Sunday, October 13, 2013

Fortnightly Book, October 13

I have been called an unkind mother, but it was the sacred impulse of maternal affection, it was the advantage of my daughter that led me on; and if that daughter were not the greatest simpleton on earth, I might have been rewarded for my exertions as I ought.

When we think of the works of Jane Austen, we usually think of The Six: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, Emma. There are, of course, some minor poems and some unfinished novel fragments like Sanditon and The Watsons, as well as some juvenilia, but we also have a full draft of a novel. It seems to have been written fairly early, but it was only published in Austen-Leigh's memoir of his aunt. Austen-Leigh also gave the title-less story a title, by which it has been known since: Lady Susan. It's relatively short, but it's in epistolary form, which allows for a lot of indirect implication about what's going on -- you can tell quite a bit of story in short space with skillful use of the epistolary form. It is also notable in being the only complete surviving draft of any novel of Austen's -- it seems to have been her practice to destroy prior drafts once published. It's unclear whether she ever intended to publish it, although she may have contemplated it after 1805 or so, when the surviving manuscript was copied from some prior draft. If she had published it, it's unclear whether it would have been published as is or reworked as a more conventional novel; her early novels often show some signs of at least partial conversion from epistolary format.

Lady Susan gives us something rather different from what people expect of Austen. The main character is beautiful, intelligent, wealthy, titled, widowed, and older than main characters in Austen usually are -- Lady Susan is at least 35, and probably closer to 40. And, most notably, of all, unlike Austen's other main characters, she is through and through a villain: self-centered, ruthless, manipulative, and inclined to do things just because she can. And she can. She can manipulate people like nobody's business, especially men, and she is completely unfettered by any attachment to common moral standards about the relations between the sexes. And we see most of the story from her point of view. I don't think there's really any barrier to calling her genuinely wicked; and if one does, I would say she is one of the most plausibly wicked characters in all of fiction. You have to get used to the indirectness of the epistolary format, but imagine a writer of Austen's caliber and biting wit showing what the world looks like from the perspective of a villain as intelligent as she is, and you have Lady Susan. The quotation at the top of the post is Lady Susan herself. And she is very quotable. From the same letter:

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.

From another letter:

To be sure, when we consider that I did take some pains to prevent my brother-in-law's marrying her, this want of cordiality is not very surprising--and yet it shows an illiberal and vindictive spirit to resent a project which influenced me six years ago, and which never succeeded at last.

And from another letter, also talking about her daughter:

You are very good in taking notice of Frederica, and I am grateful for it as a mark of your friendship; but as I cannot have a doubt of the warmth of that friendship, I am far from exacting so heavy a sacrifice. She is a stupid girl, and has nothing to recommend her.

And again, even better:

Some mothers would have insisted on their daughter's accepting so great an offer on the first overture, but I could not answer 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 life thoroughly uncomfortable till she does accept him.

I could quote her all day; she just doesn't stop. And what is remarkable is that it is all very plausible: you know people who act like this on a small scale; they just don't have Lady Susan's boldness, which arises from her complete incapacity to see anything she does as requiring genuine repentance, and her remarkable ability to get away with it.

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