Jane Austen has sometimes been described as a woman who used stereotypes of aunts and spinsters, casting her as irretrievably bland and safe. However, what Lady Susan unquestionably shows us is that, as an author, Austen was nothing of the sort. She, too, was powerful and bold. The story of Lady Susan, with or without the six major novels behind it, emerges as a daring, complicated work of literature.
Austen’s ‘Merry Widow’
Why would Jane Austen write the story of a widow who has beauty, sex appeal, and confidence but little money, in her own youth and continue to work on it in her middle age? One answer is literary. Austen was clearly working with a popular character type from drama and fiction, the merry widow. The merry widow is usually thought of as a character who casts doubt on the institutions of masculinity by seeking to subvert patriarchal structures, although in many stories, she’s put back in her place by the end.
Another literary predecessor for Lady Susan may be the powerful, evil female character, the Marquise de Merteuil, from Les Liaisons dangereuses, of 1782, known in English as Dangerous Liaisons.
Inspiration from Real Life
It’s also possible that Austen was inspired not only by literary examples from the past but by women she knew in her own life. One was her brother’s wife, her cousin, the widowed Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide, a notorious flirt and captivating woman. In one of her surviving letters, cousin Eliza wrote, “I have an aversion to the word husband and never make use of it.” It’s believed that Jane Austen had great affection for Eliza. There’s no evidence to suggest that Eliza committed adultery, however.
We do know from Austen’s letters that she was in social situations with women about whom there was such lurid gossip. In her letter, she expresses glee to her sister that she could pick the adulteress out of a crowd, before the woman was even pointed out to her. This is clearly a joke, but it was enough of a serious matter that her first editor, her great nephew, left this line out of the first edition of Austen’s letters when it was published in 1884; it didn’t fit his sense of what a proper woman should notice in a public place or joke about in a letter to her sister.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Distancing Austen from Lady Susan’s Character
There are those who would distance Austen from Lady Susan as a character. James Edward Austen-Leigh, the first editor of Lady Susan in 1871, is quick to do so. He describes it as “scarcely” a story “on which a literary reputation could have been founded”. He calls it “too slight to stand alone” and suggests that “it cannot diminish” her reputation as a writer. If there is any censure to be made on the work, Austen-Leigh writes, it should come on him who “put it forth”, not on her.
Austen-Leigh started the tradition of seeing it as a flimsy early work. Some even call it an unfinished work, although it seems hard to make that argument stand when there’s a section that’s clearly labeled ‘Conclusion’. However, such critics would have us believe that Lady Susan was a failed attempt, an incomplete mistake, or a wrong turn Austen made before she got her fictional formula straight.
Austen’s Self-concept as an Author
In contrast to those arguments, there are critics who see Austen and her character Lady Susan as having a lot in common. They see the whole of Lady Susan as a significant work that offers a sophisticated understanding of Austen’s fictional method and her self-concept as an author. Those critics compare Lady Susan as a character, who is a masterful manipulator of men, to the efforts of great novelists, who are master-manipulators of readers. In this reading, Austen’s powers as a writer of fiction mirror Lady Susan’s powers as a seductress.
There’s a line written in a letter from Lady Susan’s close female friend that often gets repeated, because it’s a great line. The friend is compelled to reveal Lady Susan’s duplicity, having been put in a situation where she can’t deny the truth. The friend’s apologetic statement to Lady Susan is, “What could I do? Facts are such horrid things.” This is a satire on words and truths from a fiction writer, as well as a comic epigram.
Austen’s Literary Accomplishment
No matter how you approach this text—as an unfinished or hastily finished work, or as a masterpiece that’s off to the side of the six novels—Lady Susan deserves its due as a different kind of literary accomplishment among Austen’s writings. It’s also Austen’s longest surviving work of completed fiction that survives in manuscript. The manuscript is now held in the collection of The Morgan Library and Museum in New York.
No one who thinks that Austen is like her creation, Lady Susan, is suggesting that Austen was an adulteress, or that she was an immoral deceiver of the people in her own life. There’s absolutely no evidence of that. Instead, what critics who’ve likened Austen herself to Lady Susan focus on is one particular line, which comes out of Lady Susan’s mouth, almost half-way through the story. Lady Susan tells her female friend that, “Consideration and Esteem as surely follow command of Language, as Admiration waits on Beauty.”
Consideration and esteem; command of language; admiration; beauty—these could apply to a powerful author who has a way with words. Like Lady Susan, Jane Austen’s command of language is unassailable. Two centuries of consideration and esteem have followed her command, her power. This line, put in Lady Susan’s mouth, comes from a writer who seems in complete command of what she’s doing with powerful words.
Common Questions about Jane Austen’s Demystifying Lady Susan
The merry widow is usually thought of as a character who casts doubt on the institutions of masculinity by seeking to subvert patriarchal structures, although in many stories, she’s put back in her place by the end.
There are critics who see Austen and her character Lady Susan as having a lot in common. They compare Lady Susan as a character, who is a masterful manipulator of men, to the efforts of great novelists, who are master-manipulators of readers. In this reading, Austen’s powers as a writer of fiction mirror Lady Susan’s powers as a seductress.
The manuscript of Lady Susan is now held in the collection of The Morgan Library and Museum in New York.