to many readers, Lady Susan seems strangely unconnected to Austen’s other fiction. Much of the difficulty of accounting for its being centers on the extravagance of the title character. She is “an isolated, an alarming creation, from another fictional universe” (Drabble xiv), “the most wicked of all [Austen’s] characters” (Roberts 129), “a cruising shark in her social goldfish pond” (Butler, Jane Austen 122), “polished, cynical and ruthless” (Bradbrook 122), even a sociopath (Anderson). The challenge of establishing a connection to the rest of Austen’s fictional progeny sends readers back to other fictional or literary models, forward to Mansfield Park, out to the Austen family and neighborhood networks. Lady Susan is variously related to the figure of the Merry (and lecherous) Widow from Restoration drama and Henry Fielding’s novels (Levine), Samuel Richardson’s Lovelace (LeRoy Smith 54), Choderlos de Laclos’s Marquise de Merteuil (Bradbrook, Roberts), or her own smooth schemer Mary Crawford.
Some look to the biography for sources. One suggestion is Mrs. Craven, a local villainess who locked up her daughters (e.g., Nokes 152). Another suggestion for Lady Susan’s original is Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide. Most recently (and very convincingly) Jon Spence has argued for the importance of Eliza to Austen’s early fiction, seeing Lady Susan as the “culmination” (79) of the history of both Henry Austen’s and Jane’s relationship with their fascinating cousin, a history worked out in the pages of the Juvenilia and The Loiterer.  Lady Susan, written during the period when Eliza’s husband was guillotined—an event which freed her to re-marry, Spence argues—“is a wish-fulfillment fantasy in two senses: it shows the young man undeceived by the wicked Lady Susan; but it also insists that the author was never taken in by Eliza” (80).
If the novel’s heroine seems foreign to Jane Austen’s fiction, its epistolary form seems almost equally uncharacteristic. Yet by the time the nineteen-year-old Jane Austen sat down to write Lady Susan, she had already experimented with, while parodying, a range of narrative forms and tactics: with third-person sentimental narratives punctuated by songs and an epitaph (Jack and Alice) or broken by embedded letters (Evelyn); with a female picaresque in twelve chapters (The Beautifull Cassandra); with comic drama (The Visit, The Mystery); with discursive non-fiction prose (The History of England); even with a bathetic “Ode to Pity”; and with a number of epistolary narratives (including Amelia Webster, The Three Sisters, Love and Freindship, Lesley Castle). She had also begun and then abandoned a more serious and narratively complex novel about a young girl’s entrance into the world, Catherine, or the Bower. With Lady Susan, however, she returned to the epistolary mode, a strategy she also seems to have employed for First Impressions and Elinor and Marianne.
After this early and extended experimentation with telling a story through letters, Austen gave up the strategy for other narrative tactics. It’s helpful, however, to think about those early trials in the context of the fiction of the period in which she was writing—the 1790s—and of the fictional models available to her. Charlotte Smith’s epistolary novel Desmond, available the year before Austen composed Lady Susan, offers a helpful perspective from which to consider Jane Austen’s early interests and the direction of her development. Published in the summer of 1792, during what Marilyn Butler has called “the annus mirabilis of eighteenth-century radicalism” (Introductory Essay 7), Desmond represents Charlotte Smith’s entry into the pamphlet wars that swirled in the early years of the French Revolution. Composed of letters dated from June 9, 1790, to February 6, 1792, its subject is the politics of the French Revolution in both England and France. Most specifically, Desmond is a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, published November 1, 1790, which critiques “this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, . . . this monstrous tragi-comic scene” (92) in France, contrasts it to the “manly, moral, regulated liberty” (89) of Britain, and warns of the infection of revolutionary fervor that may ensue. Smith’s novel is structured around two pairs of correspondents: the young Lionel Desmond and his former guardian Erasmus Bethel; the unhappily married Geraldine Verney and her younger sister Fanny Waverly. Much of the novel consists of polemic and reportage, as Desmond and Bethel argue out the issues of revolution and reaction. But the main plot casts oppression in gendered terms, following Geraldine’s marriage to the dissolute Verney, the abuse she suffers, and Desmond’s virtuous love for her.
