Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

This month, the Classics Circuit is staging a duel between those favorite nineteenth-century authors Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.  I've always been a strong Austen fan--loving Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and all of her other novels since I discovered them in eighth grade. 

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 solely 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 and Mr. Darcy are flawed individuals, subject to growth and change and maturation.  Lady Susan, on the other hand, is apparently pure evil.  Even her flirtatious side casts her as evil.  While some of the other folks in the story are drawn a little more subtly, they are still almost caricatures in their basic responses: "Oh no!"

Although Lady Susan is cruel, she is in many ways a character Austen asks us to identify with or at least see as a kind of anti-heroine.  As I read, I was thinking about William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair.  Lady Susan 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.

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 (and 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.

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.

*  *  *

Emma: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)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.


  1. Thackery;a fictional Becky Sharp is not nearly as appealing as the movie character. Quite the contrary, I'd say. And I've always been amused by the magazine that uses the name of the novel, given the novelist's portrayal of Vanity Fair as a parade, for the most part, of shallow, meaningless and unscrupulous lives.

    EMMA is the one Austen book I could not appreciate when I was young. Now, of course, with a different perspective--!!!

  2. Sorry, that was meant to begin "Thackeray's fictional Becky Sharp." A classic well worth reading, by the way.

  3. This is a great review. I knew about Austen's unfinished work but not this short story. I was not a fan of Northanger Abbey so it would be interesting to read this one and see if I like it. I agree that the saddest thing about beloved writers that have passed on is that we have all of the books we'll ever get from them, so we must settle for rereads. Austen's books, unlike others, always seem just as cool even if I'm rereading it for the 15th time. That's immortality right there!

  4. I own a book containing Lady Susan, her incomplete novels, and her juvenelia (some of which I've read.)

    Really look forward to reading them!!

    I read that Lady Susan was a courageous work (like Emma) because the main character is morally questionable?

    Allie is holding a Vanity Fair readalong in June (@ A Literary Odyssey.)

  5. I am reading Sense and Sensibility for the tour, and I have found myself thinking about all the subjects/characters that seemed to be Austen's favorite: the scoundrel, the forgiven/forgiving hero, the meddlesome women, and the ideas of strength, love, and what brings true happines. I know that lots of authors return to themes and characters, but it is interesting to see Austen do it so obviously but with great subtly at the same time.

  6. If you love Austen, I highly recommend Oxford's Illustrated Jane Austen, which includes a volume of Minor Works (Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon). The 6-volume hardcover set is often part of the OUP annual sale, where I picked it up a few years ago for $40.

    Love the idea of an Austen-Dickens duel and look forward to checking it out!

  7. This is more or less how I saw Lady Susan. It is useful as a light on Austen's origins in 18th century literature, in Burney and Richardson, and highlights the huge evolution between her "18th century" novels and her later ones.

    Is anyone reading Sanditon for the tour? Sanditon brilliant, its incomplete state a real loss.

  8. PJ: I must say I am a bit sorry to hear that Becky Sharp is less appealing in the book than in the film adaptations. She's definitely a mixed character in the films. I'm eager to see what Thackaray does with her!

    Pam: Isn't it true? I assume not all great books make sense for multiple rereads, but I feel like Austen surprises me anew each time.

    Jillian: I've been trying to decide if I'm on the cusp of reading Thackaray myself for Allie's challenge, or if I'm just excited to read all the posts for the read-along. I think the idea that this was a "courageous" work is true--and I suppose that is what underlies the similarity I see with Becky Sharp. I don't know nearly enough about 18th cent. lit to know if this makes sense, but if certainly feels different from other novels I've read. I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say about it!

  9. Read the Book: You are so right. Austen is really quite formulaic in a way--despite that fact that she can be surprising and innovative at the same time. I guess this bpok shows the scaffolding a lot more than her other novels do.

    Sylvie: Oooh! Must check it out! Thanks for the lead.

    AR: Glad to hear a recommendation for Sandition. Since you mention 18th cent lit, could you perhaps speak to the question of "bad girls" in pre-Victorian lit?

  10. And Austen definitely proves that having a formula isn't necessarily a bad thing; you just have to know what to do with it, which she clearly did!

