The Glasgow Review Issue 2

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'The Perfect Model of a Woman': Femininity and Power in Lady Susan

Susan Anthony

Lady Susan was probably written in 1794 or 95, before Jane Austen was twenty, and just after the appearance of Mary Wollstonecraft's revolutionary feminist treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Women.[1] Fair-copied once, in 1805, Lady Susan was never re-drafted for publication. The little tale - it is hardly substantial enough to be called a novel, though it has the bones of one and is indeed far more elegantly crafted than Sense and Sensibility or Northanger Abbey - remains in letters, a format abandoned in the published revisions of the other early works.[2]

Initially, the narrative is disconcerting. Who are these agitated correspondents, and what is going on? We are unfamiliar with a form of fiction popular two hundred years ago, when separated friends could only communicate by letter, and ladies in particular kept up a copious correspondence. Jane Austen herself has accustomed us to more direct methods of storytelling; and we find the letters getting in the way. Events minor in themselves - self-invited guests arrive, depart, or over-stay their welcome - are further muffled by delayed second-hand narration fraught with an atmosphere of crisis. Meanwhile everything we expect from Jane Austen's fiction: the romantic charm, the delicate irony, the absorbing trivialities charged with unexpected moral and emotional resonance, is lacking. Even the story's heart is vacant: Lady Susan has no heroine.

Imperceptibly, we are drawn into this sparser imaginative world. We become alert to the cross-play of purposes, aware of suspect motivation, hidden agendas, and the deceptiveness of language. Lady Susan gradually exposes the politics of family life and the machinations of women in a conservative, restrictive, and male-dominated society, founded on inherited wealth and policed by gossip: the opinion of `the world.' It is to this opinion that the story-teller finally refers.

Whether Lady Susan was, or was not happy in her second choice ... the world must judge from probability. She had nothing against her, but her husband, and her conscience. [Conclusion, p. 103.]

An interesting collocation, since in a state of unalterable dependence, women's `conscience' aligns with male imperatives; and the disappointment of a bad husband is Lady Susan's fitting punishment for rebellion against masculine regulation.

Lady Susan makes apparent that money, power, and the freedom to act independently are the prerogatives of men. For a woman, even wealth cannot empower: it serves simply to license any fortune-hunter she is foolish enough to marry.

Silly woman, to expect constancy from so charming a man! But she was always silly; intolerably so, in marrying him at all. She, the heiress of a large fortune, he without a shilling! [Letter 26. p. 88]

Lack of money, though, constrains. Mr Johnson uses financial pressure to rule his wife.

He once forced from me a kind of promise never to invite you to my house. Nothing but my being in the utmost distress for money could have extorted it from me. [Letter 26, p. 88]

Lady Susan herself

is poor, and may naturally seek an alliance which may be advantageous to herself. [Letter 12, p. 58]

She is reduced at last to accepting `contemptibly weak' Sir James, although

I must own myself rather romantic in that respect ... riches only will not satisfy me. [Letter 2, p. 44]

Like unfortunate Mrs Norris, [Mansfield Park, p. 41] she is `obliged to be attached' to him in the end.

Women, thus constrained by their dependence, are forced to comply with a social order founded on the patriarchal family. Yet the powerful, male-governed institution of the family is itself vulnerable to insidious feminine attack. The action of Lady Susan turns on the marriage of an heir, with consequences to the extended De Courcy clan of continued prosperity, or decline. That the latter is not too alarmist a projection is made clear by the loss of Vernon Castle, and the snuffing out of the elder branch of the Vernon line, in consequence of Lady Susan's original marriage. To the irritation of his women folk, who would have preferred silently to `get Reginald home again, under any plausible pretence.' [p. 56] (`plausible' is one of Catherine Vernon's favourite words), old Sir Reginald De Courcy intervenes to protect his son from matrimonial capture - in a dignified letter designed

not to work on your fears, but on your sense and affection.

