‘Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in…The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.’
— Northanger Abbey, Chapter 14
Dear friends and readers,
A couple of weeks ago I was pleased to be asked to contribute to a series of memories for Diane Reynolds’s blog, Jane Austen and Other Writers where people are asked to describe their first encounters with Jane Austen’s novels and why they read her still. As luck would have it, around the same time I had agreed to give a lecture on Lady Susan to a group of students in a BIS program at University of Virginia. I’d told the story of my coming to Austen in bits and pieces before, but now having brought all but the role of specific critical books together, I thought I’d talk on a blog as an addendum to first encounters about my recent re-encounter with Lady Susan.
I was around 50 the first time I read Lady Susan. I am not alone in this belatedness: the text itself was not published until 1870, 53 years after Austen’s death, and (if I am right in saying the book was written between 1804-5), 65 years after she wrote it and copied it out in a beautiful fair copy which is a kind of imitation of the publication denied her. The first recorded Austen film adaptation was in 1940, since then there have been at least 35, so it’s taken 76 (!) years to film it.
If you look at mainstream fan sites, it’s hardly ever mentioned.
What can be so wrong? well it’s lumped together with late “fragments” (unfinished work, nothing more discouraging except to a devoted reader), and it breaks so many taboos that Jane Austen is thought by so many Janeite fans to have upheld, is written in an amoral tone, with an ironic presence at the center that I know (since reading Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones so carefully) the closest character to Fielding’s Lady Bellaston we have, except ever so much meaner, self-conscious and gayly morbid. Marvin Mudrick in his JA: Irony as Defense and Discovery thought in this one text alone Austen shows herself fully and we should use it as the lens by which we understand say Mansfield Park.
I discovered upon this re-reading (and I’ve read it several times since I was in my fifties, especially when I studied it to bring out its underlying calendar), that I did not (as I had expected) approach the book with so many pre-framings. I simply did what I have probably always done since age 12-13: felt an intensely primal response along my pulse as I came into contact this exhilarating woman. It is a truism (“a truth universally acknowledged”) that reading the same book years, decades later can have a very different effect on us.
So for me I remember when I read Lady Susan the first time I was strongly put off. I especially found her mockery of her daughter, and complete antipathy to Frederica’s kind heart, desire to read books for their content alone, lack of an ability to cope with the abrasive world or perform hateful. I laughed at her sending up of Alicia’s husband and marriage, but saw that the world around her of pious feeling was mawkish and somehow false. But she was the blight.
This time through I still saw that she must not be allowed to “mother” Frederica; that she would corrode the girl’s gifts and heart, Lady Susan was exhilarating. Far more so than Thackeray’s Becky Sharp at the opening of his Vanity Fair. I saw the that Frederica was in the narrative from the outset and underlying the book was an ongoing relationship of a mother and daughter who needed to get away from one another, but there was no doing it as the world is not organized that way, but I reveled in Lady Susan. This was release for Austen. I flaws in the others too or far more continually: Reginald, what a self-satisfied, easily deluded non-thinking fool! He’s a weathercock who believes the last person. Mrs Vernon was all suspicion and leading a boring, stultifying life: what she offered Frederica was calm from repression and never trying anything out of a small round of pious acts. She was working to marry her to Reginald because that would keep them close and thus to her “safe.” I could see that Alicia was not so enamored of her friend, and rightly didn’t trust her but where was she to turn for safety? She seemed to be living a life of lies.
The real problem in the novel is there are no good choices. I wished we had had scenes of Lady Susan with Manwaring so I could see if she had any gratification with him: was the sex good? Was he another clinging person? It seems that to survive one must marry a dense idiot (Sir James perhaps a version of Mr Collins). I saw the dark book Murdock in his Irony as Defense and Self-Discovery had, a book in the tradition of Tom Jones as I recently began to see it. Where was Jane Austen in all this? D. W Harding’s finding a release for anger is not enough. She wasn’t sending up the outrageous behavior of the rest of the world (as he rightly says she does in the four books she published before she died). There is a quiet desperation here, a disjunction between the stereotype she found in her culture and what she wanted to say.
