The influence of strength over weakness: will Lady Susan ever meet her match?

Lady Susan is a heartless, domineering, revengeful, scheming little bitch. The stupidity of her victims doesn’t make me hate her any less. For all her coolness and sophistication, I find her almost as loathsome as John Thorpe. And yet I know she’s sometimes considered as a strong female character whose triumphs over silly men we are allowed to celebrate ‘against our conscience.’ Personally, I fail to see how a woman who rejoices in the misery of others of her gender might advance their cause. And there is nothing remarkable about queening it over a bunch of nincompoops.

The daughter of a peer whose name or wealth no one ever mentions, she marries at a young age, her ‘extravagance and dissipation’ forcing her husband to sell his family’s castle. ‘In narrow circumstances’ after his death, she lives on the charity of her brother-in-law, occasionally sponging on other friends. Sir Reginald De Courcy believes that, being poor, she ‘may naturally seek an alliance which must be advantageous to herself.’ In fact, though she tells Mrs Johnson she’s ‘not at present in want of money,’ she plans to stiff her daughter’s school mistress out of her tuition fees:

The price is immense, and much beyond what I can ever attempt to pay …I am excessively provoked, however, at the parade of propriety which prevented Miss Summers from keeping the girl; and it seems so extraordinary a piece of nicety, considering my daughter’s family connections, that I can only suppose the lady to be governed by the fear of never getting her money.

There you go! Here’s a sensible woman who’s clearly not impressed. She knows what ‘the best families’ can be like. At some point Lady Susan herself acknowledges she ‘cannot just now afford to go to town.’

Fortunately Mr Vernon ‘rolls in money,’ does ‘not know what to do with it,’ and is a generous man. Hence her ‘increasing friendship for’ his family.

Disposed, … as he always is to think the best of everyone, her display of grief, and professions of regret, and general resolutions of prudence, were sufficient to soften his heart and make him really confide in her sincerity.

Not quite what you would expect of a banker – perhaps he’s just a partner, not directly involved in the business. His wife thinks he

was a great deal too kind to her when he was in Staffordshire; her behaviour to him, independent of her general character, has been so inexcusably artful and ungenerous … that no one less amiable and mild than himself could have overlooked it all.

Lady Susan finally decides to avail herself of his invitation to spend a few weeks at Churchill. She’s just been thrown out of Langford, accused of ‘engaging at the same time, and in the same house, the affections of two men, who were neither of them at liberty to bestow them–and all this without the charm of youth!’

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Leonora Galigai

Quite a feat, were it not for the fact that one is a half-wit and the other no better than a self-deluded cuckold. The latter was once a penniless fortune-hunter who persuaded a wealthy heiress to marry him against her guardian’s advice. Not only does the ungrateful scoundrel openly carry on with another woman under her very nose, but he also puts up with his lover’s stealing his sister’s fiancé, whom she says she’s wooing on her daughter’s behalf. Unable to bear separation from his new lady friend, he forgets what is due to her, ‘and the opinion of the world,’ and suggests lodging incognito near the Vernons’. As she forbids it, he visits Mrs Johnson and pathetically complains about his wife’s jealousy – just what a wimp would do. Anxious in turn about Lady Susan’s relationship with Reginald De Courcy, he is ‘tolerably appeased’ when she explains that their ‘acquaintance is no ‘more than the commonest flirtation.’

What does Lady Susan see in him? He is handsome, ‘polished’, ‘insinuating,’ and has ‘the power of saying those delightful things which put one in good humour with oneself and all the world.’ And, crucially, he thinks she can do no wrong. It’s tempting to draw a parallel with Emma, who ‘never could … expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as’ in Mr Woodhouse’s. Does Lady Susan have daddy issues? Do strong women need to have weak men around?

In any case, there’s no shortage of them in this world. Take Sir James Martin, for instance. He’s young, good-looking, gentlemanly, and wealthy. He’s also an ass. Having invited himself to Churchill, he talked too much, repeating himself over and over, and ‘mixing more frequent laughter with his discourse than the subject required.’ Lady Susan had previously written:

I have more than once repented that I did not marry him myself; and were he but one degree less contemptibly weak I certainly should: but I must own myself rather romantic in that respect, and that riches only will not satisfy me.