[Letter 12, p. 58]

You must be sensible that as an only son and the representative of an ancient family, your conduct in life is most interesting to your connections. In the very important concern of marriage especially, there is everything at stake; your own happiness, that of your parents, and the credit of your name. [Letter 12. p. 57]

This grand patriarchal statement marks the paramount importance of family interest over individual inclination in the world of Lady Susan. Yet `interesting' functions almost euphemistically, softening prag-matism with delicacy. Sir Reginald's appeal to duty and to his son's better feeling glosses the flaw at the heart of the patriarchy, the difficult admission that men may be governed not by `sense and affection,' but by `folly' and `weakness' - Reginald's own terms [p. 96] - by wilful and irrational desire.

While Sir Reginald exerts his legitimate authority uselessly, the women resort to indirection. Lady Susan resolves into unobtrusive conflict between female voices engaged in muted but mutually comprehended struggle, to which male perceptions and decisions are largely irrelevant. Lady Susan and her sister-in-law, the novel's true protagonists, veil their enmity in politeness, confiding privately in other women. Catherine Vernon, as duty, family solidarity, and the habit of feminine conspiracy dictate, writes to her mother. Lady Susan conspires outright with her toady, (through whom she also carries on a secret correspondence with a married man, which we are not privileged to read). A circumspectly disaffected wife, `Dear Alicia' apparently derives vicarious satisfaction from her principal's daring conduct. She flatters, encourages, but counsels prudence, based on a shrewd sense of what even the most `captivating' woman can hope to `compass'. The shifting play, from letter to letter, of hostile, complacent, or sarcastic voices, sets up a network of mutually reductive ironies, and we cease to credit the entire sincerity of any single speaker. Only five out of forty-one letters are by men, yet instead of the sympathy and sense of intimacy interior discourse and private chat between women generates in later novels, these letters tell against their female authors.

Her kindhearted uncle you may be sure, was too fearful of distressing her, to ask many questions as they travelled. I wish it had been possible for me to fetch her instead of him; I think I should have discovered the truth in the course of a thirty mile journey. [Letter 17, p. 66]

Lip-service to a husband's `kindheartedness' encodes marital contempt: in Mrs Vernon's desire to use a coach journey to assume control, we cannot avoid the damaging anticipation of Mrs Norris badgering the child Fanny [Mansfield Park, p. 50].

Between them, the four women carry on the bulk of a correspondence about other people: what they are doing, what they know or intend, how they can be handled and led. We enter a house of mirrors, watching people watch each other.

Poor creature! The prospect from her window is not very instructive, for that room overlooks the lawn you know with the shrubbery on one side, where she may see her mother walking for an hour together, in earnest conversation with Reginald. Is it not inexcusable to give such an example to a daughter? [Letter 17, p. 67]

Catherine fears her brother is becoming entangled by the woman she herself induced him to approach. This fear, and corresponding rage against Lady Susan, is what really agitates her, rather than concern for Frederica's budding mind. And she can do nothing. She cannot challenge her enemy, politeness inhibits her.

I left her almost in silence. It was the greatest stretch of forbearance I could practice. I could not have stopped myself, had I begun.

[Letter 24, p. 83]

She cannot open the mind of her brother, blinded by masculine partiality, self-assurance, and ignorance, to how another woman can use his own impulses to deceive him.

`Certainly,' replied I, deeply sighing at the recital of so lame a story. I made no remarks, however, for words would have been in vain.

[Letter 24, p. 81]

Women's silence and impotence, internalized as the moral obligation to patience - or, alternatively, illicit actions concealed and painfully repented - lie at the heart of at least four other novels: Sense and Sensibility, (conceived about this time), Emma, Mansfield Park, Persuasion. For Fanny Price at Mansfield, (the place-name is significant), solitary silent suffering is a condition of existence:

Fanny saw and pitied much of this in Julia; but there was no outward fellowship between them ... They were two solitary sufferers, or connected only by Fanny's consciousness. [Mansfield Park, p. 183]

But privileged access to the riches of female `consciousness', the sense of empathetic communion with a sensibility refined by isolation, is comically denied to the reader of Lady Susan. `This ill-used girl, this heroine in distress,' is so effectively suppressed, she's only once allowed a voice: a cry of childish desperation, sharply distinguished from the `principle and integrity' [Pride and Prejudice, p. 174] which move Eliza Bennett (and Fanny Price) to reject marriage without love.

