After Jane Austen’s death in 1817, the first full-length biography of her life, The Memoir of Jane Austen, was published in 1870 by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh. In 1871, he decided to bring into print, for the very first time, some of his aunt’s unpublished writings, including Lady Susan—a departure in theme and tone from Austen’s other writings.
The Memoir of Jane Austen
When the second edition of Memoir of Jane Austen was decided to be published, Austen’s nephew—or perhaps his publisher—made the important decision to add some previously unpublished fiction from Austen as an appendix. The manuscript of Lady Susan is there, described as having been ‘locked up’ in Austen’s desk and safeguarded after her death by her niece, Lady Knatchbull.
The part about Austen’s locking away these writings may be a truth or a Gothic exaggeration, but it does seem to be the case that Austen had kept back a number of her unpublished writings for some years. There’s no evidence of her having tried to prepare them for publication in her lifetime, although all show a level of care in their presentation on the page. That care suggests they were revised, polished, and rewritten, in what are called fair copies. All we know for sure is that Austen didn’t destroy them. One of these manuscripts was the short novel, or novella, that we now know as Lady Susan.
It’s important to acknowledge that the title Lady Susan wasn’t given to this work by Austen herself. However, when it first appeared in the second edition of The Memoir of Jane Austen, in 1871, the publisher, or someone, made an interesting, canny marketing decision. They chose to put the words Lady Susan prominently on the spine of the reissued Memoir. This made it seem as if it were an entirely new volume, containing a full-length novel by Austen.
However, the pages in this book devoted to printing Lady Susan make up just a fraction of its contents. Most of it is merely a reprinting of Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen, published in the previous year.
Lady Susan is a remarkable epistolary novella. Epistolary fiction means fiction that’s composed of letters.
Epistolary fiction was a very popular 18th century literary form. It’s believed Austen began the novels that would eventually become Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in an epistolary format. Lady Susan uses that form across its 41 letters, followed by a brief conclusion by an omniscient narrator.
When 18th century authors wrote epistolary novels, they sometimes pretended that these texts were, essentially, nonfiction, made up of letters that were copied from already sent originals. Or they pretended that the letters were discovered in a dusty old chest and brought to the public, thanks to an enterprising editor. Austen’s Lady Susan doesn’t have any surviving introduction from an editor or any of the customary spurious claims that the following letters were ‘real’.
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Letters by Lady Susan
The manuscript of Lady Susan begins, “Letter 1: Lady Susan Vernon to Mr. Vernon”, dated December, but with no year. From that first letter, we’re introduced to the 35-year-old widow at the center of the story. Much of the novella is told in her voice, through her letters.
Lady Susan 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. Through these letters, we learn that Lady Susan is a captivating widow with a married lover, a nearly grown daughter, and no money to speak of. Her power, in other words, is in her ability to attract men. She’s described as the most accomplished coquette in England, a distinguished flirt, and one who is not happy with “honest flirtation” but with the kind of flirtation that “aspires to the more delicious gratification of making a whole family miserable”.
The First Letter
Here is Lady Susan’s first letter. It begins: “My dear brother” (by which is meant her ‘brother-in-law’), “I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profitting by your kind invitation when we last parted, of spending some weeks with you at Churchill.”
Churchill is the name of his estate; and while this may sound perfectly polite and proper on the face of it, if one reads more closely, they’ll see that Lady Susan is actually inviting herself, almost unannounced, to be a houseguest at her brother-in-law’s home. She’s telling him that she’ll be arriving to stay with him almost immediately and for several weeks!
Not only that, but we learn that Lady Susan hasn’t even yet met Mr. Vernon’s wife, Mrs. Catherine Vernon. This is, of course, an exceptionally rude slight. And soon after that, we learn that that’s because Lady Susan had been against their marriage, from the very first! Now she’s arriving on their doorstep and pretending that none of it ever happened.
In fact, Lady Susan is coming to visit her brother-in-law and sister-in-law for two reasons. Firstly, she’s nearly broke; her husband has been dead for less than a year, and he left her financially unprovided for. Secondly, Lady Susan has been suspected of cavorting with her married lover, Mr. Manwaring, so she’s had to leave the previous estate where she’d been a long-term guest.
The very first line of Lady Susan lays the groundwork for the story that follows. Again, to repeat its first phrase, Lady Susan writes, “I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profitting.” This sets the scene in another way. Throughout the story, she can’t refuse herself either pleasure or profit. The whole plot revolves around her seeking pleasure and profit by turns, by trying to get others to do her bidding or by following her own whims.
Common Questions about Jane Austen’s ‘Lady Susan’
Epistolary fiction means fiction that’s composed of letters. Epistolary fiction was a very popular 18th century literary form.
Lady Susan writes to her family, friends, and suitors.
Through the letters, we learn that Lady Susan is a captivating widow with a married lover, a nearly grown daughter, and no money to speak of. Her power is in her ability to attract men. She’s described as the most accomplished coquette in England and a distinguished flirt.