Saturday, October 26, 2013

Jane Austen, Lady Susan


Opening Passage:

Langford, Dec.

MY DEAR BROTHER,—I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted of spending some weeks with you at Churchhill, and, therefore, if quite convenient to you and Mrs. Vernon to receive me at present, I shall hope within a few days to be introduced to a sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with. My kind friends here are most affectionately urgent with me to prolong my stay, but their hospitable and cheerful dispositions lead them too much into society for my present situation and state of mind; and I impatiently look forward to the hour when I shall be admitted into your delightful retirement....

Summary: From the first moment we meet her, when Lady Susan Vernon is telling her brother-in-law -- telling, not really asking -- that she will be staying with him, we find her lying. It turns out that the "hospitable and cheerful dispositions" of her current hosts, the Mainwarings, have led her into an adulterous affair with the man of the house, to the not-so-hospitable and not-so-cheerful response of the wife. Nor is that all. Lady Susan is extraordinarily beautiful -- "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" and with "an uncommon union of symmetry, brilliancy, and grace" (Letter 6) -- and she has been flirting with the beau of young Miss Mainwaring (Mr. Mainwaring's younger sister) simply to prevent him from marrying her, because Lady Susan has marked the man, Sir James Martin, to be her own daughter's future husband. This is not the sort of situation into which anyone falls without being an inveterate manipulator, and 'manipulation' is an understatement for Lady Susan. Catherine Vernon, her sister-in-law, calls her "Mistress of deceit" at one point, and it is an apt title. She lies in practically every paragraph of her letters, she lies in her behavior toward others, and she lies to herself.

It might be a slightly jarring comparison, but there are two characters in literature she most reminds me of: Satan in Paradise Lost and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. Like both of these figures, communication for her has nothing in itself to do with truth; it is merely a tool for getting what she wants, for coming out on top. Words and behaviors are machines to do work rather than things that express character. Like both of these characters, her ability to seduce has extended so far that she has convinced herself of a view of the world in which she is always right, and too often misused. It's ironic that the only two times the phrase 'I repent' is used in the novella, it is used by Lady Susan -- and telling that, in a story that shows her having an adulterous affair within months (if not before) of the death of her own husband, leading on multiple men at once simply because she can, and subjecting her daughter to terrible emotional treatment, she only uses the phrase to express regret over having done something that let other people inconvenience her. The difference, of course, is that in different ways Satan and Saruman are fallen angels; Lady Susan is all too plausibly human.

One wonders at her backstory, which is tantalizingly unpainted. Her husband apparently had severe money problems before his death, but, while she occasionally makes comments about not being able to afford this or that, she herself notes that she is not in any immediate need for money, and given her ability to live off of others, and the ruthless planning with which she is planning to marry a wealthy husband, it would be surprising if she were. The fact that she is called 'Lady Susan' tells us something -- it's Lady Susan, not Lady Vernon, and the distinction is quite important, because it means she has her title by birth and not by marriage, and is thus almost certainly the daughter of at least an Earl. (There was an Austen-based work a few years back called Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, which by all accounts was well-written, but shows one of its absolutely crucial divergences in the title.) If Lady Susan approaching forty can repeatedly outcompete Pretty Young Things on the marriage market, she must have been one stunning young woman when she was in her teens and twenties. Thus one has the suggestion -- although never really more than this -- of a woman born to privilege and who, being beautiful from a young age, is perpetually over-indulged. But it is perhaps to the best that we don't know her backstory: she enters mistress of deceit, she exits mistress of deceit, and, honestly, she's all the more splendid a character from the fact that this is all-in-all of who she is.

One of the nice things about the work is that Austen, being Austen, is capable not just of telling us how charming Lady Susan is, but showing how charming she is. She is just so utterly shameless as to stagger the imagination. Just when you think you've got her number, she will do something that teaches you that you are an amateur compared to Lady Susan. But the utter brazenness of her is part of her charm: to be so malicious and yet so impregnably confidence in her own rightness, while at the same time being so competent in achieving what she wants (being the villainess, she has to be foiled, but it is more by bad luck than anything), makes her just comic enough to be almost admirable, but so impressive that she cannot be treated as a joke. All those hateful deeds, and you cannot hate her. She is magnetic, and even as a reader knowing the whole backstory you can see yourself how it is that she can succeed with the other characters.

Looking around, I see that the most common complaint about this book is its epistolary format. This is unfortunate; if there's any story that benefits from the epistolary format, it is this one. We don't just get insight into Lady Susan's mind; we get her own perspective, too, and can compare it to the perspectives of others. That makes her stand out even more vividly than she otherwise would. Further, the story benefits from being spooned out in small doses. In the end, I think the difficulty people have with the epistolary format shows how flattened modern storytelling has become.

Favorite Passage: Lady Susan, of course, writing to her correspondent Alicia Johnson, when Mrs. Johnson has noted that Mr. Johnson has used the gout as an excuse for making it impossible for Lady Susan to meet with Mrs. Johnson; it is also the source of one of the most memorable phrases in the book:

My dear Alicia,—There needed not this last fit of the gout to make me detest Mr. Johnson, but now the extent of my aversion is not to be estimated. To have you confined as nurse in his apartment! My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.

Recommendation: Jane Austen writing a novella about a villainess? Highly, highly, highly recommended.

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