I always disliked him from the first ... I would rather work for my bread than marry him ... I know it is taking so great a liberty, I am aware how dreadfully angry it will make Mama ... [Letter 21, p. 74]

The strategic placement of Frederica's single letter at midpoint of the series operates rather as an irony, calling `romance' into question, than as a convincing figuration of the power of innocence. Catherine Vernon it is true constructs of her young guest a value-bearing icon, (archetypally opposed to Lady Susan herself). With her `delicate complexion' `oval face and mild dark eyes,' (`quite the Vernon cast of countenance'); the `peculiar sweetness in her look when she speaks,' [p. 66] her fondness for children, excellent understanding, principles and heart, Catherine's idealized Frederica represents all that is desirable in a heroine and prospective sister-in-law. Lady Susan sneers at such `romantic nonsense' [p. 86]:

Frederica ... is a stupid girl, and has nothing to recommend her.

[Letter 7, p. 51]

- an estimate which her daughter's flustered, tactless, letter amusingly supports.

Both ladies' views are suspect. The young are pawns whose chief recommendation lies in their ingenuous openness, eagerness and warmth, inviting manipulation.

There is something agreeable in feelings so easily worked on.

[Letter 25, p. 85]

When Catherine Vernon tries to make use of Frederica's `lively' feelings to entangle Reginald's heart, romance is exposed as ex-pediency. This politic move is needed to set right the ironic failure of her initial campaign against Lady Susan. Covert resentment for old injuries first led Catherine to import her (also `lively') young brother as ally against the woman her husband's obstinate mildness and gullibility foisted upon her. Reginald's insolence towards a women `entitled to neither delicacy nor respect' delights her [p. 53]. We may even deduce that she would have glanced aside while the young man - who demands the most delicate rectitude in a wife - enjoyed unashamed any opportunities offered him by a lady known to be easy.

The attempt to activate her society's double standard of sexual morality reacts against Catherine Vernon. Her weapon twists in her hands. Lady Susan, clear-sighted, ruthless and experienced, is more than a match for amateur self-righteousness. She sets out to humble De Courcy pride, correct Reginald's `sauciness' and `familiarity' [p. 52], and establish herself, by snaring him into marriage. She easily trumps her daughter's naive challenge, (backed by Catherine in a desperate bid to save her brother), and returns to her home ground of London, `again myself, gay and triumphant' [p. 84], for the final manifestation of her power.

A predator on polite society, a woman who breaks bounds, Lady Susan is a splendid adventuress who maintains herself, while freely enjoying the sexual relations of her choice, by manipulating male credulity and desire,

cunningly obtaining power by playing on the weakness of men.[3]

Like Penelope Watson, she has `too masculine and bold a temper' [The Watsons, p. 110]. She cannot be permitted to succeed. Determin-ed to pursue `all my schemes' [p. 75] until `my own will is effected' [p. 86], she overreaches in the moment of anticipated triumph, and comically engineers her own defeat. The family disruption she has caused -

The whole family are at war, and ... it is time for me to be gone.

[Letter 2, p. 45]

- the uncontrollable forces of love and jealousy she has provoked, overwhelm her designs in farcical `confusion'. Letter 32 sketches an hilariously theatrical denoument:

'My dear creature,' [writes Alicia Johnson, in a hasty note sent round by hand] `I am in agonies, and know not what to do, nor what you can do. Mr De Courcy arrived, just when he should not. Mrs Manwaring had that instant arrived, and forced herself into her guardian's presence ... she was shut up with Mr Johnson, while he waited in the drawing room for me ... before I could be aware of it, everything that you could wish to be concealed, was known to ... they have all been closeted together. What can be done? If Manwaring is now with you, he had better be gone. [Letter 32, pp. 93-4]

What Lady Susan has `concealed,' her improper, almost certainly adulterous, `connection' with Manwaring, is the symbolic fact - `facts are such horrid things' [p. 94] - that discloses her most carefully hidden secret, her `impudent mind' [p. 50].

`Facts' - the actual conduct and character, judged by an inflexible standard, of the women who bear and rear their children - are the concern of men. It is by no accident that `stubborn' Mr Johnson, that seasoned, wily and tyrannical campaigner against female usurpation, waits on his sickbed to take advantage of `this élaircissement' [p. 94]. He exposes Lady Susan; and acts as the agent of Reginald's disillusionment.

