Friday, March 30, 2007

Lord Quillhill to Ms. Austen

Thank you for allowing me to read your novel Lady Susan. I think it is the first novel of yours I have ever read. Let me tell you about the experience.

I was slow to sort out who was who, when characters have the same last names, and relations by marriage are referred to as blood. Even once I had this fairly sorted out in my mind, I had to pause at the start of each letter and think who exactly is writing to whom?

The epistolary novel is a form that is rather pleasing to me. I often marvel at how much story can be conveyed, and here I felt you did a good job. You are clearly in control of this story, evidenced first by your selection of letters--leaving out some of the non-essential correspondence--and your authorial conclusion at the end. Despite the letters that are not included, the events are still easy to follow, showing a skillful composition of the others. What I did not learn--and if I simply missed this information somewhere in my reading, I beg your pardon--is what happened in Lady Susan's past. If I understand, she has lost her husband and seduced another woman's husband. When other characters allude to what happened, though, I do not recall any details being given. The good thing is this does not detract from the story for me. What is interesting and important in the best fiction is not what happens, but how characters react and respond. You have done this, my dear, to your great credit.

I found the letters sounded similar in tone and style; if each character had a more distinctive voice, the novel may have been improved. I also beg of you an eclaircissement to understand the word eclaircissement. Never had I heard of the word before, and it seemed to come in this story completely out of left field. But these are minor gripes coming from someone who has been unable to get published himself, so what must I really know?

Lady Susan began as sympathetic for me. Through all she remains strong, and never a victim. By the end, when her plots and cabals have been revealed, I felt no malice toward her, but my initial sympathy had bled away. She remained a most interesting character. Your novel does not stand like a rock in the middle of nowhere, but tells of one adventure in the life of Lady Susan, and I am convinced that there are many others. Had you been published by one of our modern houses, I am sure your publisher would have begged for a sequel, and even a prequel.

The novel reminded me of Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons dangereuses. Obviously the form is the same, but the way Lady Susan plotted and tricked and used her wiles to influence and control others is, in a more subdued manner, exactly what the Marquise de Merteuil does. Both characters are absolutely fascinating, and it is a wonder to witness their talents in action, and try to understand how they are able to wield such power over others.

Though I voted for your novel because it was the one I least didn't want to read, I was pleasantly surprised, and enjoyed it. Perhaps one day our paths will cross again, and I may be treated to another of your classic works. Until then, I will remember this novel and think of you fondly.

Your most sincerely obliged Slave,

[this letter is cross-posted in a slightly modified form at Necessary Acts of Devotion]


Dorothy W. said...

I like your epistolary response! I'm not sure Lady Susan's past was ever really spelled out -- her husband died and she made Manwaring fall in love with her, but beyond that we don't get specifics about what she's done. I agree about the prequel or sequel -- I want to know what else she's done in her past, and how her marriage will work out in the future!

Quillhill said...

Well I'm pleased I didn't miss anything then. I am also glad the details of the past were not spelled out, that the reader is left to wonder and fill in some blanks.

danielle said...

I like your post! I had some of the same problems with keeping the letters straight. And I had to laugh when you pointed out the use of eclaircissement--that sort of came out of nowhere! This was not as good as the other books I have read by her, but still not bad really.

By the way...I don't blog with blogger, and since they have switched over I can't get into this blog anymore. I can't seem to figur out how to do it--even with the many help screens blogger is providing me with (or else I am just not patient enough). Could you just send me a new invitation and I will start over again? Or is there some way I can fix this? Thanks!

Stefanie said...

Good use of letter! I had to stop before I read most of the letters too to make sure I understood who it was that was writing it and who was the recipient. And eclaircissement did come out of nowhere, but we've now all learned a new word with which we can impress or confuse our friends :)

Quillhill said...

Yes, Stefanie, and it just rolls off the tongue so smoothly.
Danielle, I sent you a new invitation. Let me know if you don't get it or still can't access.

Smithereens said...

Very interesting take, Quillhill! In Austen's biography, Tomalin discusses the question whether Austen had read the Liaisons Dangereuses and was inspired by them. She says that while the dates of publication and translation concord, that diffusion was rather large as was the scandal around the book, it seems rather an unlikely read for a minister's teenage daughter. Maybe she'd heard of it though, what do you think?

Quillhill said...

I don't know anything about Austen. The English translation of Laclos published in London was available in 1784. And the word "eclaircissement" suggests she knew at least some French. If she didn't read it, where did she learn about such things?