Thursday, 27 October 2016

Jane Austen's 'Lady Susan'; and Epistolary Novels


At about the age of nineteen, Jane Austen wrote Lady Susan, like some of her earlier works a novel in letters. Possibly the inspiration for the character of Lady Susan came from Jane’s acquaintance Mrs. Martha Craven, a cruel parent and fortune-hunter who was skilled at appearing courteous in society.

The plot is simple. Widowed at thirty-five and short of money, Lady Susan is encumbered with a sixteen-year-old daughter – the dejected, shy Frederica. Lady Susan feigns great concern for the girl but privately regards her as 'stupid', 'tiresome' and 'horrid'. While Lady Susan herself continues to manipulate and live off rich men, she wants to palm Frederica off in marriage to the rich but insipid Sir James Martin (whom she herself considers 'contemptibly weak'). Lady Susan is beautiful, charming and witty, with a talent for hiding her intentions. The combination of hypocrisy, enchantment and villainous scheming makes her a strong character. You have to admire her.  Like her creator, she is forthright and refuses to be dejected for long when her luck is faltering.

Part of Lady Susan's vitality comes from her refreshing attitudes. She makes fun of conventional education for young ladies: mastering foreign languages and sciences 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...'. Claiming that it pays to be eloquent rather than truthful, she says people will believe her own versions of events rather than Frederica's true ones: 'I trust I shall be able to make my story as good as hers. If I am vain of anything, it is my eloquence. Consideration and esteem as surely follow command of language, as admiration waits on beauty.' Like such flippant comments in Jane Austen's private correspondence, these assertions are not deliberately callous. They simply use a little comic exaggeration to underline life's ironies.

Lady Susan is not even so very wicked. Villain she may be, but she has impish humour – humour of the kind we admire in Elizabeth Bennet and in Jane Austen's own letters. When she says she 'could have poisoned' someone, we know she is joking. Apart from the coldness towards her daughter, most of her bad behaviour amounts to nothing more than telling people flattering lies.

She upsets the Manwaring family by seducing the husband and attracting Sir James Martin away from Manwaring's sister. Then she foists herself for the winter upon the family of her brother-in-law, the banker Mr. Vernon, at their country house, Churchill. She leaves Frederica a virtual prisoner at a boarding school. Lady Susan behaves outrageously with Mrs. Vernon's brother, Reginald de Courcy. Though he is twelve years her junior, she inveigles him into proposing marriage. She succeeds even though Reginald is suspicious of her, having been told about her behaviour with the Manwarings. Though she thinks little of Reginald, Lady Susan relishes her victory: 'There is an exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one's superiority.' She wonders whether she ought to marry him and torment him for ever.

The terrified Frederica, ordered by her mother to marry Sir James, attempts to escape from boarding school and is expelled as a punishment. She joins her hostile mother in the country and so becomes acquainted with Reginald.

The novel ends abruptly. Rather than continue the exchange of letters, Jane Austen writes a 'Conclusion', for which she provides the lame but amusing excuse: 'This correspondence, by a meeting between some of the parties and a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post Office revenue, be continued longer'!

Frederica's letters to her aunt, she says, are not worth reproducing, as they were censored by her mother. So we are told briefly that Mrs. Vernon cared for Frederica in the country. Lady Susan in town married the 'contemptibly weak' Sir James Martin. With time, Reginald was to get over his love for Lady Susan and marry her daughter instead.

Jane Austen was learning to exploit the comedy arising from the contrast between what people say to their acquaintances and what they write about them to others. Only in letters to her friend Alicia does Lady Susan reveal her true intentions. Alicia, like Lady Susan, lives only for a good time and writes of her own husband, 'He is going for his health to Bath, where if the waters are favourable to his constitution and my wishes, he will be laid up with the gout many weeks. During his absence we shall be able to choose our own society, and have true enjoyment.'

To Alicia, Lady Susan candidly describes her schemes to manipulate men and deceive women. She writes with such vitality and pride that she has the reader on her side.

The other principal letter-writer is Mrs. Vernon, the sister-in-law. She writes to her mother, Lady de Courcy. These letters, summarizing Lady Susan's alarming behaviour, are anxious and pessimistic. Mrs. Vernon's letters and personality do not provide a counter-balance to the vigour of Lady Susan. But Mrs. Vernon's letters win sympathy for the sweet daughter Frederica, who is by turns neglected, bullied and terrified by her mother.

With one of the two correspondents  stating frankly what she is plotting and the other seeing through her, there is little opportunity for subtlety or surprise.

The scrambled ending of Lady Susan gives the impression that Jane Austen had grown weary of it. But it completes the transition from Jane's teenage burlesques to disciplined adult writing. It also shows her moving from the novel of the Eighteenth Century, with its coarseness and explicitness, to the more discreet novel of the Nineteenth Century. With  Lady Susan, Jane Austen is still in the territory of Fielding and Richardson.

The transition from the epistolary to the third-person is also interesting. Jane already had plenty of experience in using letters to tell stories and reveal in true colours the character of the letter-writer. But in Lady Susan she is becoming frustrated by the clumsiness of making a story entirely out of mail and the restrictions it imposes on tone and viewpoint. Correspondents have to write out the exact words of long recent conversations. And incredible convolutions are needed: for us to see one particular letter, it has to be forwarded under cover to Mrs. Vernon, even though it was posted by her brother from her own house. In a later novel, Jane Austen would also have let us in on some of the scenes which, in the letter form, can be reported only at second hand - Lady Susan exercising her skills on Reginald, for example.

Jane must have become dissatisfied also because there is not enough breadth of interest to sustain a long work. There is no sub-plot and Lady Susan is the only character of real vitality. Even Reginald, a central character, gets to write very little. Frederica, the wronged daughter, writes promisingly (of Sir James), 'I would rather work for my bread than marry him'; but she is allowed only this one letter, a cry for help.