The spell is removed. I see you as you are [Letter 34, p. 95]

Long `blinded by a sort of fascination' [p. 58], Reginald now recognises his own `perversion of ... judgment' [p. 53]. Weak abdication of masculine `reason' gave Lady Susan's artifices strength.

Subject to no such weakness, Mr Johnson reforms his own rebellious family. While Alicia performs her marital duty

confined, a nurse in his apartment. [Letter 29, p. 90]

her connection with Lady Susan is broken off. The ladies project

During his absence ... to choose our own society, and have true enjoyment. [Letter 26, p. 87-8]

was never more than a tantalising dream.[4] Respectable society, (Mr Johnson `is a man to whom that great word "Respectable" is always given.' [p. 45], will not allow the formation of an alternative in its midst. Lady Susan constructs a world where even the most ingeniously defiant women cannot follow private inclination for enjoyment; choose their own society; or control their own relationships. The attempt proves futile, a compensatory fantasy, however artfully pursued under cover of `representation'[5] of that `sweet' and `mild' [p. 50] `model of a woman[6] society approves: itself a communal fantasy of great power.

In Mansfield Park, the irony of Edmund's insensitivity to Fanny's - far from `disinterested' - tenderness articulates a feminist critique on the selfish, complacent ignorance of men; on the suffering and misconception generated by the feminine ideal which Edmund tries to use to his own advantage. Already in Lady Susan, (though the pain is lacking), satiric awareness of how such morally-loaded linguistic icons can be used to bluff oneself or other people is acutely developed. Lady Susan first prosecutes her schemes by parodic imitation of pliant, graceful femininity. Her expert mimicry explains to us what constitutes the idea of such an acceptable woman. Lady Susan insinuates herself into her brother-in-law's `delightful retirement' - and temporarily deceives the reader - by the use of a familial model, caring and `quiet'. She presents herself for approval solely in terms of affectionate relationships: as widowed sister, careful mother, and attentive aunt.

I long to be made known to your dear little children, in whose hearts I shall be very eager to secure an interest. [Letter 1, p. 43]

Charles Vernon, `Disposed ... as he always is to think the best of everyone' [p. 46] as his wife notes, is easily won by this relative, domestic image. It is further developed for the reader through Catherine Vernon's image of Frederica, whom she virtually adopts and trains to fill the role. To comfort herself against Lady Susan's apparent victory, she makes her niece the focus of an idealised domestic idyll, opposed to the corruption of the city, the `very bad set' or `total solitude' [p. 88] her mother's London existence would inflict, 'Here', (in the Vernon's country household),

we shall in time be at peace. Our regular employments, our books and conversation, with exercise, the children, and every domestic pleasure in my power to procure her, will, I trust, gradually overcome this youthful attachment. [Letter 27, p. 89]

Self-abnegation is essential to the lives of women on whom `the children' depend for nurture; and society for continuance. But in the face of Lady Susan's aggressive triumph, Catherine's patient prescription aligns revealingly with a sense of defeat.

I resign myself ... in despair. [Letter 27, p. 89]

The `regular' life of passive acceptance constitutes the settled phase of a stereotypical feminine cycle, once marriage has been achieved, or missed. A style more `prepossessing' is required, if men are to be attracted into matrimony; and women established in the only security available to them. Once admitted among the Vernons, Lady Susan further models this permissibly active, attractive stage of femininity. Ironically, Catherine Vernon herself first describes Lady Susan entrancingly to Reginald.

I have seldom seen so lovely a woman ... She is delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes ... she possesses an uncommon union of symmetry, brilliancy, and grace. Her address to me was ... gentle, frank, and even affectionate ... her countenance is absolutely sweet, and her voice and manner winningly mild. [Letter 6, pp. 49-50]

Though she hedges description of `this dangerous creature' [p. 49] with sarcastic insinuations, (only twenty-five `from her appearance,' Lady Susan `must in fact be ten years older' [p. 49]), Catherine is ignorant of the sexual magic inscribed in the image she presents, and of the powerlessness of masculine `conviction' to repel it. She is unconscious of how absolutely, in her male-oriented culture, `appearance', `grace', and `manner' are taken by men to guarantee femininity of nature. Reginald, he confides

Could not be surprised by any effect produced on the heart of man by such loveliness and such abilities. [Letter 8, p. 53]

We as readers are protected from being likewise duped by the structure of the epistolary text which gives us access to Lady Susan's unguarded `impudent address' [p. 50], activating a crudely self-ironising defense against her `bewitching powers' [p. 47]. Her uncensored discourse is deliberately extreme. Outrageous inversions of ordinary values betray her and alienate the `honest' reader.

