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Lady Susan by Jane Austen

February 8, 2010

This year, I’m planning to read all of Jane Austen’s works in the order in which they were written. That means that I started with Lady Susan, an short, unusual novel told entirely in letters. It’s not the sort of letter writing I expected: a sequence of messages that chronicle the back-and-forth conversations between two people. Instead, the letters are mostly one-sided missives from the two main writers: Lady Susan and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Vernon. Most of the time, Lady Susan is writing to her good friend, and Mrs. Vernon is writing to her mother. Occasionally, we do get to read letters from others. But most of the time, we are reading two different views of the drama happening in Mrs. Vernon’s house. The novel opens with the news that Lady Susan will be coming to stay with her brother and sister-in-law for a while. Lady Susan’s reputation precedes her, however, as Mrs. Vernon has heard that Lady Susan is a mischievous plotter who is self-conceited and neglects her daughter. Of course, once Lady Susan arrives at the Vernon’s house, antics ensue. I loved learning about the story from two different sides: the secret thoughts of Lady Susan as she tells her friend the juicy truth, and the layers of dramatic irony that occur when poor Mrs. Vernon writes to her mother about what she thinks might be happening.

The story isn’t perfect–many of the characters are one-sided, and the plot is slightly predictable and sometimes become almost farcical. However, it was fun to see Austen play with the epistolary format. Many of her later themes show themselves in this book, most noticeably, her concern about how a society which only allows women to play the marriage game can destroy people. You know that Austen is doing some fabulous writing when you occasionally find yourself sympathizing with the villainess!

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10 comments

  1. the letters are mostly one-sided missives

    That describes almost every epistolary novel.

    Good luck with this project – it’s a great idea. You have a real treat waiting for you at the very end.


    • That’s so interesting to hear that! I don’t have much experience with them, so I had an idea that they were more back-and forth letters, instead of just one side of a correspondence. Thanks–I look forward to my revisits with Austen.


  2. I applaud your decision to read Austen in order. I really like approaching authors in this way myself. I love Lady Susan–I agree, the two perspectives is an interesting way to get the story.


    • Jane, I think you did this last year with Gaskell, right? I had thought about doing the Austen year before, but once I saw that you could do it with Gaskell, I realized that I wasn’t crazy to do so with Austen :)


  3. Great idea to read the all Austen’s works! I can’t wait for your posts, then. I read Austen’s minor works last summer for my Everything Austen Challenge and I liked Lady Susan especially, because I read it taking part to Laurel Ann’s schedule at Austenprose for her Soirée with Lady Susan. It was extremely interesting to read it little by little and discussing the letters and the characters on line.
    Here’s my journal of the event
    http://flyhigh-by-learnonline.blogspot.com/2009/09/soiree-with-lady-susan-journal-of-grand.html


    • Oh! Thank you so much for reminding me of that Soiree! I remember when that happened, and I meant to go back and read the participant’s thoughts once I finished Lady Susan, but then I entirely forgot. Bookmarked.


  4. I enjoy Lady Susan so much. I treat the book like a vacation – a quick read that is comfortingly familiar and a lovely sojourn from modernism. Enjoy your reading project. How could it be anything but thoroughly satisfying?


    • I’m glad to find another reader who enjoys Lady Susan! It really is a short little vacation :)


  5. I’ve only read the six major works, but I have a book which includes Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon, and I hope to get to it this year. My JASNA branch is reading one of them (forgot which one!) this year so that will inspire me.

    And I love the idea of reading them in order. I’m in an online Dickens group that has recently switched from random order to publication order, though they only read 3-4 works per year! I hope to read all of them someday but it’ll take awhile.


  6. In real life and in epistolary novels, the personal correspondences always tell, if not biased, an one-sided story. I have been reading some epistolary novels and Lady Susan would just be perfect timing.



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