There is no evidence that Jane Austen read Desmond, which was controversial enough, even before the Revolution degenerated into the Terror, to be rejected by her publisher, Cadell and Davies (who would later famously refuse First Impressions). Certainly, however, Austen knew Charlotte Smith’s work. Much of the playfulness of the Juvenilia takes its energy from the sentimental conventions within which Smith writes. Twice Austen explicitly refers to Charlotte Smith’s earlier novels. In her History of England, the Duke of Somerset, “on the whole of a very amiable Character, & somewhat of a favourite with me,” is compared to the anti-hero of Emmeline: he is “by no means . . . equal to those first of Men Robert Earl of Essex, Delamere, or Gilpin” (143). Inverting the authority of Smith’s judgment of the unstable Delamere, the young author of this History subsequently compares Essex, that “unfortunate young Man” to “that equally unfortunate one Frederic Delamere. The simile may be carried still farther, & Elizabeth the torment of Essex may be compared to the Emmeline of Delamere” (146). In Catherine, or the Bower, Charlotte Smith’s fiction becomes a measure of characters’ thoughtfulness and intelligence. Kitty begins to improve her acquaintance with Miss Stanley by speaking of “Books universally read and Admired” (198-99), in particular of “Mrs Smith’s Novels,” which Miss Stanley, anticipating Isabella Thorpe, describes as “the sweetest things in the world.” In contrast to the vapidities of her friend, Kitty’s praise of the “very interesting” story of Ethelinde and the “Beautiful” descriptions of Grasmere is measured and specific (199). Smith’s fiction here functions as an indicator of Kitty’s taste and judgment. It’s perhaps significant that, when the conversation turns to politics as Smith’s own fiction does, Kitty’s aunt, like one of the anti-Jacobin polemicists of the 1790s, claims that “the whole race of Mankind were degenerating, . . . [that] Everything . . . was going to rack and ruin, all order was destroyed over the face of the World” (200).
I will not prove that Lady Susan is a revision of or even a direct response to Charlotte Smith’s Desmond. But Lady Susan did take shape within a particular context. Examining that context, approaching Jane Austen as a reader of Smith and as someone living, reading, and writing through the upheavals of the 1790s might help us measure Lady Susan’s qualities more accurately. In Desmond’s preface, Charlotte Smith challenges the notion that “women . . . have no business with politics” (45). Not only are “fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, or friends engaged” in the tumultuous world of the 1790s, she contends, but it is a world in which women are “subject to . . . mental degradation” (45). Smith’s novel not only depicts with great specificity the political arguments surrounding the French Revolution in both England and provincial France, but it also uses that backdrop as a means of investigating another political issue: the condition of women. Smith’s critique of the forces confining women is not limited to their economic and political implications; she examines the very novelistic conventions of sentimentality within which she writes. In Desmond’s two heroines, Geraldine Verney and her sister Fanny Waverly, Charlotte Smith scrutinizes the figures of the sentimental heroine and of the woman who chafes against that definition. The novel’s letters show the difficulty of negotiating both of those positions. While Lady Susan does not explicitly mention the revolutionary politics of the period in which it was written, politics nonetheless come to be defined as “women’s business” as Austen explores the business and politics of the personal. Like Smith, Austen is interested in the economic and social conditions to which women are subject. Austen, however, through the letters of Catherine Vernon, Lady Susan, and even Mrs. Johnson exploits, explores, explodes the image of the sentimental heroine. For both Charlotte Smith and Jane Austen, the epistolary convention is crucial to their fictional aims.
That epistolary convention had, in fact, a political dimension, particularly during the early part of the 1790s. Edmund Burke cast as a letter his entry into the pamphlet war that spurred Smith to respond: the Reflections had, he said, its “origin in a correspondence between the author and a very young gentleman at Paris” (84). The letter form offered him a kind of liberty: “Indulging myself in the freedom of epistolary intercourse, I beg leave to throw out my thoughts, and express my feelings, just as they arise in my mind, with very little attention to formal method” (92). Burke here claims the freedom—the indulgence—of sentimental discourse, of political argument directed by feeling. In fact, Burke’s use of the epistolary mode was part of a larger exploitation of the political dimensions of the letter. Mary Favret has pointed out that the letter gained a real political valence between 1789 and 1830. “[T]he French monarchy’s lettre de cachet, the hidden letter of absolute law, became a symbol of tyranny, in contrast to the ‘open letter,’ symbol of representative government . . . ” (9). In England, the letter was politicized particularly through the agency of corresponding societies whose commitment to friendship and solidarity was “based on egalitarian principles and on correspondence itself” (28). For reformist and pro-revolutionary groups, “the letter was an open, democratic form, predicated on a belief in negotiation between disparate and multitudinous voices” (33).
