Lady Susan-An Unusual Austen Lady

Lady Susan

By Jane Austen

This short book/long story was written in approximately 1794 (when Jane was about 19) but it wasn’t published until 1871, long after her death in 1817.  It is written mainly as a set of letters between the principal characters with a conclusion by an unnamed narrator.

Lady Susan is about 35 years old, is recently widowed, has a sixteen-year-old daughter, and has no home of her own in which to reside so she relies on friends and family for a place to stay.  As the book opens, she is abruptly leaving her friends’ home near London to stay with her brother-in-law and family in the country.   She has deposited her daughter in a school in London, apparently to repair the effects of limited schooling she had while living at home. 

Many rumors follow Lady Susan to her brother-in-law’s estate including the reason for the abrupt departure (excessive flirting with the man of the house), cause for lack of home ownership (the property had to be sold to cover debts incurred by Lady Susan’s excessive spending), and the reason for her daughter’s poor education (Lady Susan had been too busy socializing away from home to pay attention to her).  The letters progress a story that demonstrates Lady Susan’s amazing abilities to deflect rumors, win over people who have a poor opinion of her, and generally manipulate anyone necessary to get what she wants.  Jane Austen’s chosen language for the correspondents is marvelous and paints a picture of a thoroughly self-absorbed woman who uses her beauty, charm, and articulateness to full advantage. 

Austen seemed to have much fun creating the Lady Susan character and using her to highlight constraints placed on women—and men—in this society and how they deal with them.  Some of Austen’s characters’ language and actions make clear a focus on the drive to marry for money with a hope that the bride will be able to stomach the husband and if not your lives can be conducted separately enough to tolerate the situation (or that he’s old and/or infirm enough to die soon).  Two couples—Lady Susan’s brother-in-law and wife and that wife’s parents—seem to have marriages that are more desirable and may involve a real love between the parties.  Lady Susan’s sister-in-law tries and succeeds in pulling Lady Susan’s daughter into her (much more) stable home.  But here again there is a continued focus by the sister-in-law on Lady Susan’s daughter’s successful marriage, this time to her brother.  The sister-in-law convinces her mother to join her in this campaign as Lady Susan’s daughter is seen by them as a deserving and desirable mate for the brother/son.

A 2016 movie, Love and Friendship, is based on this book.  It does a remarkable job of converting a story told through letters to a “live action” drama.  Much of the dialog is taken directly from Austen.  A few changes are made to help an American audience in 2016 understand things but the changes are generally quite minor.  The biggest change regards the marriage of Lady Susan to Sir James which is described in the narrated conclusion in the book.  Sir James has always been smitten with Lady Susan, but Lady Susan’s intentions through the story have been to marry her daughter off to rich Sir James.  Austen merely reports that they marry.  The movie provides a possible and very believable interpretation of what prompts the timing.   This reader/watcher suggests you read the novella and then watch the movie and be delighted by both. 

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