Yet she thinks he’s good enough for Frederica. You know what they say about fools and their money: she must be planning to spend his by manipulating her daughter. At the very least she’d be able to freeload on them.

Reginald De Courcy, on the other hand, is not just the handsome heir apparent to his father’s estate: he’s both clever and sensible, and has ‘a proud spirit … resulting from … superior integrity.’ Still, he’s young, warm, and impulsive, and his infatuation clouds his judgement. First he trusts Mr Smith’s account of Lady Susan’s misbehaviour at Langford, but he’s curious and confident he’ll be able to detect her tricks. Though he demands full explanations, he ends up believing everything she says. His heart ‘seems always debating on the reasonableness of its emotions,’ but he lets himself get carried away by his feelings. Daring to question her parenting methods, he is easily convinced that her intentions have always been the best and that he’s been wrong to interfere. He must have asked for forgiveness, thus reinforcing her domination: ‘A very few words from me,’ she writes, ‘softened [him] at once into the utmost submission, and rendered [him] more tractable, more attached, more devoted than ever.’ So much so that they become engaged. As he comes to town to be with her, he meets Mr Johnson and his ward, and accepts Mrs Mainwaring’s version of events without seeking confirmation from a different source.

‘The spell is removed. I see you as you are,’ he says. ‘The charm is broken. My eyes are opened,’ Edmund Bertram exclaims in a somewhat similar situation. The incantation seems to have been no more than ‘the influence of Strength over Weakness,’ to which Jane Austen refers in a letter to her friend Anne Sharp. ‘Galigai de Concini for ever & ever,’ she adds. Leonora Galigai was a favourite of the French Queen Marie de Medicis, Louis XIII’s mother. Accused of having bewitched her royal friend, she replied: ‘My spell was the power of a strong mind over a weak one.’ In this case, it doesn’t look as if preying on the naive, the mentally slow or the young and inexperienced required any extraordinary abilities. As Reginald himself puts it, ‘My understanding is at length restored, and teaches me no less to abhor the artifices which had subdued me than to despise myself for the weakness on which their strength was founded.’

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Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

Lady Susan is beautiful, graceful, intelligent, and agreeable. ‘Her countenance is absolutely sweet, and her voice and manner winningly mild.’ She ‘talks very well, with a happy command of language, which is too often used … to make black appear white.’ She trusts this will enable her to tell her own story, forgetting that, as Mrs Vernon points out,

when a person is always to deceive, it is impossible to be consistent … Lady Susan finds it necessary that Frederica should be to blame, and probably has sometimes judged it expedient to excuse her of ill-nature and sometimes to lament her want of sense. Reginald is only repeating after her ladyship.

Oh dear! To think he could have saved himself so much trouble if only he had used his brains or exercised his memory …

Mrs Vernon is on to her sister-in-law. Yet she feels she has to make an effort to remember, or else she too might succumb to her charm:

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 … Unfortunately, one knows her too well …

She has already almost persuaded me of her being warmly attached to her daughter, though I have been so long convinced to the contrary. She speaks of her with so much tenderness and anxiety, lamenting so bitterly the neglect of her education, which she represents however as wholly unavoidable, that I am forced to recollect how many successive springs her ladyship spent in town, while her daughter was left in Staffordshire to the care of servants, or a governess very little better, to prevent my believing what she says.

Frederica knows this too. Her mother’s attempts to impose her will on her amount to coercion, no matter how she spins it:

Some mothers would have insisted on their daughter’s accepting so good an offer on the first overture; but I could not reconcile it to myself to force Frederica into a marriage from which her heart revolted, and instead of adopting so harsh a measure merely propose to make it her own choice, by rendering her thoroughly uncomfortable till she does accept him.

