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!’
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.’
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.
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.
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.