Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Review: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Lady Susan
Lady Susan by Jane Austen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up from the library because I finished all the books I said I'd read for Roof Beam Reader's Austen in August event, and I still had a few days left in the month. Little did I realize, I had time for this book, and probably the rest of Austen's unfinished novels. It went fast.

Lady Susan is an epistolary novel, meaning it's told through the exchange of letters. That may well have been Austen's substitute for outlining stories, though, as Sense and Sensibility also started out as epistolary, and there's such an unfinished quality to the ending. The last few minutes of the audio book were a summary of what happens after the correspondences cease, which could've been told in letter form just as easily.

The novel follows Lady Susan Vernon, recently widowed and with a 16-year-old daughter named Frederica. She goes to stay with her brother-in-law and his wife, Catherine Vernon. Six years before, she'd tried to prevent the marriage, so Mrs. Vernon is understandably wary of her, and warns her brother, Reginald De Courcy, to steer clear. He's more intrigued than warned off, though, and soon Mrs. Vernon and her mother are fretting about the possibility he might propose to Lady Susan.

Meanwhile, Lady Susan is trying to marry her daughter off to the rich Sir James Martin, but her daughter tries to run away from school to escape this obligation, and gets expelled. She comes to stay with the Vernons, and Catherine takes a liking to her. Frederica, meanwhile, falls for Reginald, and asks his help in influencing her mother to give up on the engagement she doesn't want.

This is not a story of comeuppance. In the end, Frederica escapes her mother, and there's a strong implication she marries Reginald De Courcy, who learns just in time what a terrible person Lady Susan is. There's relief for the Vernon family, in the end, and for Frederica, but Lady Susan remains selfish and manipulative.

This book seems like more an exercise in perspective than a real story. Lady Susan sees herself as put-upon by her inferiors, looks down on Frederica and considers her stupid, and complains she's taken advantage of. Alicia, the friend she corresponds with throughout the story, agrees with her assessment and writes of her deserving better treatment than she manipulates out of people, while Catherine Vernon practically tears her hair out that no one else can see what a terrible person Lady Susan is, beneath the beauty. Each person clearly believes their perspective to be the right way of looking at the world, and Lady Susan feels she has perfect justification for her behavior.

Nonetheless, the story still shows Austen's skill in depicting a full characterization in a few lines. We know Catherine Vernon has plenty of reason to hate Lady Susan even before she outlines all of her thoughts on the matter, because Lady Susan preemptively defends herself against everything she might be hated for, and even mentions some things Catherine doesn't. We see how she's neglected her daughter, even as she's defending herself against such charges. We see her influence in Reginald, who's forewarned against her manipulations, and still falls prey.

I listened to an audio edition that had different readers for each letter writer. Each reader sounded distinct and spoke clearly. I would've liked more collaboration between the readers for Catherine and Susan, so that the parts where Catherine quotes Susan in her letters would sound more like the way the narrator speaks. The audio quality wasn't excellent, but it was acceptable.

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  1. Thanks for this! I'm an Austen fan but have never read Lady Susan, nor seen a good review on it. It definitely sounds like one of her more mature books. An Austen that doesn't end happily ever after is a rare treat!

    1. Apparently, it was written early in her career, though it doesn't have a lot of the earmarks of a trunk novel that doesn't deserve publication. I guess she just felt she wasn't up to editing it to a publishable standard.

      I enjoyed it, though I wouldn't have heard of it without Roof Beam Reader's event this month. I'm a big fan of Austen, though, so I was happy to have the excuse to pick it up.

  2. I think an audio edition of this with each of the different characters' letters being read by a distinct reader would have been a great way to experience this (and any epistolary) work!

    1. It was how I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and Thirteen Reasons Why. I recommend it. It really helps keep everyone separate, and it helps me keep track of things without having to flip back to the beginning of each letter.