Her tactics don’t work, and eventually she writes to her, stating her intentions plainly, which prompts Frederica’s escape. This is Lady Susan at her worst. An informed adult might avoid being taken in by a run-of-the-mill manipulator, but what could a child do in those days when confronted with the full weight of parental authority? It might well be argued that this is no more than what other parents did at the time – still, Mrs Vernon tells her niece: ‘She has no right to make you unhappy.’ Could she ever have had what she thought was Frederica’s best interest at heart? Not really, or else she wouldn’t have tried to nip Reginald’s attraction to her in the bud:

I have for some time been more particularly resolved on the match from seeing the rapid increase of her affection for Reginald, and from not feeling secure that a knowledge of such affection might not in the end awaken a return. Contemptible as a regard founded only on compassion must make them both in my eyes, I felt by no means assured that such might not be the consequence. It is true that Reginald had not in any degree grown cool towards me; but yet he has lately mentioned Frederica spontaneously and unnecessarily, and once said something in praise of her person.

One of the reasons why this collection of letters does not become a fully fledged novel is that the protagonist never meets her match. Yet Frederica’s resistance is almost heroic, considering the odds. She even scores a few points by forcing her mother to dismiss her suitor, a partial defeat Lady Susan deems ‘a humiliation’. By the end, it is expected that Reginald should be ‘talked, flattered, and finessed into an affection for her’ – not a very convincing conclusion, but again she wins. By her mother’s own sarcastic admission, there’s still hope:

Such was the first distinguished exploit of Miss Frederica Vernon; and, if we consider that it was achieved at the tender age of sixteen, we shall have room for the most flattering prognostics of her future renown.

References

Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

Lady Susan manuscript retrieved from http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/lady_susan/Front_(left)_board.html

Lady Susan read-along retrieved from http://austenauthors.net/writers-block/lady-susan/

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Chesterfield Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of. Letters Written by Lord Chesterfield’s to his Son. Selected by Charles Sayle. London and Newcastle-on-Tyne: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/letterswrittenby00chesuoft/letterswrittenby00chesuoft_djvu.txt

Christensen, Thomas. (2012). 1616: The World in Motion. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Perlstein, Arnie. (2016). Lady Susan, Jane Austen & Diana Parker forever and ever: the strong, immortal, female mind. Retrieved from http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com.ar/2016/05/jane-austen-lady-susan-diana-parker-for.html

Tomalin, Claire 1999. Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Voltaire  (1761). The Works of M. De Voltaire. Translated from the French, with Notes Historical and Critical by T. Smollet, T. Francklin, et al. Vol. 5. London: Newbery, Baldwin, Johnston, Crowder, Davies, Coote, Kearsley, and Collins.

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You have made me hate myself for ever! Elinor Dashwood as a role model

Sense and Sensibility is a novel of grief, heartbreak, resilience, and second chances. It’s also a dialogue about how to deal with bereavement and betrayal. Austen’s heroines cope with them in different ways, from fainting and running mad to putting themselves together for the sake of those they love. While in Love and Freindship taking leave of our senses seems to be the only option, the interaction between Elinor and Marianne shows us the path to rational behaviour and self-control as well as the difficulties it’s strewn with.

One of the things I like best about Austen’s first published book is that it is virtually impossible for readers to remain neutral. Sooner or later we must choose between the sisters, though we might change sides over time. Each has a point and there is something of both in most of us.

After their father passed away,

Elinor saw, with concern, the excess of her sister’s sensibility; but by Mrs Dashwood it was valued and cherished. They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction. The agony of grief which overpowered them at first, was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again. They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it, and resolved against ever admitting consolation in future.

Their distress doesn’t on the whole appear as artificial as the author makes it sound here, especially if we consider that, a few months on, ‘the sight of every well known spot ceased to raise the violent emotion which it produced for a while.’ Mrs Dashwood’s ‘spirits began to revive, and her mind became capable of some other exertion than that of heightening its affliction by melancholy remembrances.’ Wouldn’t that be normal after all? We all mourn differently, and not all of us are immediately able to get on with our lives. Austen’s account of her own father’s death might surprise us with its restraint, but even she acknowledges that ‘the loss of such a Parent must be felt, or we should be Brutes.’

Yet someone must take charge of things:

Elinor, too, was deeply afflicted; but still she could struggle, she could exert herself. She could consult with her brother, could receive her sister-in-law on her arrival, and treat her with proper attention.

