, there is perhaps here a critique from Austen as to the double standard faced by men and women in the society in which she was living. Lady Susan is a widow who, although wealthy, is looking for a husband who will offer her a future that is completely secure; if she can’t achieve that, then she will settle for a husband who will offer her simple pleasure. She is manipulative, intelligent, and without remorse. Yet you would not have to go far in novels of the time to find male characters with similar character traits who are simply seen as the ‘brooding hero’. You probably wouldn’t have to go far today. Social commentary aside, I will say that I found myself completely unable to root for Lady Susan at all, though I know others enjoy her character, on these grounds: the unthinkable emotional abuse she displays towards her daughter, Frederica. Whatever your disposition towards Lady Susan or Catherine Vernon, you surely have to agree with Catherine Vernon that Lady Susan’s behavior towards Frederica is highly damaging.

I will agree with the general consensus that this novella is definitely not one of Austen’s best. I read one review which commented that it feels as though Austen just gave up part-way through; whilst I am not sure I agree totally with that assessment, I will say that the ending did feel a little rushed with the switch to traditional narrative in the conclusion quite jarring. However, it is an intriguing novella that makes some important commentary on the society into which Austen was writing. Also, it includes some great female friendships, which is always a bonus for me. My main question that I was left with at the end of this is ‘how on earth are they going to adapt this for film?’ so I am waiting eagerly to see what Love and Friendship is like!

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