Jane Austen’s story of sexual and economic manipulation in Lady Susan surprises many readers. Those who see in Lady Susan signs of Austen’s satire and social criticism argue that the story is meant to compel us to recognize the systemic problems of marriage as a financial transaction. It exposes the strict and unfair gender constructs of her time. Others see it as a morality tale, with Lady Susan’s life as a tragic warning.
The Omniscient Narrator
The conclusion of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, which brings Lady Susan’s adventures to a hasty end, leaves things in a moral gray area. The voice in the conclusion shifts to a late-introduced, omniscient, all-knowing narrator. This is the narrator’s last line, delivered after Lady Susan marries the wealthy young idiot: “Whether Lady Susan was, or was not happy in her second Choice—[that is, her second husband] I do not see how it can ever be ascertained—for who would take her assurance of it, on either side of the question?” The omniscient narrator then concludes, “The World must judge from Probability—She had nothing against her, but her Husband & her Conscience.”
Readers already know Lady Susan’s faulty husband and her non-existent conscience, so we might say that the probability is that she’s miserable. But on the other hand, as we know her faulty husband and her non-existent conscience, the probability may be that she’s pursuing her own profits and pleasures in a new, remarried key. As the narrator says, “I do not see how it can ever be ascertained.”
At the end of Lady Susan, we might say that the heroine is rewarded and punished, or that the villain is rewarded and punished, at the same time. She’s both heroine and villain, facing both reward and punishment.
The Equivocal Ending
Critics have not known what to do with Lady Susan’s ambiguous ending. As a piece of writing, some see it as a failure. They call it rushed and they say they leave the text with the feeling that the concluding moral is sloppily tacked on. However, there are people who don’t see the ending of Lady Susan as an accident, or as a moment of textual anarchy for a character who slips out of Austen’s own control. Instead, they consider the ending to be an intentional literary act, composed at a time when a great deal of polite fiction was expected to have a neat, pat, didactic moral lesson to tie together all of the loose ends of the story.
What the ending of Lady Susan gives us, in the new voice of the all-knowing narrator, may be seen as a comic send-up of that fictional formula, of the narrator playing god. Austen’s equivocal ending may not suit our own pleasures as a reader, but that’s because it’s meant to upset our expectations.
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Moral Lesson from Lady Susan
Critics of Lady Susan also consider whether the ending offers a moral lesson and, if so, what kind. Some see the ending as rewarding Lady Susan’s life choices by giving her the money, marriage, and freedom she was seeking. The end justifies the means!
Others see the tacked-on moral lesson as clearly a punishment, in which Lady Susan gets her comeuppance. Her virtuous daughter gets the first-choice husband she wants, Reginald, after his eyes are opened to her duplicitous mother. Lady Susan herself must resort to marrying the secondhand man she once rejected as too silly and garrulous. Having unsuccessfully tried to pawn him off on her daughter, she takes the wealthy idiot as her second husband.
Still other critics see the ending as simultaneously punishing and rewarding Lady Susan for wrongdoing. Whatever one might conclude on their own reading of this text, there’s something we should all come away thinking about more carefully: The ambiguous, debated ending to Lady Susan is important because it ought to lead us to see the endings of Austen’s other novels through new eyes.
When Did Jane Austen Write Lady Susan?
After reading Lady Susan, the endings to Austen’s six novels may not look so unequivocally happy, so black and white, as they may at first appear. Especially for the morally suspect characters in the six major novels, the open-endedness about what happens to them may be more in the tradition of Lady Susan than we’ve previously recognized.
How seriously we take Lady Susan may stem from when and how we think Austen created it. Lady Susan was written, in all likelihood, when Austen was in her 20s. Some believe it may have been started in the 1790s, before she began her six major novels. They see this text as a bridge between her teenage writings and her ‘mature novels’. But that’s only an educated guess.
What we do know is that the story was likely revised and definitely recopied sometime around or after 1805, when Austen was around 30 years old. That’s because the paper that Austen used to recopy the story has a watermark—that is, a kind of stamp visible in the weave of the paper—that indicates the sheet on which it was written was manufactured in 1805.
Common Questions about Understanding the Ambiguous Ending of Lady Susan
Some critics see the ending of Lady Susan as a failure. They call it rushed and they say they leave the text with the feeling that the concluding moral is sloppily tacked on.
Some critics see the ending as rewarding Lady Susan’s life choices by giving her the money, marriage, and freedom she was seeking. Others see it as a punishment, in which Lady Susan gets her comeuppance. Still other critics see the ending as simultaneously punishing and rewarding Lady Susan for wrongdoing.
Lady Susan was written, in all likelihood, when Jane Austen was in her 20s. Some believe it may have been started in the 1790s, before she began her six major novels. What we do know is that the story was likely revised and definitely recopied sometime around or after 1805, when Austen was around 30 years old.