By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Lady Susan is Jane Austen’s epistolary novella. Epistolary fiction means fiction that’s composed of letters. It uses that form across its 41 letters, followed by a brief conclusion by an omniscient narrator. The whole plot revolves around Lady Susan seeking pleasure and profit, by trying to get others to do her bidding or by following her own whims.
Letters by Lady Susan
Much of the novella, Lady Susan, is told in Lady Susan’s voice, through her letters. She writes to her family, friends, and suitors, and her letters are interspersed with those of her family members and friends, to her and to each other, but mostly about her.
It might have been easy to hate her, if she didn’t have such a lively voice in writing, and if she weren’t so often funny. Here, for instance, is Lady Susan describing to a friend her feelings for her brother-in-law: “I really have a regard for him, he is so easily imposed on!” Men are valuable to her as creatures that she can mold like putty in her hands. As she puts it later, “There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit.”
Here she is, writing to that same female friend, about the wealthy young idiot she wants to marry off to her daughter: “I have more than once repented that I did not marry him myself, & were he but one degree less contemptibly weak I certainly should, but I must own myself rather romantic in that respect, & that Riches only, will not satisfy me.”
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Lady Susan and Marriage
That Lady Susan describes herself as a little romantic is turning the tables on expectations for love and marriage. The line that a woman ought to use in her circumstances is that she wants to marry for love but recognizes that couples can’t live on love alone; they’ll need a way to support themselves. She, on the other hand, wants to marry for money, but she realizes that she can’t marry for money alone! This is hardly being ‘rather romantic’ in any conventional sense. It is, however, a comic flipping of the script.
Lady Susan is not entirely flippant about marriage, however. She just views it as entirely an economic bargain for a woman. As she puts it later, to her female friend, “I cannot easily resolve on anything so serious as Marriage, especially since I am not at present in want of money.”
In the end, after being found in a compromising position with her married lover, Lady Susan saves her reputation by marrying the wealthy idiot she once intended as a husband for her daughter, Frederica.
Frederica, having resisted marrying the idiot, instead marries Lady Susan’s sister-in-law Catherine Vernon’s brother, Reginald De Courcy, a man who Lady Susan had once managed to wrap around her little finger. Lady Susan once considered marrying Reginald, despite—or because of—his resistance to her charms.
Lady Susan enjoyed the process of breaking down Reginald’s initial resistance and convincing him to doubt his accurate prejudices against her character. She describes her short-lived conquest of Reginald in this way to her female friend: “I have made him sensible of my power, & can now enjoy the pleasure of triumphing over a mind prepared to dislike me, & prejudiced against all my past actions.”
What this line reveals is that Lady Susan is a master at telling people what they want to hear and getting them to believe her lies. She’s highly deceptive and she likes to be in control. She’s aware of her sexual power and she’s using it for her own gain. Because so much of the novella is in her own voice, we’re made privy to her incredible cleverness. The people around her, when their write in their own voices, often seem judgmental, conventional, and dour. They seem to lack imagination. They just seem so much slower than she does.
If Lady Susan were a male politician, we might even admire a little of her Machiavellian genius—or fear it. She understands the system, exploits its weaknesses, and gets what she wants. She is exceptionally strong and smart and admits that she has a freedom of spirit. She declares, “I am tired of submitting my will to the Caprices of others.”
Not a Character in Black or White
However, the reality is that, for a widowed woman like Lady Susan, there were actually few paths to social or economic power. What else did she have to trade on than her looks, charm, intelligence, and sexuality? We might say that, although there were other options available for a woman like her in the real world at this time, there weren’t other good options.
The most acceptable way for a widow without money to make a living was in an economically advantageous second marriage. We might see it as understandable that she’d capitalize on that pursuit, in conjunction with pursuing her own pleasures. Or we might see her deception, even in difficult circumstances, as unequivocally evil.
What’s clear is that Lady Susan has a personal attractiveness that makes her look far younger than her years, a charisma that shows the experience she’s gained, and a confident power with words. Her sister-in-law describes her as a woman who’s able to make black appear white. Yet this isn’t just a black vs. white, good vs. evil story. Lady Susan herself is not written as a character in black or white: she could be described as either a heroine or a villain or both. It’s muddled. She’s a character that many readers find simultaneously captivating and horrifying.
Common Questions about Jane Austen and the Fascinating Tale of Lady Susan
Though Lady Susan is not entirely flippant about marriage, she just views it as entirely an economic bargain for a woman.
After being found in a compromising position with her married lover, Lady Susan saves her reputation by marrying the wealthy idiot she once intended as a husband for her daughter, Frederica.
Lady Susan has Machiavellian genius. She understands the system, exploits its weaknesses, and gets what she wants. She is exceptionally strong and smart and admits that she has a freedom of spirit.