When Charlotte Smith and Jane Austen, then, in the midst of the revolutionary upheavals of the first half of the decade, undertake epistolary narratives, they enter into a generic discourse with political implications. In Smith’s novel, the letter is a vehicle of political discussion that meets Burke with his own weapon if on a somewhat different ground. But despite her opening dismissal of the claim that women have no business with politics, she also provides a layer of insulation: most of the political argument comes from the male characters. Geraldine’s response to the French Revolution is less polemical, operating through sympathetic identification rather than argument. Geraldine recognizes the oppressions of monarchy by comparing them with her own situation: “If I get among the wildest collection of those people whose ferocity arises not from their present liberty, but their recent bondage, is it possible to suppose that they will injure me, who am myself a miserable slave, returning with trembling and reluctant steps, to put on the most dreadful of all fetters?” (303-04). But if Geraldine and her sister Fanny are largely silent on the politics of the revolution in France, they do have plenty to say about the constitution of the family and their condition as women within it.
Indeed, Burke’s Reflections (centrally for Smith) represents the British nation as a family and employs the landed estate as metaphor for its constitution: it is “an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; . . . an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right” (119). Mary Wollstonecraft’s connection of family and nation in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman—“A man has been termed a microcosm; and every family might also be called a state” 177—is a further articulation of a trope explored by many of the novels of the 1790s, including Charlotte Smith’s. Geraldine describes her father as “a very Turk in principle, [who] hardly allowed women any pretensions to souls, or thought them worth more care than he bestowed on his horses, which were to look sleek, and do their paces well” (327); she describes herself bitterly as “property” (333) and as “slave” (303) to her husband. That consciousness, however, fails to mitigate her oppression.  Rebuking her sister, she holds up family unity as the ideal. “Where families are divided among themselves—I mean, where the father or mother disagree with the children, or the brothers and sisters with each other, there is something very wrong among them all” (191). Geraldine valorizes duty, the very mechanism of her oppression, at all costs, leaving Desmond longing for a revolution: “My hope is, that the proposal [of her husband and mother] . . . that she should leave her children, will rouse that proper spirit of resistance against usurped and abused authority” (292). Although that hope is unfulfilled—Geraldine remains the embodiment of duty to family—Smith’s providential design simultaneously frees Geraldine for remarriage and reforms the family. “Geraldine will bear my name—will be the directress of my family—will be my friend—my mistress—my wife!” (414), Desmond tells Bethel. Despite the possessive pronouns, Desmond looks forward to a companionate marriage and outward to a larger, non-hierarchical family group defined by “that tender confidence of mutual affection” (414).
Unlike those of Desmond, the politics of Lady Susan are neither national nor international in character. Nevertheless, the language of 1790s political discussion—particularly as it invokes the family—infiltrates the novel. Sir Reginald speaks of his son’s responsibilities as “the representative of an ancient Family” (260), a phrase that might be drawn from Burke. Sir Reginald’s authority is benevolently defined—“I do not wish to work on your Fears, but on your Sense & Affection” (261)—but characterized by weakness: age, “increasing Infirmities” (261), limited legal power to affect his son’s behavior. Lady Susan defines herself in opposition to the authority represented by Sir Reginald and Mr. Johnson. She anticipates the death of both men: “[A] state of dependance on the caprice of Sir Reginald, will not suit the freedom of my spirit” (299); “in happier times,” she assures Mrs. Johnson, “when your situation is as independant as mine, [our friendship] will unite us again in the same Intimacy as ever” (307). Lady Susan, however, also aligns herself with a hierarchical model of the family and its authority. She cites the “delicacy of [her] feelings, which could not endure that my Husband’s Dignity should be lessened by his younger brother’s having possession of the Family Estate” (249). She initially claims a refusal to “force Frederica into a marriage from which her heart revolted” (253) but then resolves to quash the “little rebellious heart & indelicate feelings” of her daughter (282) and “subdu[e] an insolent spirit” (254), the “proud spirit” (292) of Reginald. Reginald himself picks up this language, telling his sister, “you must make it your business to see justice done” to Frederica (284). As Favret points out, “Lady Susan may not be the radical agent, the vaguely French villainess many readers assume” (140).
