I am a woefully underread Janite, as it turns out. Sure, I've read the big six - her half-dozen beautifully written novels - many times. But in all of the years I've been reading Austen, I had never ventured into her other, sadly scarce, works. Laziness, maybe. Haughtiness, maybe. I'd read the best, why would I go backwards from there?
Well, at least in the case of Lady Susan, because it was freaking awesome. This is Jane Austen at the beginning of her career - rumor has it that she wrote Lady Susan at the age of 19 and it is undeniable that she was a born writer and a woman of great perspicacity. She nailed Lady Susan.
This is a short little novella, but it fairly crackles with wit, humor, nastiness, judgment, and realism. It is written in letters, but I never wondered what was happening. She lays bare the soul and the facade of Lady Susan, a woman who raises manipulation and calculation to its highest art. Lady Susan does everything for effect, but appears completely natural.
"She is delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes; and from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older, I was certainly not disposed to admire her, though always hearing she was beautiful; but I cannot help feeling that she possesses an uncommon union of symmetry, brilliancy, and grace."
She is the ultimate expression of what a society that praises form and ignores substance deserves. Empty of compassion, wholly self-absorbed and hedonistic, never concerned with anyone but herself. I wish that Austen had written a full-length novel including her as a character. I am left wondering about her marriage, her widowhood, her future. I'd like to know more about her long-suffering daughter, Frederica, about whom she said, cruelly:
"She is a stupid girl, and has nothing to recommend her."
In Frederica, I saw shades of Georgiana Darcy. A shy young woman, overwhelmed by her much more assertive mother. The novella implies that she gets her happy ending. I hope so!
A woman like Lady Susan will always land on her feet (often on top of her rival). She doesn't get the comeuppance she deserves, but her outcome is more realistic than satisfying.
This was a lot of fun. So much fun that I ended up reading sections of it out loud to my daughter, including this gem, contained in a letter from Lady Susan to her equally unscrupulous friend Mrs. Johnson, relating how she has been able to yank her young admirer back into line after it becomes apparent that she is terribly cruel to her young daughter:
"There is something agreeable in feelings so easily worked on; not that I envy him their possession, nor would, for the world, have such myself; but they are very convenient when one wishes to influence the passions of another. And yet this Reginald, whom a very few words from me softened at once into the utmost submission, and rendered more tractable, more attached, more devoted than ever, would have left me in the first angry swelling of his proud heart without deigning to seek an explanation. Humbled as he now is, I cannot forgive him such an instance of pride, and am doubtful whether I ought not to punish him by dismissing him at once after this reconciliation, or by marrying and teazing him for ever."