Now here are some believable letters.
For all I say I don’t like Jane Austen, she is good, and really knows how to use even an unusual-for-her form. We dive right into the letters of Lady Susan—splash!—without any frame or explanation, and right away we must put together the pieces of this story bit by bit, comparing Lady Susan’s letters to Mrs. Vernon with her letters to Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Vernon’s letters to her mother and on and on and on.
There is no question of why we should have letters to tell this story; it is a perfect way to reveal the machinations of Lady Susan, the skepticism of Mrs. Vernon, the shallowness of Mrs. Johnson, and on and on and on. And the letters themselves are of material consequence to the story, over and over: Lady Susan’s letter makes Frederica run away from school; Frederica’s letter begins to turn Reginald against Lady Susan; Lady Susan’s false correspondence with Mrs. Manwaring makes her seem virtuous, while her real correspondence, with Mr. Manwaring, has dire consequences for all her relationships. Lady Susan writes to Mrs. Johnson for gossip, but all the rest of her letters have a purpose in the world, to get someone to do something. And as her powers begin to wane, her letters turn against her: “That tormenting creature Reginald is here. My Letter, which was intended to keep him longer in the Country, has hastened him to Town.”
Yes, here we have some good letters.
And some good characters too. Frances Burney’s contemporaries seemed really impressed with her characters, and I won’t deny that some of them were pretty good. But Lady Susan herself is so deliciously wicked, and much more fun to read about.
In her introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition of
Continue reading Lady Susan by Jane Austen