The last work by Jane Austen I’ll read for Austen in August is Lady Susan, a short epistolary novel where letters written by characters tell the story. The novel was never submitted for publication by Austen and was published posthumously in 1871 as part of her half-brother Edward Austen-Leigh’s book, A Memoir of Jane Austen.
* CONTAINS SPOILERS
Recently widowed, the beautiful Lady Susan Vernon flees Langford to Churchill, the home of her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon, leaving behind a scandal involving a married man and the beau of the man’s daughter. Fully aware of Lady Susan’s manipulative behaviour, Mrs. Vernon resolves to keep her guard and remains cold to the arriving woman’s attempt at friendship. Curious after hearing rumours about Lady Susan’s antics, Mrs. Vernon’s brother, Reginald, decides to pay a visit and obtain his own impression of the woman. Lady Susan doesn’t hesitate in enchanting the wealthy bachelor and making him fall in love with her much to Mrs. Vernon’s anxiety. Meanwhile, Lady Susan is plotting a marriage for her teenage daughter, Frederica, with Mr. James Martin, the man she left behind in Langford. Catching wind of this plan, Frederica runs away from school, but is quickly found and brought to Churchill after the school refuses to take her back. Frederica falls for Reginald and decides to appeal to him for help, telling him everything about her mother’s scheme. Outraged by Frederica’s betrayal, Lady Susan leaves for town, but her past comes to haunt her with the arrival of Mr. James. Still under her spell, Reginald also follows her to London, but once there learns the whole truth about Lady Susan.
Lady Susan is the kind of villainess you love to hate. She is diabolical and heartless when it comes to trying to get what she wants. Using her beauty and sexual charm, men easily become entangled in her web, but are merely a means to a richer end. Which is why I had mixed feelings about Lady Susan as a character. I thought she was a terrible person, especially because she treated her daughter so horribly, and immensely enjoyed when her schemes fell apart and she had to settle for less. But I also admired how bold she was and didn’t care what people thought of her, a female iconoclast in Regency England. For this reason, Lady Susan will remain a strikingly memorable character for me.
I don’t mind that the novel was a series of letters, but even though each chapter was entitled with the writer and recipient, I had to take a minute or two to figure out who the characters were and that was confusing at times.
I was completely surprised how much I enjoyed Lady Susan, a novel written by Jane Austen when she was only nineteen! Although, very much a soap opera like other Austen works, I thought the epistolary form was unique way of revealing the plot and painting a picture of the ravishing Lady Susan through her thoughts and the observations of others. Why hasn’t this story been made into a movie? Winona Ryder would make an excellent Lady Susan.