Persuasions #9, 1987                                                                                                                                            Pages 84-88


Lady Susan: The Wicked Mother in Jane Austen’s Novels



C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University, Greenvale, New York 11548


Lady Susan is an achievement as a work of fiction principally because Lady Susan herself possesses beauty, charm, and “artfulness.” Her use of art, like that of her creator, Jane Austen’s use of art, primarily involves language. For example, when she confides in a friend, she writes typically Austenian aphorisms, insisting, “I have never yet found that the advice of a Sister could prevent a young Man’s being in love if he chose it” (258).

On the occasions when she is addressing those “respectable people” who are her adversaries, she speaks their own language, which was strongly influenced by the educational theories of John Locke and the moral teachings of the Evangelicals who wrote on female conduct and education during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Their enormously popular books, often written by women, also describe the good mother.

Some of the most widely disseminated works were those by Maria Edgeworth, Mme. De Genlis, Hannah More, Clara Reeve, Jane West and Mary Wollstonecraft. With the exception of Wollstonecraft, all these writers were sternly conservative politically and highly orthodox theologically.

It is probable that Jane Austen was familiar with all or most of these books. Madam De Genlis’s Adelaide and Theodore is alluded to in Emma (461) and she, Hannah More and Jane West are explicitly mentioned in the Letters (edited by R. W. Chapman, numbers 25, 48, 125, 73, 101). Also, these books represented the ideas shared by most writers and thinkers of the time.

Jane Austen, too, concerns herself with the duties of mothers. Mothers or mother-figures play highly significant roles in the novels. None of these women is truly admirable but only Lady Susan is purposely malignant.

Outwardly, she seems absolutely perfect. According to Catherine Vernon, who dislikes her, Lady Susan is “pretty,” “sweet,” “clever and agreable,” and possesses “a happy command of Language … “ (251). But she not only brings up her daughter improperly and cruelly, obviously ignoring the spirit of the conduct books; she uses their precepts, and even their very own language, to justify her misconduct. Lady Susan is an immoral woman who uses her daughter for her own ends.

She recognizes, however, that paying lip service to the strictures of the moralists not only makes her seem respectable, “that great word” (245), but allows her to do whatever she pleases. The wonderful irony that permeates this work has its foundation in the fact that consciously quoting books on the duties of mothers allows Lady Susan to mistreat her daughter.

It is possible that Jane Austen is trying to show the reader the worst possible mother as the writers of the conduct books tried to describe the best possible mother. But Lady Susan is not merely a parody of a conduct book, because the anti-heroine does not simply behave in a manner directly contrary to the way the books say she should. Instead, she tries to appear to behave exactly as they recommend by using their words to justify her behaviour. Jane Austen shows her using this language so artistically that we are forced to admire Lady Susan’s technique as we admire Jane Austen’s technique.

In the tradition of Jane Austen’s other insincere but charming villains, Willoughby, Wickham, and the Crawfords, Lady Susan succeeds in appearing to be an estimable human being for a time – at least in the eyes of the male characters. The books on female conduct would condemn her goals, but they could not disapprove of her conversation or conduct at Churchill (258). Her concern for the education of her daughter seems genuine as she insists it is her “first Earthly Duty to promote” Frederica’s welfare (289). Her words are noteworthy because she is quoting an idea and the very words often used by the writers on women’s education.

Lady Susan insists she wants the best possible education for Frederica. This, according to the conduct books, involves the inculcation of virtue. Virtue is taught, according to Locke and the other writers on education, primarily by insisting on absolute obedience. Lady Susan is outraged at Frederica’s disobedience in running away from school because it has upset her plans, and she is able to express her outrage even to her enemies, because according to the conduct books, she ought to be enraged at Frederica’s disobedience.

Lady Susan attributes Frederica’s misbehaviour to the fact that she “was a spoilt child” (288). To the writers on education (and most novelists) spoiling a child by indulging its whims or failing to insist on perfect obedience condemned him to a life of self-indulgence and libertinism.

Lady Susan blames her daughter’s disobedience on the fact that she was spoiled by her father. Mrs. Vernon, too, tries to explain Frederica’s faults by referring to her early miseducation. Reginald tries to explain Lady Susan’s faults to Mrs. Vernon by imputing “her errors” “to her neglected Education & early Marriage” (256).

Lady Susan agrees, insisting her own lack of accomplishments is due to the fact that she was “so much indulged in [her] infant years” that she never had to learn anything (253). This admission explains her true character to the readers of the time. Of course she is a villain; that is what spoiled children become.

The writers on female education also agree with Lady Susan that it is wrong for a woman to fall in love with a man before he falls in love with her. They believe that such behaviour exposes a young lady to ridicule, and as Lady Susan writes about Frederica, shows “indelicate feelings” (282).

Lady Susan blames Frederica for making herself ridiculous when she writes to her confidant, Mrs. Johnson. She is clever enough, however, to blame herself for any deficiencies in Frederica when she speaks to the Vernons and Reginald, insisting she simply does not know her child (288). Locke and the other writers on education insisted a parent must be thoroughly familiar with a child’s nature. To do this, a parent must spend a good deal of time with his child, encouraging frankness and trust. Lady Susan is so skillful a manipulator that she manages to convince Reginald her poor relationship with Frederica is the child’s fault. He explains, “Frederica does not know her Mother – Lady Susan means nothing but her Good – but Frederica will not make a friend of her. Lady Susan therefore does not always know what will make her daughter happy” (287).

