Saturday, March 31, 2007

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

In her introduction to Jane Austen's Lady Susan (my edition also includes The Watsons, and Sanditon), Margaret Drabble writes that Lady Susan is the least satisfactory of the three unfinished works by Austen. Personally, an "unsatisfactory" work by Jane Austen is still pretty darn good. Lady Susan was written early in her career, about the time that she was working on Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. Lady Susan is her only epistolary novel, though Sense and Sensibility started out as an epistolary novel as well.

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.

Cross posted at A Work in Progress.

Jane Austen, the Early Days

Cross-posted at So Many Books

The Slaves of Golconda pick this time around is Lady Susan by Jane Austen. This is early Jane, composed (probably) in 1795 and revised (probably) in 1805. I've read the book before, in a Jane Austen seminar in grad school, but I had absolutely no recollection of it. Obviously it made a huge impression on me, heh. The only evidence I have of reading it before is a few really dumb marginal notes and one or two underlined passages. This time around made more of an impression on me.

The book starts off lively enough with a letter from Lady Susan, widowed 8 months, to her brother-in-law, inviting herself very graciously to his house because she feels she can no longer impose on the kindness of her friends the Manwarings. It is a nice, polite letter and Lady Susan seems such a lovely person until, that is, you get to the next letter Lady Susan writes to her best friend Mrs Johnson. Here we find the truth of Susan's departure and understand that what Lady Susan says is never the complete truth. It is as Mrs. Johnson says late in the book, "Facts are such horrid things!"

This is a short book but Lady Susan still has time to become engaged, cause a divorce, break off an engagement, and marry someone else. The whole story takes place in letters written by the various people involved. Lady Susan is only 35, old by her time's standards, but she still has her beauty and charm to make up for not having any money. She is at the mercy of others and hates it. She schemes and charms and flirts and all the men fall in love with her and all the women hate her for it. If she were a man she would be a wealthy businessman with skills like hers. But she is only allowed to operate in the domestic sphere and she must have a living somehow. She must either marry her sixteen year old daughter to a wealthy gentleman over whom she can have some control, or she must find a wealthy gentleman to marry her. Lady Susan reminded me a little of Becky Sharpe in Thackeray's much later Vanity Fair.

Lady Susan is a finished book but it doesn't feel finished. The first letter starts in the middle of things which does provide a bit of mystery over whether Lady Susan's reputation is as bad as everyone says it is so it's not a bad place to start, I just think it could have been better. And the letters end before the story is actually done. Austen wraps it all up with a straight narrative conclusion of several pages which brings the excitement and liveliness provoked by the letters to a screeching halt. It's like she didn't know what to do to finish it so makes up an excuse for the narrative by saying the correspondence could not continue because the rest of the letters really weren't that interesting.

I found Lady Susan entertaining, but nowhere near the caliber of Austen's later, famous works. If you are not interested in Austen, the book is probably one to skip. However, if you want to see how her skill developed, how she was playing around with character and structure and dialogue before she hit her stride, then Lady Susan is worth a read.

Everyone is welcome to join in or just eavesdrop on the Slaves discussion at Metaxucafe.

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]

Lady Susan

I enjoyed this book very much; it was a pleasure to read something by Jane Austen I hadn’t read before. I’m very familiar with her six major novels, but there is still a lot of shorter stuff I haven’t yet gotten to. My edition of Lady Susan includes The Watsons and Sanditon, the first of which I’ve now finished and the last of which I’m going to read next.

I’ve heard many people talk about the limitations of the epistolary form, and it’s probably true that there’s a limited number of things you can do with it, but I do like the form anyway. Perhaps it’s all the reading in the 18C I’ve done, a time when the epistolary novel flourished. What I like about it is the way you can see different versions of a character in the letters written to different audiences, and the way reading an epistolary novel gives one the sense of the importance of words and writing and how people can do battle with language — and other, less violent things, of course. But I think of doing battle with language when I think about Lady Susan, as Susan seems to be at war with much of the world.