The kindest, most amiable action of his life was his throwing her off forever. [Letter 2, p. 44-5]

Ironically distanced by so lucid an exposure of the mind of evil, Lady Susan is reduced to caricature, the appropriate butt of righteous disapproval, a kind of comic monster of `misconduct' [p. 96] - Reginald's final judgment on the lady of his desires.

This `real' Lady Susan (`I see you as you are' [p. 95]) is an elegant virago, from whom is constructed an aggressively unfeminine counter-model for our disapproval, contradicting acceptable womanli-ness at every point. She composes an example, in the ancient tradition of anti-feminism, designed to expose and denigrate female sexuality and self-assertion as unnatural, (`Do you think me destitute of every natural feeling?' [p. 82]), `impudent', and `improper' [p. 50]. With her double self and contradictory voices, Lady Susan figures quasi-allegorical duplicity. `Mistress of deceit' [p. 78], she hides her selfishness, her cruelty and vanity.

Artlessness will never do. [Letter 19, p. 69].

The chief business and `gratification' of her life behind her artful screen is the pursuit of power, as a source of self-agrandissment, and of sadistic pleasure: the `delicious gratification of making ... miserable.' [p. 47].

I have made him sensible of my power, and can now enjoy the pleasure of triumphing over a mind prepared to dislike me. [Letter 10, p 55]

`An active and energetic mind, if denied liberty, will seek for power.'[7] Lady Susan seeks `dominion' in every relation of her life.

My desire of dominion was never more decided. [Letter 10, p. 55]

Flexibility of mind, a disposition easily biased by others is an attribute which you know I am not very desirous of obtaining. [Letter 25, p. 86]

Extreme reaction against the maternal role, so important to Catherine Vernon, marks Lady Susan's absolute rejection of caring femininity. She detests her only daughter, `born to be the torment of my life' [p. 44]. Her concern is for herself:

nor has Frederica any claim to the indulgence of her whims, at the expense of her mother's inclination. [Letter 25, p. 86]

Yet perverse obsession with bullying Frederica - `You should think more of yourself, and less of your daughter' [p. 87], hints her friend - betrays an intimate weakness. Lady Susan's persecution and suppression of the child in herself, of love, trust, and openness, in the surrogate person of her daughter, measures the terrible cost of self-assertion for a woman in her socially antagonistic, isolated position; and could convert her into a figure of minor tragedy, if she were not distanced and destroyed with laughter.

Mania for absolute control in other, especially sexual, relations, similarly conceals inadequacy. Any challenge provokes an insecure reaction, suggesting less strength than extreme fragility of ego.

I must make myself amends for the humiliations to which I have stooped. [Letter 25, p.86]

She resents, as injury demanding punishment, even the need to satisfy `the inquisitive and doubting fancies of that heart' [p. 65] which has dared to question her `sense or goodness' [p. 76].

How dared he believe what she told him in my disfavour! Ought he not to have felt assured that I must have unanswerable motives for all that I have done...? [Letter 22, p. 76]

Significantly, Lady Susan is `attached' even to her preferred lover Manwaring only `as much ... as I can be to anyone' [p. 56]. And him she values for his `charming' readiness to play at all times a compliant, flattering role in the theatre of her fantasy.

I infinitely prefer the tender and liberal spirit of Manwaring, which impressed with the deepest conviction of my merit, is satisfied that whatever I do must be right. [Letter 16, p. 65]

Fantasizing a spell-binding power so potent that `whatever I do must be right,' Lady Susan, in dangerous thrall to the fascination of her own idea, has invested herself in her deceptive image. She commands an imaginary realm of language created and governed by her `eloquence'.

If I am vain of anything, it is of my eloquence. Consideration and esteem as surely follow command of language, as admiration waits on beauty.