She does admit that because she feels herself unequal to the task of educating Frederica herself, she intends sending her to school. Whether a child should be educated at home or at school and under what conditions was a matter discussed in all the books on education. Locke disapproved of schools on the grounds that school-masters could not know their students well enough to form their characters. The conventional wisdom agreed, but many writers insisted that only a school could provide skilled masters and also ensure against shyness by surrounding the child with his peers. Since Lady Susan says she wants the best masters for her daughter and also complains of Frederica’s shyness, she cannot be considered culpable in sending her to school – even by Catherine Vernon (247). Besides, she is sending her to a “Private" school (244) – a small establishment which is desirable because there students can be well-supervised.

The writers on education also stressed the importance of reputation to a woman. Their sentiments are echoed by Mary Bennet when she sermonizes on her syster Lydia’s disgrace in running off with Wickham. Lady Susan is equally aware of the paramount importance of reputation. She puts herself to the trouble of conciliating Reginald in order to protect her reputation (292). Earlier, when she had to explain to Reginald why she had tried to prevent the marriage of his sister, Catherine, to her brother-in-law, she mentioned that she heard rumours detrimental to Catherine’s reputation. Reginald uses that information to defend Lady Susan. If Catherine Vernon can be slandered, no reputation is unassailable!

The only writer on education who would not condemn a young girl to lifelong ostracism for one lapse from virtue is Mary Wollstonecraft. It is an indication of Lady Susan’s hypocrisy that she echoes the sentiments of the most rigid writers and thinkers rather than Wollstonecraft’s, as she says, commenting on the harm Manwaring’s attentions might do her reputation, “Those women are inexcusable who forget what is due to themselves & the opinion of the World” (269).

Lady Susan does reveal her wickedness to the readers of the time when she chooses a London school for Frederica because all the writers on education urged bringing children up in the country. Jane Austen herself, in Mansfield Park, connects London with immorality.

The writers on education believed young people also need to learn useful social and domestic skills. Lady Susan agrees. She is annoyed at Frederica’s “artlessness” and is certain it must lead to ridicule. She accounts for Mrs. Vernon’s partiality to Frederica by maintaining that Mrs. Vernon wants “to have all the sense and all the wit of the Conversation to herself; Frederica will never eclipse her” (274).

The course of study that Lady Susan wishes Frederica to follow is not exactly what all the writers on education would recommend, but many were not in favour of anything more than a superficial education for women. Lady Susan believes her daughter ought to know how “to play & sing with some portion of Taste, & a good deal of assurance, as she has my hand & arm, & a tolerable voice” (253). She does not approve of “the prevailing fashion of acquiring a perfect knowledge in all the Languages Arts & Sciences; it is throwing time away; to be Mistress of French, Italian, German, Music, Singing, Drawing &c. will gain a Woman some applause, but will not add one Lover to her list. Grace and Manner after all are of the greatest importance” (253).

On this point, Jane Austen does not agree with Lady Susan but with those writers on women’s education, such as Hester Chapone, Hannah More, and Mary Wollstonecraft, who recommend a course of serious reading as the most effective method of female education. (This is how she herself as well as most of her heroines received their education.) Frederica shares that experience. Despite the neglect and ill treatment she has received, Frederica is not ignorant, “being fond of books & spending the chief of her time in reading” (273). She may even owe her good character to this habit. She suffers from shyness, but under the kind tutelage of Mrs. Vernon she is overcoming her timidity.

Mrs. Vernon is, of course, the kind of mother of whom the writers on education approve. She is a devoted daughter, wife and mother, who is polite, virtuous and well-read. Since Mrs. Vernon will help to educate her and since Reginald De Courcy must fall in love with her, Frederica will be as happy as she deserves to be. Will her undeserving mother be equally happy married to the rich but silly Sir James Martin? The conduct books, which invariably warn against marrying a fool or marrying for pecuniary gain, would suggest that she would not. Jane Austen, however, has demonstrated that Lady Susan’s skill in manipulating the conventional notions of the conduct books and of the age concerning duty and virtue will always ensure her survival. Furthermore, the narrator reminds us explicitly that the only factors that can prevent Lady Susan’s second marriage being happy, are “her Husband, & her Conscience” (313). Both of which, as we know, are negligible.


Chapone, Hester. Letters on the Improvement of the Mind Addressed to a young Lady. 1777; rpt. London: John Sharpe, 1822.

DeGenlis, Felicite. Adelaide and Theodore or Letters on Education. Translated by some ladies. Fourth Edition. London: T. Cadell, 1796.

Edgeworth, Maria. Letters for Literary Ladies. 1795; rpt. with an introduction by Gina Luria. New York: Garland Publishing, 1974.

______, and Richard Lovell. Practical Education. 1798; rpt. 2 vols. New York: Self, Brown and Stansbury, 1801.

Fielding, Sarah. The Governess or Little Female Academy. 1749; rpt. with an introduction by Jill Grey. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

More, Hannah. Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education with a View of the Principles and Conduct Prevalent Among Women of Rank and Fortune. Fifth Edition. Dublin: William Porter, 1800.

Reeve, Clara. Plans of Education with Remarks on the Systems of Other Writers. 1792; rpt. with an introduction by Gina Luria. New York: Garland Publishing, 1974.

West, Jane. Letters to a Young Lady in which the Duties and Character of Women are Considered. 3 vols., 1806; rpt. with an introduction by Gina Luria. New York: Garland Publishing, 1974.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. 1786; rpt. Clifton, N.J.: A. M. Kelley, 1972.

______. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. London: Johnson, 1796.

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