The trouble with her is that she thinks everybody must deal with suffering in the same way. Thus, she strives ‘to rouse her mother to similar exertion, and encourage her to similar forbearance.’

We should bear in mind that the Dashwood ladies will eventually be thrown out of their home, and  have to make do with an income of £500 pounds a year, when the Norland estate alone has been yielding 4000. Not the main source of their sorrow, but enough to add to their worries, just like the lack of a place of their own did to the Austen women’s.

This is, indeed, Laura’s only anxiety in  Love and Freindship:

You may perhaps have been somewhat surprised .., that in the Distress I then endured, destitute of any support, and unprovided with any Habitation, I should never once have remembered my Father & Mother or my paternal Cottage in the Vale of Uske. To account for this seeming forgetfullness I must inform you of a trifling Circumstance concerning them which I have as yet never mentioned. The death of my Parents a few weeks after my Departure, is the circumstance I allude to. By their decease I became the lawfull Inheritress of their House & Fortune. But alas! the House had never been their own and their Fortune had only been an Annuity on their own Lives.

Her subsequent expressions of regret, therefore, do not ring true:

I took up my Residence in a Romantic Village in the Highlands of Scotland where I have ever since continued, and where I can uninterrupted by unmeaning Visits, indulge in a melancholy solitude, my unceasing Lamentations for the Death of my Father, my Mother my Husband & my Freind.

As a satire on the novel of sensibility, the story is full of exaggerated outbursts that prevent characters from taking adequate action but not from caring about the materialistic aspects of life. Extreme sensitivity coexists with calculating callousness.

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Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

Sense and Sensibility might also have started as a critique of this tradition, but we soon see there’s nothing fake about the sisters’ feelings. The only difference between them is that Elinor ‘knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn; and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.’

‘Taught by whom?’ we might ask. Does Elinor’s knowledge of how to keep her own emotions in check qualify her to educate others? What works for her might not, after all, work for them. And her methods might not be the best. Her sister is not swayed by her arguments:

‘Exert yourself, dear Marianne,’ she cried, ‘if you would not kill yourself and all who love you. Think of your mother; think of her misery while you suffer: for her sake you must exert yourself.’

‘I cannot, I cannot,’ cried Marianne; ‘leave me, leave me, if I distress you; leave me, hate me, forget me! but do not torture me so. Oh! how easy for those, who have no sorrow of their own to talk of exertion! Happy, happy Elinor, you cannot have an idea of what I suffer’ …

‘Whoever may have been so detestably your enemy, let them be cheated of their malignant triumph, my dear sister, by seeing how nobly the consciousness of your own innocence and good intentions supports your spirits. It is a reasonable and laudable pride which resists such malevolence.’

‘No, no,’ cried Marianne, ‘misery such as mine has no pride. I care not who knows that I am wretched. The triumph of seeing me so may be open to all the world. Elinor, Elinor, they who suffer little may be proud and independent as they like–may resist insult, or return mortification–but I cannot. I must feel–I must be wretched–and they are welcome to enjoy the consciousness of it that can.’

‘But for my mother’s sake and mine–’

‘I would do more than for my own. But to appear happy when I am so miserable–Oh! who can require it?’

In a similar situation, Emma, clueless as she often is, convinces Harriet Smith to make a serious effort to forget Mr Elton:

‘My being saved from pain is a very secondary consideration. I want you to save yourself from greater pain. Perhaps I may sometimes have felt that Harriet would not forget what was due–or rather what would be kind by me.’

This appeal to her affections did more than all the rest. The idea of wanting gratitude and consideration for Miss Woodhouse, whom she really loved extremely, made her wretched for a while, and when the violence of grief was comforted away, still remained powerful enough to prompt to what was right and support her in it very tolerably.

Emma then famously reflects that ‘there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart.’ Does this mean Marianne is cold and unloving?  Not really. Harriet is a simpler creature, and she does not care for the vicar as passionately or as deeply as Marianne does for Willoughby. At any rate, Miss Woodhouse succeeds in persuading her friend, whereas Miss Dashwood does not.

