Lady Susan is an early epistolary novella written by Jane Austen. This short novel is unique within the Austen canon for being written in this style (epistolary being written entirely in letters) and for having a protagonist who is rather unscrupulous. Lady Susan Vernon is a woman of means who had lost her husband, and is looking for a groom for her daughter. She herself is often a seductress, and likely had taken many different lovers over the years.
She is morally ambiguous to the reader since it is not always obvious as to why she is acting as she is. If she is acting in the best interest of her daughter, then we as readers can forgive her for her bad behavior. Yet to many readers she is seen as acting of her own accord and for her own gain alone! Personally I find Lady Susan to be one of the most interesting of Austen heroines, and I even enjoy her bad behavior.
In the time when it was written the reader would have been expected to dislike anyone who did anything morally objectionable. As a reader in the modern day I find a lot of interest and strength in a character that is willing to do whatever she can to build a better life for herself! In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century women had very little power, and their beauty and sexuality was one of the only things they had to empower themselves with. For this reason I feel it is rather ridiculous to expect a woman with beauty and sexual allure as being simply wicked. Often these women desire to have the best lives for themselves, and are using the weapons they have to gain what they need and want. I can see this as being rather commendable, if not always morally correct!
The love story in this book is rather convoluted, as Lady Susan tried to get her brother-in-law’s wife’s brother (her deceased husband’s brother’s brother-in-law that is) to fall in love with her. She herself finds herself very attracted to this young and virile man. During the novel one can see her actually having feelings for Reginald De Courcy. Reginald is a man who easily falls under the spell of this charismatic woman, even though he knows of her reputation well in advance!
Mrs. Johnson, the great friend of Lady Susan, suggested that she marry Reginald, but Lady Susan still felt that Manwaring (a previous man that she had enthralled) was a better match. Manwaring had more money to care for her, of course. Frederica, Lady Susan’s daughter, arrived at her uncle’s home to visit her mother. Not long after Frederica’s unwanted suitor, Sir James Martin (who Lady Susan wanted her to marry) arrived as well.
The home of Charles and Catherine Vernon becomes quite crowded, and the backdrop of the main action of the tale. As Lady Susan is trying to push Martin and her daughter together, she herself is getting into a deeper relationship with Reginald. She pushed to have Frederica into marriage by taking her to London to hopefully convince her of Sir James Martin’s suitability as a husband. She was followed by Reginald who wanted desperately to marry Lady Susan.
In London Reginald runs into Lady Manwaring and learned of Lady Susan’s true nature, and her history with Manwaring. He leaves her after this, and Lady Susan ended up marrying Sir James Martin herself. She allowed her daughter to instead stay with Charles and Catherine, where she could gain the attention of Reginald De Courcy herself! This ending is interesting as mother and daughter have in effect swapped love interests.
Readers sometimes question Austen writing such a manipulative heroine. The work is, however, obviously Austen as it is in her writing style, which is obvious even within the atypical epistolary style. This novella was written very early on, and was not published until much later, as was all of her early works and juvenilia. Lady Susan Vernon is not a typical Austen heroine. However she is one that you can see as being the starting point to what would eventually become a heroine like Emma Woodhouse. Jane Austen freely admitted that she believed she was the only one who would like Emma. Emma is very wealthy, vain, and loves to play matchmaker to those around her. Her playing matchmaker is manipulative in a different way than Lady Susan is, but a reader can see the similarities. I think she likely felt similar about Lady Susan Vernon. Emma has gone down as a favorite heroine amongst the Austen characters, and personally I count my favorites as Lady Susan, Emma, and Elizabeth Bennet!
This very incredible, and very unique Austen work was made into the film Love & Friendship starring Kate Beckinsale! I personally really enjoyed the film, and it kept true to the novella in ways few Austen adaptations do! Kate Beckinsale is a perfect choice for this very uncommon Austen heroine, and I truly enjoyed seeing how they brought this novella to life!
I hope you enjoyed learning about this lesser known Jane Austen work. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is the film poster for Love & Friendship. I found the image on mizos.net via pinterest.com.
- Lady Susan by Jane Austen
- Love & Friendship (2016)