  11. I actually really enjoyed Lady Susan. She's one of those characters you love to hate. I have a Penguin edition with Lady Susan, Sanditon, and The Watsons, and it was my favorite of the three. It's so interesting because she's an anti-hero. It reminded me a bit of Les Liasons Dangeruses, which I have yet to read (though the movie with Glenn Close is wonderful).

  12. AnonymousMay 14, 2011

    I've read all of Austen except her juvenilia, and I have to agree that Lady Susan feels much different than her later works. The epistolary format didn't bother me so much, but the tone of the story was so completely different than the later novels--less nuanced, I think.

    As for the Sanditon recommendation, the only downside to this last work is that it is unfinished. I was really disappointed when I got to the end, more than I thought I would be. I've looked at some of the "completions," but they are just not the same as Austen.

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  14. Im not much of an Austen fan myself, but Lady Susan is one of my favorite of her works, after Northanger Abbey. I'm very used to your view, though I'm a bit surprised you specifically thought it was stilted and distant. I read it as part of a project on epistolary literature, and I see the letters as intimate--the author trying together me the story without intermediating. Of course, these days we consider other strategies more effective.

  15. Maybe after reading Richardson, nicole, the stiltedness and strangeness has a different shading. Austen's "letters" are not as strange as Richardson's!

    Lifetime Reader, I would suggest that Austen actually does not "ask" us to sympathize with Lady Susan. We might very well do it - that's up to the reader. But I would at least consider the possibility that Austen's imaginary late 18th century reader would enjoy Lady Susan while at the same time despising her and requiring her punishment. Maybe the fun was in hissing at the villain.

    I mean, if Lady Susan is "pure evil" than the Richardsonian reader cannot sympathize or identify with her. Why, that would destroy the moral edification of the novel - just what the critics of novel-reading feared would happen.

    I'm sort of laying Lady Susan on top of Clarissa, with a female villain replacing Richardson's male villain, and then with, by necessity, a great toning down of the sexual side of things.

    Fortunately, we do not have to be Richardsonian readers, even when reading Richardson. There is no reason that a modern reader can't do well by turning this on its head and use Vanity Fair as the lens, or call Lady Susan an anti-hero rather than a villain.

    If, by the way, the cinematic Becky Sharp is that much less appealing than Thackeray's Becky, the movie's version must be enormously appealing. But how can a film adaptation have room for Little Thackeray?

  16. I'm really looking forward to reading Lady Susan, not only because I'm interested in reading a book about a villain (even if a "pure evil" villain is less interesting than one with layers), but also because I like the idea of an Austen trying out her writing hand for the first time, and it turns out to be kind of weird and not what she wanted. (And then later she figures out her own style!) Seems like a fun insight into Austen-the-author.

  17. Great post. I've heard about Lady Susan before, but I didn't know Jane Austen actually finished it. I've stayed away from Mansfield Park for years, because it's my "last" Austen. So, Lady Susan is a very exciting discovery for me. :)

  18. Oh, Darlyn, you really must read Mansfield Park. I think it is my favorite Austen!

  19. I have a copy of this in the Melville House Art of the Novella edition. Picked it up because the publisher describes it as "perhaps both her funniest and bitchiest book." Loving the thought of Austen as bitch, I had to have it. Your comparison here with the Northanger Abbey experience (my favorite Austen) has me curious now given MH's slightly different take. Well, it is in line to be read this summer. (Thanks for the link too!)

  20. great post. i bought this for my mom a couple years ago (we were, like you, surprised to learn there was something by austen we'd never read or even heard of) but still haven't read it myself. i don't like epistolary novels very much, but there have been a few times i've wished i had something "new" to read by austen. i'll save this book until i get that feling again.

  21. What I like about Lady Susan is that you can really see how Austen developed as a writer. You could already see the potential (and the great villain) but I'm glad she moved about from the use of letters.

  22. I've read the main six novels and The Watsons, but Lady Susan is still my unread Austen. I need to remedy that.

  23. I am still working my way through the major novels, but I"m looking forward to this one too. Sounds like it has a place, although I'm not sure I'm a fan of the eighteenth century novels of which it's a part....(Haven't read them, but am rather scared to...)

  24. Must be an enjoyable read Lady Susan by Jane Austen. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by "to read" list.

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