I never really liked Jane Austen. It’s half her, half the fault of the fandom. It’s easy, especially as an American, to get sucked into that idealized world of BBC adaptations, but it can go too far. The 2013 novel Longbourn was so bad it made me a little uncomfortable, but somehow it still got onto the NYT Notable Books list. A lot of the books and movies set in Austen’s world are just bad, but there seems to be a blind-spot around her.* I can’t stand the romanticism of Austen’s work by my generation. The Regency was an age of depravity in the upper-class and horrific poverty in the lower. I always wondered if we are supposed to believe that Bingley never tumbled a kitchen maid or two. His class and the behavior of his sister would lead you to think so. Austen is a great writer, but sexuality in her books is always negative, shoved onto one rogue character like Willoughby. In her novels she only shows the laissez-faire attitude of the Regency era through her villains. She was a straight-laced woman in Byron’s world. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – it’s why she’s so beloved by generations of girls who feel they were born in the wrong century. But Austen is overly idyllic even to her contemporaries, so to understand the Regency era solely through her eyes is to do the period a disservice. Of course I enjoy her works (Emma and Northanger Abbey in particular), but I do not believe that 1813 was somehow a more moral and gentle time. Overall, I find Austen a bit boring.
And now, watch me eat my words. I really thought that I had read all Austen had to offer. I thought that I “got” her. Two months ago I watched the film “Love and Friendship,” based off Austen’s novella named Lady Susan. (It’s very confusing because Austen also wrote a short story with the title of “Love and Friendship” but it bears no relation to the 2016 film.) I watched it with my mom on Michaelmas and we sat there, agape. A few minutes into the movie, my mom turned to me and asked, “Jane Austen wrote this?!” Jane Austen, beloved by housewives and anglophiles everywhere, wrote this story? Immediately after finishing the film I downloaded the public domain edition of Lady Susan onto my Kindle and started to read.**
Lady Susan is a novella told by multiple unreliable narrators through letters and written correspondence. That classic Austen wit is there, but she is almost unrecognizable as an author. The novella is short, crisp, and sinful. The reader is thrown right into the action, without that “scene setting” that Austen is so fond of. Lady Susan is a widow, who, having wasted her late husband’s fortune, has been living as a “guest” at Langford for several months. The novella hits the ground running when Susan is kicked out of Langford for having an affair with a married man.*** Lady Susan writes to her brother-in-law, inviting herself to come stay with him and his family. Susan’s sister-in-law Catherine Vernon immediately writes to HER mother, horrified that Susan is coming. Lady Susan has a terrible reputation as a flirt and neglectful mother. Mere days after she broke off her fling with the married Manwaring of Langford, she finds a new object of desire in Catherine’s younger brother – the bachelor Reginald. The novel moves quickly between Susan’s letters to her friend Alicia and Catherine’s to her mother, with a few other voices in between.
Lady Susan has the complex cast of characters that you would find in a full-length novel, except they’re stuffed into a novella. That makes it a very intense read, as you try to keep up with the gossip and nuances of Lady Susan’s slice of society. Catherine and Susan are so prejudiced against each other that it becomes the reader’s job to find the truth in-between. This prejudice shows particularly where Frederica is concerned. Frederica is Lady Susan’s daughter, who has been shipped from Langford to an all girls school. After about a month she runs away from school and the Vernons take her in. Susan says her daughter “was born to be the torment of my life,” and is desperate to marry her off to the dull and dumb Sir James Martin. Catherine Vernon makes it her goal to steal the girl from her mother. Reginald, under the spell of Susan “condemns Frederica as a worthless girl.” But of course, young Frederica falls for him. She is the biggest puzzle of Lady Susan – is she really as stupid as her mother believes? Is she really as sweet and innocent as Catherine believes? But due to the structure of the novel, Frederica never has a voice of her own.
There is a complexity of character in Lady Susan that seems to be missing from Austen’s other works. Normally Austen is very quick to judge her characters and write the morally ambiguous off as villains. I still get a little frustrated by her “rogues” and “bitches” who never get to say their piece. What makes Lady Susan so out of character for Austen is that Susan wins. She does everything wrong and breaks every moral code and still wins. The end of the novella is so trashy that Austen can’t actually spell out what happens, rather lets the reader figure it out by context. In the film it’s clearer. None of the women really loose. Although Susan and her daughter spend the whole novella at odds, they both essentially get what they want. It’s the men in the novella who have the wool pulled over their eyes. There is no proud Darcy or practical Knightley. All the men are kind-hearted but slow on the uptake, gullible, and naive. In some way or another all the women get away with their schemes and sins. It’s a light novella, with the darker schemes smoothed over by Susan in her flippant letters to Alicia. The bad behavior is so unlike Austen I felt a bit scandalized reading it, like I was listening to my grandmother tell me about her sordid past.
With Austen dates are always vague. Even though the novella was published posthumously, it is believed that Lady Susan was written in 1794, before she started Pride and Prejudice. It would seem she wrote Lady Susan after her volumes of juvenilia but before her novels. (For comparison Mansfield Park was written sometime after 1802, though not published till 1814.) Overall I think Austen got a little more jaded and a little less fun as she got older, which isn’t surprising. I’m just sad it took me so long to realize that a different side of Austen existed. I am trying to get my hands on her juvenilia. Lady Susan is the novella you never knew you needed. And now I need to apologize to Jane Austen. So, Jane. I’m sorry. I wrote you off too soon. And it’s not your fault that someone decided to publish Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife or Longbourn. It’s not your fault that blogs like Modern Mrs. Darcy exist to plague my soul. You’ve done a lot of good. I really liked “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.” You introduced me to the really fun-to-look-at term, tête-à-tête. And no woman hates Colin Firth – either as Mr Darcy or Mark Darcy. You are the great equalizer among women. And you’re pretty damn funny, actually. So, sorry Jane. You’re cool.
And to my reader – You really need to take a day and read Lady Susan. No matter what your opinions on Austen are, I promise that it will surprise you.
** Public domain novels are free on Amazon for Kindles. It’s how I get a ton of my books these days. If you have a Kindle, you should take advantage of it.
*** You read that right. A Jane Austen heroine is DOING IT with a MARRIED MAN!
Sarah V Diehl