There is something truly breath-taking about reading Jane Austen’s novel-in-letters “Lady Susan”. Most scholars believe that she wrote it before she turned twenty. In the Oxford Edition of the Minor Works, Brian Southam hypothesizes that it was written between 1793-94 (MW, 243). Because it is a novel in letters, we get to see how characters portray themselves to different letter recipients and then how they are perceived by others who write letters. So the main dynamic of point-of-view is between Lady Susan and her sister-in-law Mrs. Vernon. According to Juliet McMaster in Jane Austen, Young Author, “‘Lady Susan’ features a totally self-seeking female protagonist whose considerable power lies in her freedom from moral scruple” (12). The language of the letters and the variations on perspective are a pleasure to read.
You can see the dueling perspectives of Lady Susan and Mrs. Vernon in the following quotations. First, Lady Susan being candid with her confidante:
“There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority.” “Lady Susan”, Jane Austen Letter 7, Lady Susan to Mrs. Johnson (about Mr. De Courcy) Minor Works, 254
Next, Mrs. Catherine Vernon portraying her view of Lady Susan in a letter to her brother:
“[Lady Susan] is clever & agreable, has all that knowledge of the world which makes conversation easy, & talks very well, with a happy command of Language, which is too often used I beleive to make Black appear White.”
“Lady Susan”, Jane Austen Letter 6, Mrs. Vernon to Mr. De Courcy, Minor Works, 251 (spelling and capitalization from MW)
The male characters are rarely given a voice in their own letters, with the exception of Reginald De Courcy, who has a few to Lady Susan and one to his father. Juliet McMaster calls him “a bag of goods contested over by the women” (Jane Austen, Young Author, 12). In a reversal of the reality of the time, the men are portrayed as dominated by the women (McMaster, 12).
“Lady Susan” is such a fun read. If you have never read it, I encourage you do so. You can download a free copy through Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/946
I think the quotation in the header of this article, “Facts are such horrid things,” is remarkably post-modern. And I must close with another favorite quotation from the work, that shows that underneath it all, Lady Susan wants something else besides money: