I read Lady Susan in a dash, upon Dorothy’s recommendation. It was brief, witty and led at such a vivacious pace that I was delighted. It’s quite a miracle that it hasn’t aged at all, even though the genre of epistolary novel has quickly run out of fashion, and makes it all the more difficult to keep the narrative lively. It’s a spirited satire that finishes like a vaudeville: one lover rushes in, the deceived wife is there, the scheming coquettes get their comeuppance. There is no romance as in Pride and Prejudice, and there is no great heroin as such either, so it’s not your typical Jane Austen. Lady Susan is the main character indeed, but she’s a kind of anti-heroin, a widow determined to get remarried and to marry her daughter to a good party, whatever the cost. She’s scheming and cynical and has no moral whatsoever. Even if we readers are supposed to side with the virtuous Mrs. Catherine Vernon, her sister-in-law, Lady Susan is much more fun. Men are under her spell, even though they condemn such a free and strong woman:
“What a woman she must be! I long to see her, and shall certainly accept your kind invitation, that I may form some idea of those bewitching powers which can do so much–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!”
I was strongly reminded of the Choderlos de Laclos’ Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons?), where two amoral libertines, a man and a woman, scheme to corrupt young and/or innocent souls who believe in love. The Liaisons is also an epistolary novel, so I guess that scholars have checked whether Austen has read that book. The main difference is that Lady Susan’s tone is not so dark and openly sexual as the Liaisons, even if it certainly has some serious undertones. The only letdown is the end, that seems rushed and artificial. In one short paragraph, every plot is quickly resolved and Lady Susan’s fate is left uncertain:
“Whether Lady Susan was or was not happy in her second choice, I do not see how it can ever be ascertained; for who would take her assurance of it on either side of the question? The world must judge from probabilities; she had nothing against her but her husband, and her conscience.”
Certainly the mature Jane Austen wouldn’t have contented herself with such a conclusion.