Posts on Lady Susan aren’t due until tomorrow, but as the Hobgoblin and I are going on a long hike, and I’m not sure I’ll feel like posting when we get back, I’m going to write on it now. I enjoyed this book very much; it was a pleasure to read something by Jane Austen I hadn’t read before. I’m very familiar with her six major novels, but there is still a lot of shorter stuff I haven’t yet gotten to. My edition of Lady Susan includes The Watsons and Sanditon, the first of which I’ve now finished and the last of which I’m going to read next.
I’ve heard many people talk about the limitations of the epistolary form, and it’s probably true that there’s a limited number of things you can do with it, but I do like the form anyway. Perhaps it’s all the reading in the 18C I’ve done, a time when the epistolary novel flourished. What I like about it is the way you can see different versions of a character in the letters written to different audiences, and the way reading an epistolary novel gives one the sense of the importance of words and writing and how people can do battle with language — and other, less violent things, of course. But I think of doing battle with language when I think about Lady Susan, as Susan seems to be at war with much of the world.
Here is what she says in the very first letter of the novel:
I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted, of spending some weeks with you at Churchill … I impatiently look forward to the hour when I shall be admitted into your delightful retirement.
And this is what she says in the second letter of the novel:
I take town in my way to that insupportable spot, a country village, for I am really going to Churchill. Forgive me, my dear friend, it is my last resource. Were there another place in England open to me, I would prefer it.
Already we know so much about Lady Susan. She presents herself in very different ways in these letters, but even within one letter, her language can be interpreted in multiple ways. She writes the following to her brother-in-law, the owner of Churchill:
I am determined you see, not to be denied admittance at Churchill. It would indeed give me most painful sensations to know that it were not in your power to receive me.
As this is the novel’s first letter, we might interpret this to mean that Lady Susan wants to visit Churchill very much because she is genuinely interested in seeing those who live there, and this is the meaning she expects her brother-in-law to find. Upon knowing something more about Lady Susan, however, we can see that these sentences hint at her real feelings: she must leave her current residence, Langford, home of the Manwarings, because she has gotten herself into trouble there, and if she cannot stay at Churchill, she will experience “painful sensations” because her escape route will be blocked.
It’s this kind of facility with language that makes Lady Susan a very fun heroine — or villain, rather, except that, as Margaret Drabble, author of the introduction to my edition, points out, there really is no satisfactory heroine here, so Lady Susan steals the show. She prides herself on her ability to talk herself into and out of any situation (“If I am vain of anything, it is of my eloquence”); this is how she keeps Reginald, her gullible young admirer, by her side for so long. When Lady Susan can no longer convince people to believe her version of events, the novel ends — there is no more story.
The difference between appearance and reality, and the time and trouble it takes to learn to tell the two apart is a very common plot line in 18C fiction, and Lady Susan has much going for her as she tries to fool nearly everybody. She’s beautiful, and even Mrs. Vernon, her most serious enemy, is susceptible to it:
She is delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes; and from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older … Her address to me was so gentle, frank and even affectionate, that if I had not known how much she has always disliked me for marrying Mr Vernon, and that we had never met before, I should have imagined her an attached friend.
Lady Susan is a symptom of a larger problem:
One is apt I believe to connect assurance of manner with coquetry, and to expect that an impudent address will necessarily attend an impudent mind; at least I was myself prepared for an improper degree of confidence in Lady Susan; but her countenance is absolutely sweet, and her voice and manner winningly mild.
We expect people’s insides to match their outsides, in other words — to be beautiful only if their hearts and minds are beautiful, and to act mildly and kindly only if they have mild and kind minds. Someone who combines a beautiful appearance and pleasant manners with lying and deceit is dangerous.
So Lady Susan depends on her pleasing appearance and behavior to keep her out of trouble and to get her whatever she wants. Besides the appearance vs. reality theme, there’s the juxposition in the novel between public reputation and the impression a person makes in private. Lady Susan counts on the power of private impression to overrule reputation; of her enemy Mrs. Vernon she says:
I hope [she is] convinced how little the ungenerous representations of any one to the disadvantage of another will avail, when opposed to the immediate influence of intellect and manner.
The novel shows, however, that reputation does mean something, and that the “ungenerous representations” of Lady Susan are a better source of truth than anything she herself says or does. You are better off trusting public concensus than trusting your own instincts — collective wisdom outweighs the individual’s insights.
Opposed to Lady Susan’s doubleness and deception is her daughter Frederica, whose simplicity Lady Susan cannot stand:
Her feelings are tolerably lively, and she is so charmingly artless in their display, as to afford the most reasonable hope of her being ridiculed and despised by every man who sees her. Artlessness will never do in love matters, and that girl is born a simpleton who has it either by nature or affectation.
Frederica’s artlessness is held up for praise in the novel; her mother’s criticism is a sign that we are to admire her, and yet she is a boring and lifeless character. All the interest in the novel belongs to Lady Susan. So we are left to deplore Lady Susan’s cruelty and deceitfulness, and yet we can’t help but admire her energy and intelligence and, yes, her artfulness and artifice. After all, Lady Susan’s skill with language is a skill she shares with her creator.
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