Lady Susan is, however, expert at exploiting cultural fears of family division, even as she effects those divisions. While separating Reginald from his family, she positions herself on the side of the forces that would preserve family bonds: “I make it my particular request that I may not in any way be instrumental in separating a family so affectionately attached to each other” (293); “[w]ith feelings so poignant as mine, the conviction of having divided the son from his Parents, would make me, even with you, the most miserable of Beings” (300). The severing of her relationship with Reginald is also figured in terms of the family politic. In an uncharacteristically open moment of asperity, she terms it “this act of filial Obedience” (306), emphasizing his dependent state. To Reginald, the revelation of Lady Susan’s illicit relationship with Manwaring is matched by her crime against the “family you robbed of it’s [sic] Peace” (305). Unlike Charlotte Smith’s egalitarian renovation of the family at the end of Desmond, Jane Austen’s comic conclusion restores the Vernon family to its original definition, with the hope of expanding it to include Frederica. But such an incorporation is contingent on “such time as Reginald De Courcy could be talked, flattered & finessed into an affection for her—which, allowing leisure for the conquest of his attachment to her Mother, for his abjuring all future attachments and detesting the Sex, might be reasonably looked for in the course of a Twelvemonth” (313). Through the formality of Reginald’s family name and the reminder of the tangled family relationships involved in this probable transfer of affections, Austen deftly underscores the upheavals in the family politic.
The central figure in the 1790s plot depicting the threats to the family is the sentimental heroine, who embodies either the dangers of parental tyranny or seductive attractions of liberty. The characters in both Desmond and Lady Susan are readers of sentimental fiction, very familiar with conventions of plot laid out for them and the definition of womanhood to which the heroines must conform. Desmond links himself to Rousseau’s hero St. Preux, comparing that character’s feelings for Julie to his own for Geraldine (252); Bethel describes Desmond—who not only haunts with a pocket telescope Geraldine’s rural retreat but “linger[s] . . . in tortures” (298) for news of her—as “an English Werter, . . . far gone in his species of insanity” (299). Mrs. Waverly proscribes Fanny’s reading of contemporary novels, which “convey the poison of bad example in the soft semblance of refined sentiment” (215), while Geraldine “cannot imagine that novel reading can, as has been alleged, corrupt the imagination, or enervate the heart” (223). Indeed, Geraldine seems to discount the precedents of fiction: she argues that the character of a “modern Lovelace . . . does not exist now” (242) and attempts to defuse Desmond’s fears that she will be “carr[ied] to Paris without her own consent” by the Duc de Romagnecourt by ironically casting him as “a French Sir Hargrave Pollexfen” (272). But the threats she faces are real (if less effective than Lovelace’s maneuverings), and she begins to see connections between herself and Frances Sheridan’s Sidney Biddulph: “Perhaps there is a little similarity in our destinies” (334). Those similarities might include an unflinching adherence to duty and obedience that seems to provide an unhappy model for Geraldine.
While Lady Susan is also a reader of sentimental fiction, her skepticism is much more consistent than Geraldine’s. She scoffs at her daughter’s behavior, which seems to be conditioned by the novels she has read in the long hours spent in her closet: Frederica “is busy in pursueing the plan of Romance begun at Langford. She is actually falling in love with Reginald De Courcy. To disobey her Mother by refusing an unexceptionable offer is not enough; her affections must likewise be given without her Mother’s approbation” (274). Susan’s description of Frederica as “this ill-used Girl, this Heroine in distress!” (290) is designed to deflate the significance of her daughter’s rebellion. It also aligns Lady Susan with Smith’s Mrs. Waverly and those moralists who see novel reading as peculiarly dangerous to the young.
Although Geraldine and Lady Susan both question the relevance of novels to their lives, the sentimental conventions do exert a powerful hold over both. In particular, the figure of the sentimental heroine defines and confines the ways these characters are perceived and perceive or present themselves. In his Reflections, Burke famously (or infamously) presented the episode of the penetration of Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber by the bloodthirsty mob as a sentimental narrative of beauty in distress. “A band of cruel ruffians and assassins . . . rushed into the chamber of the queen, and pierced with an hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly almost naked . . . to seek refuge at the feet of a king and husband, not secure of his own life for a moment” (164). For Burke, she is a woman “made for suffering,” characterized by “serene patience,” “piety,” “courage,” “the dignity of a Roman matron” (169). In Desmond, Charlotte Smith first counters Burke’s sentimentalizing vision of Marie Antoinette with the narrative of a starving French widow and mother begging for her family, “a thin, pale figure” whose tale highlights parental tyranny, anti-French prejudice, and the violation of bonds of loyalty and protection (82-85). The figures of Geraldine and Fanny, however, offer a more developed version of the sentimental heroine. Through her management of the narration, Smith underscores the notion that the sentimental heroine is a constructed being. Geraldine is presented in volume 1 only through Desmond’s eyes, and throughout the novel, the power of his voyeurism is emphasized: he writes about her, gazes at her through a telescope, lurks in her vicinity disguised as a monk, dreams of her.