Here is what she says in the very first letter of the novel:

I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted, of spending some weeks with you at Churchill … I impatiently look forward to the hour when I shall be admitted into your delightful retirement.

And this is what she says in the second letter of the novel:

I take town in my way to that insupportable spot, a country village, for I am really going to Churchill. Forgive me, my dear friend, it is my last resource. Were there another place in England open to me, I would prefer it.

Already we know so much about Lady Susan. She presents herself in very different ways in these letters, but even within one letter, her language can be interpreted in multiple ways. She writes the following to her brother-in-law, the owner of Churchill:

I am determined you see, not to be denied admittance at Churchill. It would indeed give me most painful sensations to know that it were not in your power to receive me.

As this is the novel’s first letter, we might interpret this to mean that Lady Susan wants to visit Churchill very much because she is genuinely interested in seeing those who live there, and this is the meaning she expects her brother-in-law to find. Upon knowing something more about Lady Susan, however, we can see that these sentences hint at her real feelings: she must leave her current residence, Langford, home of the Manwarings, because she has gotten herself into trouble there, and if she cannot stay at Churchill, she will experience “painful sensations” because her escape route will be blocked.

It’s this kind of facility with language that makes Lady Susan a very fun heroine — or villain, rather, except that, as Margaret Drabble, author of the introduction to my edition, points out, there really is no satisfactory heroine here, so Lady Susan steals the show. She prides herself on her ability to talk herself into and out of any situation (”If I am vain of anything, it is of my eloquence”); this is how she keeps Reginald, her gullible young admirer, by her side for so long. When Lady Susan can no longer convince people to believe her version of events, the novel ends — there is no more story.

The difference between appearance and reality, and the time and trouble it takes to learn to tell the two apart is a very common plot line in 18C fiction, and Lady Susan has much going for her as she tries to fool nearly everybody. She’s beautiful, and even Mrs. Vernon, her most serious enemy, is susceptible to it:

She is delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes; and from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older … Her address to me was so gentle, frank and even affectionate, that if I had not known how much she has always disliked me for marrying Mr Vernon, and that we had never met before, I should have imagined her an attached friend.

Lady Susan is a symptom of a larger problem:

One is apt I believe to connect assurance of manner with coquetry, and to expect that an impudent address will necessarily attend an impudent mind; at least I was myself prepared for an improper degree of confidence in Lady Susan; but her countenance is absolutely sweet, and her voice and manner winningly mild.

We expect people’s insides to match their outsides, in other words — to be beautiful only if their hearts and minds are beautiful, and to act mildly and kindly only if they have mild and kind minds. Someone who combines a beautiful appearance and pleasant manners with lying and deceit is dangerous.

So Lady Susan depends on her pleasing appearance and behavior to keep her out of trouble and to get her whatever she wants. Besides the appearance vs. reality theme, there’s the juxposition in the novel between public reputation and the impression a person makes in private. Lady Susan counts on the power of private impression to overrule reputation; of her enemy Mrs. Vernon she says:

I hope [she is] convinced how little the ungenerous representations of any one to the disadvantage of another will avail, when opposed to the immediate influence of intellect and manner.

The novel shows, however, that reputation does mean something, and that the “ungenerous representations” of Lady Susan are a better source of truth than anything she herself says or does. You are better off trusting public concensus than trusting your own instincts — collective wisdom outweighs the individual’s insights.

Opposed to Lady Susan’s doubleness and deception is her daughter Frederica, whose simplicity Lady Susan cannot stand:

Her feelings are tolerably lively, and she is so charmingly artless in their display, as to afford the most reasonable hope of her being ridiculed and despised by every man who sees her. Artlessness will never do in love matters, and that girl is born a simpleton who has it either by nature or affectation.

Frederica’s artlessness is held up for praise in the novel; her mother’s criticism is a sign that we are to admire her, and yet she is a boring and lifeless character. All the interest in the novel belongs to Lady Susan. So we are left to deplore Lady Susan’s cruelty and deceitfulness, and yet we can’t help but admire her energy and intelligence and, yes, her artfulness and artifice. After all, Lady Susan’s skill with language is a skill she shares with her creator.