Lady Susan by Jane Austen

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 Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon, Claudia L. Johnson makes an interesting claim about Austen’s one-time use of the epistolary form:

In part despite and in part because of the exuberance of its amorality, Lady Susan is an artistic cul-de-sac for Austen. The novel’s forte is blatancy, not nuance. In the late 1790s, Austen’s gifts were evolving towards the unprecedented mastery of a form of third-person narration able to represent subjective as well as objective experience by moving seamlessly from characters’ consciousnesses to detached and authoritative commentary on them. That achievement—the perfection of free indirect discourse—eclipsed the epistolary mode. Austen, significantly, throws aside the machinery of letter-writing and finishes Lady Susan by appending a ‘Conclusion’ (possibly composed later) written in the third person, announcing facetiously that ‘to the great detriment of the Post office Revenue’, the correspondences among Lady Susan and her victims had to be discontinued.

What’s sort of brilliant about the Conclusion, though, is that Austen has come to it organically. The house of cards built by Lady Susan has been so thoroughly destroyed that it’s quite necessary for a third person to tidy things up. The correspondence is actually, in the world of the novel, necessarily over, because of “a meeting between some of the Parties and a separation between the others.” The letters stop when they must stop, because people are no longer speaking or are living together.

There are also some interesting remarks after that passage in the introduction about how similar Austen’s later narrator will seem to Lady Susan, but that “she perched the irreverence typical of Lady Susan far more productively within depersonalized ironic narration rather than within characters coolly and consciously determined to capitalize on others’ stupidity.” I definitely see the similarity, and this makes me ask myself why I liked this so much better than I liked (or, remember liking) “real” Austen.