Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Lady Susan

on August 20, 2010

This is the first Austen I have read since deciding to take part in the Austen Reading Challenge.  I’ve read all my non-Austen (tribute) works now and although I did read most of them before I signed up to the challenge I have read them all in 2010, so I hope that still counts!  My opinions on the three Austen Heroes Diaries that I’ve read can be found here and here and I’ll write about the three other tributes in due course.

Lady Susan is an epistolary novel and, according to the timeline in the front of some of my Austen editions, probably the first novel Jane Austen wrote, which is why I decided to read it first (even though it was only published after her death, almost as a sort of afterthought as it’s usually bundled together with The Watsons and Sanditon, Austen’s two unfinished novels).  It consists of correspondence between various characters, chiefly Lady Susan Vernon, a recent widow, and her friend Mrs Alicia Johnson; Catherine Vernon, wife of Lady Susan’s brother-in-law, and her parents, Lord and Lady de Courcy.  The story concerns the events surrounding Lady Susan’s extended visit to the Vernon’s.  They, Catherine in particular, and the de Courcys are highly suspicious of Lady Susan, who apparently went to some lengths to prevent the Vernons’ marriage and who has more recently been at the centre of some scandal whilst staying with Mr Manwaring and his wife (who was once the ward of Mrs Johnson’s husband).

In addition to this, Mrs Vernon”s brother Reginald de Courcy is also visiting and Lady Susan has a daughter, Francesca, who has been placed in a school in London but who is very unhappy and eventually comes to join them.

The great thing about the epistolary novel is that it allows Austen to reveal the different attitudes Lady Susan adopts, depending on whom she’s addressing in her letters.  At first, when she expresses her intentions to visit the Vernons, she seems polite and friendly and very fond of her daughter, but in her letters to Mrs Johnson it becomes apparent that her true feelings are vastly different and that her explanations over what happened at the Manwarings’ are completely fabricated.

Despite the fact that the whole novel except for the last chapter is in the voice of one or other of the characters, Austen’s typical satire and humour comes through, particularly in Lady Susan’s letters, and I found the whole story both compelling and hilarious.  Even when she expresses some really shocking ideas (such as how to hasten the untimely demise of a sickly character!) the language and the tone brings humour to the situation.

I have read this before, a few years ago (it’s in the back of my copy of Northanger Abbey, which I read quite a lot) but had forgotten quite how enjoyable it is to read, and how difficult to put down until the end. Fortunately (but only from that point of view), it’s quite short!


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