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Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

Her example is not enough, as we see when she finally reveals Edward’s secret engagement and her own struggle:

‘And yet you loved him!’–

‘Yes. But I did not love only him;–and while the comfort of others was dear to me, I was glad to spare them from knowing how much I felt. Now, I can think and speak of it with little emotion. I would not have you suffer on my account; for I assure you I no longer suffer materially myself. I have many things to support me. I am not conscious of having provoked the disappointment by any imprudence of my own, I have borne it as much as possible without spreading it farther. I acquit Edward of essential misconduct. I wish him very happy; and I am so sure of his always doing his duty, that though now he may harbour some regret, in the end he must become so. Lucy does not want sense, and that is the foundation on which every thing good may be built.–And after all, Marianne, after all that is bewitching in the idea of a single and constant attachment, and all that can be said of one’s happiness depending entirely on any particular person, it is not meant–it is not fit–it is not possible that it should be so.–Edward will marry Lucy; he will marry a woman superior in person and understanding to half her sex; and time and habit will teach him to forget that he ever thought another superior to her.’–

‘If such is your way of thinking,’ said Marianne, ‘if the loss of what is most valued is so easily to be made up by something else, your resolution, your self-command, are, perhaps, a little less to be wondered at.–They are brought more within my comprehension.’

‘I understand you.–You do not suppose that I have ever felt much.’

Now it’s Marianne that’s being intolerant, though Elinor comes dangerously close to a ‘picture of perfection.’ Just as the elder sister assumes we must all bear our pain in the same way, the younger believes we must all feel alike. Soon realising her mistake, however, ‘“Oh! Elinor,’” she cried, “you have made me hate myself for ever.–How barbarous have I been to you! … Because your merit cries out upon myself, I have been trying to do it away.”’

Tender caresses ensue, but Miss Dashwood neither denies her own excellence nor attempts to counteract her sister’s self-loathing. She seems to believe that invidious comparison will lead to positive behaviour. Wrong:

She felt it with all the pain of continual self-reproach, regretted most bitterly that she had never exerted herself before; but it brought only the torture of penitence, without the hope of amendment. Her mind was so much weakened that she still fancied present exertion impossible, and therefore it only dispirited her more.

Oh dear! Isn’t is obvious? Marianne is depressed. She can’t even bring herself to try. Far from relieving her misery, guilt only increases it. To be fair to Elinor, she is young and inexperienced. She has a lot on her plate right now, too, what with her own disappointment, watching over her family, keeping up appearances, observing the rules of propriety, being polite to their acquaintance, and excusing her sister’s occasional lack of manners. Must be exhausting. So much so she fails to notice Marianne has not changed her wet shoes and stockings …

Perhaps it’s just as well, as she might not see sense otherwise. As she recovers from her illness, she puts things into perspective, fully realising the error of her ways, and once more acknowledging her sister’s superiority. Strangely enough, considering her fragile state, she manages to summon the energy to devise a scheme of ‘rational employment and virtuous self-control.’ Elinor’s response is nuanced: ‘impatient to soothe, though too honest to flatter,’ she gives her ‘only that praise and support which her frankness and her contrition so well deserved.’

From which I gather she believes she’s been right all along and worth following as a role model, whereas her sister is to blame, among other things, for inconsiderately endangering her own life. Self-abhorrence would therefore seem a proper way to show repentance. It doesn’t cross her mind that she might have taken a different approach or tried to understand what was going on in Marianne’s.

Sometimes people forced by circumstances to become towers of strength find it useful to stick to a few black-and-white notions. They might feel entitled to sit in judgement and passive aggressively exact a little commendation every now and then. All too often self-denial comes at a price.

Marianne is eager, immoderate, and imprudent – she’s also a teenager. She may be selfish and rude at times, but she’s so very honest that even her wretchedness commands respect. I’m glad Col. Brandon is capable of appreciating that ‘there is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind, that one is sorry to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions.’ This time round I too side with her.

References

Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

Love and Freindship quoted from

http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/blvolsecond/1.html

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Nemade, R., Staats Reiss, N., and Dombeck, M. (2007). Historical Understandings of Depression. Retrieved from

https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/historical-understandings-of-depression/