I did not say the above directly in presenting the novella to students. One can’t. It’s not allowed. One must present an impersonal reading; the kind of talk that’s respectable is context and tropes, biography, sources. So much of my introduction came from framing (dating specifically) and is found in my remarks next to my timeline for the novel.
Here is what I told them out of that. Linking the class to the coming movie by Whit Stillman, Love and Friendship, I suggested to them if it’s that Stillman presents the novel as witty juvenilia, a moral send up of say self-indulgence, solipsism, egoistic romance like Love and Freindship, that’s a mistake which will trivialize the book. Lady Susan is a mid-career book; not a so much a product of the regency era reacted against (the thesis of their course), but an inverted protest novel by a woman, and coming out of a tradition heavily influenced by French novels and most often taking the form of epistolary narrative. Here is a little of what I told students for nearly 2 hours.
I suggested we couldn’t elucidate the content that mattered in it, close read its details through the regency period except to say the frank amorality of the heroine can be linked to the era. In a letter she wrote she detested the regent and when he prosecuted his wife for adultery, she was on the wife’s side simply on grounds she was a woman.
I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter,” Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband — but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself “attached & affectionate” to a Man whom she must detest — & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad. — I do not know what to do about it; — but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. —- 16 February 1813
Lady Susan fits just as strongly with what she wrote in her History of England (a juvenilia) about Tudor queens (among them, Ann Bullen, Katherine Parr).
She is passionately on the side of several of them. She looks out on the world unashamedly from a woman’s perspective. As Mrs Vernon, Lady de Courcy, Fredericka, Alicia and Lady Susan herself. All of them. She rejects the regency as presented in books as devastatingly, stupidly patriarchal
My suggestion was it’s a radical inverted protest novel. Austen is getting away with protesting her own and other women’s situations through presenting a heroine all will detest. There were ways for women to express themselves “contra mundi”: I saw her as turning to a sub-genre or kind of book that allowed this. Epistolary narrative, and French amoral anti-heroines. She can express herself through such a heroine as a mask. This was an era when spinsters were harshly criticized and mocked in conduct books, sent up cruelly in novels. She was despised for not having sex, but as a woman with little money and no power she’d be worse ostracized and punished for admitting knowing about sex, much less trying to live a pleasurable life of sex on her own without a man controlling her. This is the type of woman we find in these novels, only they are often widows or domineer over husbands and lovers, or simply living independently (if they had wealth somehow).
Think about her life I said. In 1805 Austen was herself 30, in 1809 34. Lady Susan is 35 inflected by her peculiar undercurrent of grave melancholy. She was a poor spinster, dependent on relatives, hamstrung; if hearsay be true, having rejected an offer from a local squire, owner of Manydowne (which would have provided for herself, sister, mother, friend, Martha Lloyd), and, together with her sister, having decided to present herself as a spinster. All her brothers but Henry (who was out on his own, as a fourth son, as yet floating on banking) were provided with careers, niches; her oldest the house she had grown up in, so she and they and her sister had gone to live in Bath (where there was a marriage market, not too kind to women without dowries).
She had begun to write as a young girl, her first texts called juvenilia go back to 1787 when she was 12 or 13. She wrote endlessly and this includes rewriting her texts for years and years, but her first published book sees the light in 1811, 24 years after she started. She did try for publication, once a long version of Pride and Prejudice, probably an epistolary novel, in 1796: the letter by her father to a reputable publisher was returned that day. On her own she tried to publish a version of Northanger Abbey she called Susan in 1803 and had to get the manuscript back in 1815, unpublished to start working on it again. What a release this narrative might have been and like Nabokov she is allowed because the irony protects her from her own self-censor.
Epistolary narrative is a complicated form. Its main attraction is it enables the novelist to delve the human psyche. The 18th century was a revolutionary era, and one of the transformations of values that went on was to look at one values and norms as coming from individual psyches, and understand that truths were relative. Each person’s understanding of what happened would be the result of his outlook. The relativity of norms across cultures and inbetween people was central to the satiric mode of the period.