[Letter 16, p. 64]

Like Emma, whose active spirit, obsession with superiority, and extravagant `fancy' she anticipates, Lady Susan believes the patronizing and disabling male-promulgated myth of woman's charming sway:

That beauty is woman's sceptre.[8]

and is a literally adherent of the doctrine embedded in Mr Elton's lofty encomium:

Woman, lovely woman, reigns alone.[9]

It is the folly of both Lady Susan and Emma to take seriously the conventional expressions of homage to female supremacy society permits as part of the ritual of courtship. In Chapter 9 of Emma, Mr Elton's flattering `charade' deceives Emma into believing that her wit, coupled with Harriet's ideally feminine blonde plump beauty, have bamboozled him into love for Harriet. His proposal to Emma herself comically disillusions her, and begins the process of her education. Lady Susan finds that she has power to inflame, but not control, her lovers by her rhetoric. Reginald's original sarcasm -

What a woman she must be! I long to see her ... that I may form some idea of those bewitching powers that can do so much - engaging at the same time and in the same house the affections of two men who were neither of them at liberty to bestow them. [Letter 4, p. 47]

- bears ironic fruit when she cannot `exercise ... power' [p. 91], or exert `influence enough' [p. 87] to keep Manwaring and himself from pursuing her together, to her exposure. Her stratagems once revealed, Lady Susan is reduced to language: to pathetic, merely verbal, self-assertion

I never was more at ease, or better satisfied with myself

[Letter 39, p. 98]

The `assurance' [p. 49; p. 83] of her efforts to reify her desires ends in words without verification

for who would take her assurance... on either side of the question?

[Conclusion, p. 103]

The attempt to attain a truly assured, independent situation, correlative to `the freedom of my spirit' [p. 90], fails. Lady Susan talks herself out of the action. She resigns to Catherine Vernon, whose words are unexpectedly empowered.

Yet Lady Susan's own discredited voice engages the reader, expressing the significantly fragmented central consciousness of the text.

Lady Susan does too much of the talking and runs away with the novel.[10]

Her public voice parades permitted sentiments, expertly mimicking a tone of moral regulation, sentimentality, and unconsciously hypocritical constraint:

I am afraid I have been too often indulgent, but my poor Frederica's temper could never bear opposition well. You must support and encourage me - You must urge the necessity of reproof, if you see me too lenient. [Letter 15, p. 63]

Her private frankness is a liberation:

That horrid girl of mine has been trying to run away - I had not a notion of her being such a little devil before; she seemed to have all the Vernon milkiness ... [Letter 16, p. 64]

The reader's ear for moral pretension is sharpened by the contrast of registers. The natural-sounding witty bluntness of Lady Susan's anti-social tone points up the strain of affectation in Catherine Vernon's principled and sensitive remarks. Jane Austen's juvenile turn for literary parody develops here into an instrument of social judgment.

Catherine's characteristic language is too close to Lady Susan's theatrical imitation for immunity: she cannot herself detect a difference.

All this sounds very reasonable [Letter 15, p. 63]

In her own discourse, sentimental exaggeration, undermined by sudden descents, reveals the instability of Catherine's moral position.

The girl, whose heart can distinguish Reginald De Courcy, deserves, however he may slight her, a better fate than to be Sir James Martin's wife. As soon as I can get her alone, I will discover the real truth.

[Letter 20, p. 73]

It is essential to the culturally compliant woman that she embrace her society's image of probity. Catherine disguises from herself her own urge to power, her desire for knowledge as an instrument of control, under concern for `truth' as a value.

I hope this does not proceed from anything wrong, and that I shall not find out I have thought too well of her. [Letter 20, p. 73]

She fails to recognise the extent to which, like Lady Susan, she herself is willing to sacrifice Frederica to her own `policy or ambition' [p. 73]

Catherine Vernon seeks at outset to establish an absolute distinction between `sincerity' and `deceit', `truth' and `language,' - between herself and Lady Susan.

What is this but deceit?... a happy command of language, which is too often used I believe to make black appear white. [Letter 6, p. 50]

The distinction cannot be sustained, since her own values reside audibly in language, in the `serious' discourse Lady Susan parodies as her means to power.

I have subdued him entirely by sentiment and serious conversation.

