I thought it was quite interesting that Drabble called Lady Susan much more a product of the eighteenth century than the nineteenth (it is thought she initially wrote it in 1793-94 and was transcribed in 1805). Her later works definitely move forward from this, and she seems much more at ease in her later works--much more like Jane Austen than someone writing in the style of the eighteenth century (if that makes sense). The novel is made up of 41 letters and a conclusion. You can read the novel online here, and there is also a helpful family tree. Initially I was confused by the letter writers. I had to pay close attention to who was writing who (I printed out the family tree, which helped me keep everyone in order) as some characters share last names. However, once everyone was straight in my mind I could enjoy the story unfolding and Austen's writing voice.
Drabble calls Lady Susan Machiavellian. Although she is really quite wicked, she comes off as worldly, intelligent and polite. We know nothing of her past--only that she was married and has a daughter of 16 called Frederica. She calls her daughter stupid and is trying to marry her off to an utter bore of a man, which of course Frederica wants no part of. Lady Susan is definitely not your usual Austen heroine. She seems more like an anti-heroine. She is manipulative and just wants her own way and knows how to get it. She is having an affair with a married man and flirts with her sister-in-law's younger brother. If nothing else you have to admire her for being a strong character--if not a particularly nice one. You never really get to know Frederica, and I felt rather sorry for her.
I do like epistolary novels, though I can see what their limitations can be. You don't always get all the details you'd like, though Austen really did quite an admirable job in conveying her story. Only once or twice did she give lengthy dialogs in the letters, which seemed a bit unwieldy. I did feel a bit let down towards the end. It all seemed a bit anticlimactic. There was all this build up, and then you expect Lady Susan to get her "comeuppance". And well, it just sort of ended. She did tie up the loose ends, but I guess I wish there had been more explanation. Of course this was a novel she decided she didn't want to publish. Had she done so, she might have made changes.
I do plan on reading the other two unfinished novels, The Watsons and Sanditon. The Watsons, which I plan on reading next is called "a delightful fragment, whose spirited heroine Emma Watson finds her marriage opportunities restricted by poverty and pride." It was written later in her career. Sanditon "is set in a newly established seaside resort, with a glorious cast of hypochondriacs and speculators, and shows the author contemplating a changing society with a mixture of skepticism and amusement." She was working on Sanditon at the time of her death at age 42. This, of course, puts me in the mood to read the rest of her novels. I have only read Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice. I think reading these unfinished works will make me appreciate even more the artistry of her other novels.
You can also join the Slaves in the discussion of the novel at The Metaxu Cafe.