I quoted the outstanding voice of the first half of the era, Alexander Pope from the first of the four Moral Epistles. Moral Essay I: to Richard Cobham, Of the Characters of Mankind:
Our depths who fathoms, or our shallows finds,
Quick whirls, and shifting eddies, of our minds?
On human Actions reason though you can,
It may be Reason, but it is not Man;
His Principle of action once explore,
That instant ’tis his Principle no more.
Like following life through creatures you dissect,
Ye lose it in the moment you detect.
Yet more; the diff’rence is as great between
The optics seeing, as the objects seen.
All Manners take a tincture from our own;
Or come discolour’d, through our Passions shown …
Nor will Life’s stream for Observation stay,
It hurries all too fast to mark the way …
Oft in the Passions’ wild rotation tost,
Our spring of action to ourselves is lost:
Tir’d, not determin’d to the last we yeild,
And what comes then is master of the field,
As the last image of that troubled heap,
When Sense subsides, and Fancy sports in sleep
(Tho’ past the recollection of the thought)
Becomes the stuff of which our dream is wrought:
Something as dim to our internal view,
Is thus, perhaps the cause of most we do … (1731-35)
Some of the most famous of the epistolary novels were this kind of delving: Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), boy meet, rapes girl, girl dies, boy dies. 2 million words. Samuel Johnson said a reader would hang herself who read it for the plot
But you can do other things with epistolary narratives. You can expose characters satirically; we can see them not meaning to pour their heart out and by seeing the difference between the action of the story and what the characters think of it, witness all sorts of psychological and moral states, from hypocrisy to self-delusion, to someone strategizing to manipulate someone, we can see spite, vanity, performances of all sorts.
Two important features of epistolary narratives: they are free from chronological time because people in their minds can jump back and forth. Therefore you can juxtapose letters very ironically. We watch “innocent characters being duped” because we know the reality of the other characters. We are looking at these minds on a stage; different voices come out interacting. It is also done in the present time so the characters do not know what is going to happen next and are all in the midst of anguish about it. We are dropped down into the midst of a mind in the throes of a present moment worrying what to do, what will be, what will happen, what should I do next. Lady Susan is a slender book and I don’t want to give it more density or value than it has, but Austen uses these techniques if in an epitomizing form.
Which books of the era is it in dialogue with or comes out of memories, an experience of. LaClos’s Dangerous Liaisons (1782) with its central amoral heroine, Madame de Merteuil – if you’ve not read it and want to have a quick acquaintance to start I recommend Stephen Frears’ film with Glenn Close as Madame de Merteuil and John Malkovitz as Valmont, the rake who is done in by the end. There was a full translation immediately and it was read and influential.
Madame de Stael’s Delphine (1804), with its cold mean calculating mercenary mother whose name is Madame Susan Vernon, both epistolary books. We know Austen read and much admired Stael’s Corinne; there’s a passing phrase in one of her letters which can be understood as suggesting she prefers Corinne to Milton’s Paradise Lost. As who wouldn’t? Madame Susan Vernon is especially cruel to her emotional daughter; she hounds her to marry a horror of a man for money. Bad mother type. And Austen’s Lady Susan is not only in herself mean, cold, vicious, cruel, she hates sincere people, wants to stamp out genuine feeling; aspirations for real learning (in her daughter) grate on her; vulnerable people exist to be preyed upon so she despises them. Stael’s anti-heroine’s values are slightly different but the complex of attitudes is analogous.
The frank amorality of Lady Susan can be found in much French literature through out the 18th century – Austen read French and the two countries traded books incessantly. Translations came out immediately, French books were published in London.
But there are English novels where the same pattern may be discerned or is a sub-plot.
There is a strikingly similar central amoral character in Maria Edgeworth’s epistolary Leonora (1809). (For this we must accept Butler’s thesis that the novel we have was written or revised into this text in 1809.) Here the heroine is someone whose husband is deep in debt and the way they mean to pay off the debt is she prostitutes herself. This is a reversal of most novels of the era which use this plot paradigm. In Fielding’s Tom Jones he shows that it was common practice for a high officer to pressure the men beneath them to allow their wives to go to bed with them – if you didn’t you were not promoted. But it’s only Lady Bellaston in Tom Jones and Edgeworth’s heroines who themselves are amusingly pro-active in this way. Lady Bellaston writes letters to Tom too. Or characters imitating her in later books.