[Letter 10, p. 55]

Later, when Lady Susan stigmatises Reginald's `fancied sense of superior integrity' [p. 84], the text endorses her outsider's viewpoint.

Jane Austen's mature fiction commonly sustains itself - in sometimes uneasy partnership with satire - by a strongly magical belief in integrity: in the power of the individual moral will to command both goodness and joy. Girls refusing under great pressure to marry for money, marry for love - and get the money as well. Novels like Pride and Prejudice and Emma conduct to seemingly paradisal conclusions. In Lady Susan, however, Frederica's fortune invalidates while it fulfils this pattern. The magic is denied. Reginald completes his passage from youthful illusion to membership of the adult male club only to be `talked, flattered and finessed into an affection' [p. 103] for his sister's protégée, - like her, complicit with `Respectable' society and potentially prolific channel of its heirs, of `children in abundance' [p. 48]. The patient `plan of romance' [p. 69] has triumphed, along with the family and its values - but only by default, usurping the space left by the comic failure of Lady Susan's self-destructive machiavellian enterprise.

Lady Susan is in the upshot disenchanted. Like the story-teller, we in the end pity no one; nor do we trust the `superior integrity' of those whose claim to goodness rests simply in consistent and self-congratu-latory (rather than strategic) use of the `language of sensibility ... and morality'.[11] Detachment is finally achieved by formal means. The multiple viewpoints of the novel-in-letters are not harmonized in the service of an authoritative concluding moral statement. Beguiling images of feminine goodness in opposition to coquetry and `want of character' [p. 57] press upon the reader, only to announce their rhetorical function as the narrative proceeds. Lady Susan abdicates from the illusion of authority and authenticity by means of hilarious exposure of the pretensions to seriousness of the epistolary `novel of sentiment'[12].

This correspondence, by a meeting between some of the parties and a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post Office revenue, be continued longer. [Conclusion, p. 101]

The apparently authoratitive authorial voice speaks out in conclusion only to parody the voice of moral arbitration: reducing to mockery the claims of impudence, good-nature, folly, feeling, and prudence alike. This definitive final shift to general satire devalues the claims of imaginative fiction to convincing, edifying representation of a way of living in which moral discrimination is possible. The fictiveness of life itself is suggested: models of vice or virtue enforce social conformity or advance individual interests, they do not embody realisable values. The only `principles' [p. 88] to emerge from Lady Susan are pragmatic; disaffected laughter is the only response to the homogeneity of the world it opens to our inspection.

For myself, I confess that I can pity only Miss Manwaring, who coming to town and putting herself to an expense in clothes which impoverished her for two years, on purpose to secure him, was defrauded of her due by a woman ten years older than herself. [Conclusion, p. 103]


[1] The original date of Lady Susan is discussed in `Jane Austen's beginnings: The Juvenilia and Lady Susan', J Donald Gray ed., (Ann Arbor: Michigan and London, 1989) pp. 107-21.

[2] Page references in square brackets are to Jane Austen's works in the Penguin English Library (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books). Unless otherwise indicated, the volume referred to is Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon, ed. Margaret Drabble (1974).

[3] Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792,, (London: J M Dent, Everyman, 1992) p. 45.

[4] `He had heard I imagine by some means or other, that you were soon to be in London, and immediately contrived to have such an attack of the gout, as must ... delay his journey.' [Letter 28, p. 89]

[5] `Poor Reginald was beyond measure concerned to see his fair friend in such distress, and watched her with so much tender solicitude that I, who occasionally caught her observing his countenance with exultation was quite out of patience. This pathetic representation lasted the whole evening.' [Letter 17, p. 66]

[6] `You have proved yourself upright and disinterested, prove yourself grateful and tender-hearted; and then you will be the perfect model of a woman, which I have always believed you born for'. [Mansfield Park, p. 344]

[7] John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women, 1869, (London: J M Dent, Everyman, 1992), p. 313.

[8] Mary Wollstonecraft, op. cit. p. 50.

[9] Emma, p. 97.

[10] Margaret Drabble, `Introduction', to Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon, p. 14.

[11] Q D Leavis, `A Critical Theory of Jane Austen's Writings,' Scrutiny 10, (1941-42) p. 70.

[12] Q D Leavis, ibid, p. 70.