Lady Susan by Jane AustenFebruary 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!