This specific trope is a French pattern too. In Louise d’Epinay’s Montbrillant (a mid-century epistolary book) and the Duchess of Devonshire’s Slyph (1777-78) both epistolary again, the heroine is pressured and driven into going to bed with the husband’s creditor. I suggest the life of Grace Dalrymple Elliot and Rohmer’s film and script offer major insight into the context for Lady Susan and what type she stands for.
If you read Lady Susan as tongue-in-cheek, and someone think that Lady Susan speaks ceaselessly as a conscious hypocrite and never believes a word she says about her emotions, she becomes a wild caricature. It seems improbable to me – you could not find any depth in the novel then. And of the female characters I’ve mentioned, Madame de Merteuil, Madame Susan Vernon are deeply involved emotionally in what she’s doing. If you read Lady Susan’s letters as partly self-righteous, at times fooling herself (as people do), really half-believing herself a misunderstood person trying her best to survive and dealing with a society indifferent to her, and only facing up to her hypocrisy when forced to, Fielding’s Lady Bellaston, the aristocratic amoral mistress of (only she keeps him, not the other way round) is closely similar. (When I taught the book the men in the room really protested against the idea Tom was a male prostitute servicing Lady Bellaston, i.e., the abject characterWe know that Austen read Tom Jones when she was young, and like its opposite number, Clarissa, did not forget it. Her relatives would never mention it, but then they’d never mention any of the others I suggest are where Lady Susan belongs.
To conclude: Austen’s first novels (S&S and P&P) began life as epistolary narratives; MP was in part one in a first draft. Love and Freindship is a crude one (not using all the devices), Lesley Castle an improvement. She wrote an ironic gothic — the gothic was another mode of protest (too long to go into here). She can also write memoirs and, if English, not publish them: we know through Anne Elliot and Austen’s letters to Cassandra Austen read French ones. They were often short as were Austen’s first attempts all. Think of Lady Susan as like Elena Ferrante’s first much briefer deeply frank raw novellas, Days of Abandonment, The Lost Daughter: see my “The Other Side of Silence”.
Eighteenth century women lacked any agency, and any true private space (so letters could function the way the Net can for some women in traditional cultures). That’s why Outlander has been so popular. Diana Gabaldon injected into the 18th century costume drama so frank about sex a woman who all agency, narrator, dreamer, who seeks her own fulfillment, looks at life that way. One thing we see Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser enjoy is sex; she is given liberty to choose as she pleases by her Scots partner, Jamie Fraser over and over again. Saul Dibbs’ and Jeffrey Hatcher’s The Duchess show the Duchess of Devonshire writhing under the controls of this world, punished into becoming a girl child-mother at the close. The movie opened with her running with girlfriends in play on the lawn; we last see her running after her children in play on the lawn. See my The Duchess: A Strong Protest Film. Stella Tillyard’s book Aristocrats based on memoirs of women with money reveals the ways in which actual women of the era tried to manipulate their position and yet stay within the confines of their world. Among these were reading and writing books like the above:
In the class towards the end we were finding characters in other of Austen’s novels which corresponded to those in Lady Susan: Charles Vernon is a kind of Bingley. Reginald’s behavior that of Edmund Bertram. And lines the narrator uses, say congratulating Lucy Steele at the close of Sense and Sensibility, that are echoed or anticipated in Lady Susan.
The whole of Lucy’s behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience (S&S, Chapter 50, the last, towards the end)
Whether Lady Susan was, or was not happy, in her second choice — I do not see how it ever can be ascertained — for who could take her assurance of it on either side of the question? The world must judge from probability. She had nothing against her, but her husband, and her conscience (Lady Susan, Postscript)
They joined in on finding and reciting their favorite lines from Lady Susan and other of Austen’s novels.