Saturday, March 31, 2007

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.

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