Quite recently, I discovered there is more the the Austen oeuvre than I realized. In addition to the canonical six novels, there are two incomplete novels and one short completed novel. The short work, Lady Susan, is fascinating historically and literarily, but it is not nearly as successful in the end as the better-known novels.
Although it is not entirely clear, most scholars seem to believe that Lady Susan was written as early as 1794. In many ways, Austen's later novels are among the very first of a distinctively nineteenth-century English novel. But Lady Susan feels much more like it came from an earlier era.
First of all, it is an epistolary novel. Although Victorian novelists including Anne Bronte used letters to convey a plot, the style was far more common during the 18th century. To the modern reader (or at least to this modern reader), the narrative seems stilted and strange. Perhaps our own distance from relationships carried on via extensive letters makes it harder for us to accept learning so much about others from the correspondence of friends. Or perhaps it is just hard to accept from Austen--that intimate, natural writer we've known for so long.
Secondly, the characters in Lady Susan are morally less complex. There is good and evil--or at least the goodness or evilness of characters are quite obvious and unambiguous. I love how Austen characters like Emma or
While I don't think Lady Susan is nearly as good as Austen's other novels, I did enjoy it very much. Partly, it is just a joy to see Austen fresh again. For so long, my experience of her work has only been as rereads of books I have read so many times before (or sometimes rewatches of a variety of filmed versions of these books I have read many times). I thought I would never be able to experience Austen truly through the eyes of the adult, since each time I pick up one of her novels I am immediately transported back to high school. The idea of getting some Austen that I haven't grown up on is delightful--even when I realize that the book might not repay numerous rereadings.
Lady Susan made me think of other books. First, in some ways Austen explores some of the same territory in Northanger Abbey. Although that text is tongue-in-cheek about the overly romantic novel-based worldview of its heroine, Lady Susan in some ways is the gothic/romantic schlock Northanger Abbey is mocking. And how Austen is that? The idea of a woman looking back to her earlier prejudices and realizing how immature and thoughtless she'd been? Hm. Sounds familiar.
I also kept thinking about William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair. I'll confess right off that I've never read Thackeray, only seen a couple of film interpretations of the book. But Lady Susan immediately made me think of Becky Sharp. Given that Lady Susan was not published until late in the nineteenth century, I think it is highly unlikely that Thackeray was aware of the echos--but the idea of asking readers to sympathize and identify with a flirtatious and dishonest woman seems ahead of its time.
So Lady Susan is a must-read for us Austenites--and definitely fascinating for anyone who is interested in the historical development of either novels in general or the role of women in fiction. If you love the sensational literature of the nineteenth century in general, you might see links as well. (I say this having not read a drop of sensational literature yet, but planning to soon....) Enjoy!
But if you love Austen just for the subtle character development and manners of Austen's more popular novels, you might give this book as pass. Reread Emma instead.
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Frances of the blog Nonsuch Book steered me to the gorgeous new Penguin "Threads" editions. I love the Emma cover! Click through to her post to see the back cover of this book as well as the Threads editions of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and Anna Sewell's Black Beauty.