Desmond’s visions of Geraldine reflect Burke’s notion that “[b]eauty in distress is much the most affecting form of beauty” (Philosophical Enquiry 110), and for both Desmond and Bethel, Geraldine’s maternity is key to this distress. Desmond dreams of a Geraldine deserted by her husband, “exposed to the fury of the contending elements, . . . in all the agonies of maternal apprehension” (131). The dying Geraldine “resemble[s] a beautiful statue of Niobe, . . . which I had admired at Lyons.” This image is succeeded by another: “I saw her extended, pale, and apparently dying on the bed . . . with the least of the children, a very young infant dead in her arms” (131). That dream of her death is followed by a similar view of the actual woman. “Geraldine was extended on an old-fashioned cane sopha . . . and with her right arm she clasped the youngest of her children, who appeared to my terrified imagination to be dying, as its head reposed on her bosom, while her tears fell slowly on the little pallid face” (269). In London, Bethel sees her “so pale, so languid, so changed from the lovely blooming Geraldine of four years since, that I beheld her with extreme concern.—Yet . . . this charming woman, in the pride of early beauty, never appeared to me so interesting, so truly lovely . . . ” (169).
Geraldine sees herself in these terms, the suffering heroine with a plot that belongs to sentimental fiction: “Why did I flatter myself . . . that the numberless distresses which have lately surrounded me, would either bring with them that calm resignation which should teach me to bear, or that total debility of mind that should make me forget to feel, all their poignancy?—Is it that I set out in life with too great a share of sensibility? Or is it my lot to be particularly wretched?” (159). Both the resignation she strives for and its failures are defined in terms of her maternity: she exerts herself “rather because it is my duty to try to live than because I wish to live—rather for the sake of my poor children than my own” (188); “there are moments when I most sincerely wish that I and my babies were all dead together” (220).
Fanny’s lot is perhaps more unhappy. At the beginning she is dismissed as “[t]his little wild girl” (164), self-possessed and “naturally satirical” (165). “[H]ow can I help being satirical,” she protests, “against those who will not let me be sentimental?” (216). Although Fanny Waverly’s wit and anger both look forward to Austen’s own heroines and threaten the sentimental definition of femininity, Smith’s novel charts her reformation. Her range of feeling, experience, and expression is increasingly limited while the plot gives her little to do. Fanny’s gratitude to Desmond and her “agonizing grief” (301) on Geraldine’s behalf make her “interesting” (176) to Bethel and Desmond; the account of her courtship by and marriage to Desmond’s friend Montfleuri is presented only from his perspective. She is effectively silenced as she is fit to the sentimental plot.
Lady Susan, as much a reader of sentimental fiction as Smith’s characters, understands and exploits the power of the sentimental heroine and sentimental maternity. Catherine Vernon describes “this dangerous creature” (250) as “delicately fair, with fine grey eyes & dark eyelashes” with “an uncommon union of Symmetry, Brilliancy and Grace” and an “address . . . gentle, frank & even affectionate” (251). Reginald, despite his initial skepticism, praises and defends Lady Susan’s “solid affection for her Child” though “because she has not the blind & weak partiality of most Mothers, she is accused of wanting Maternal Tenderness” (265). With more penetration, Catherine Vernon objects to Susan’s “pathetic representation,” “so ostentatious & artful a display” (270) of maternal distress.
But just as Austen allows Lady Susan a greater share in her own narrative representation than Smith allows to Geraldine (indeed Susan defines and re-defines herself before others have the opportunity to define her), she also exposes her heroine’s efforts to control that image. Lady Susan’s initial plans include attention to the Vernons’ “dear little children” (243): “I mean to win my Sister in law’s heart through her Children; I know all their names already, & am going to attach myself with the greatest sensibility to one in particular, a young Frederic, whom I take on my lap & sigh over for his dear Uncle’s sake” (250). Her reflection on her plans to marry her daughter to Sir James Martin cloaks the aim of economic incentive in the language of feeling. “I have been called an unkind Mother,” she tells her friend Mrs. Johnson, “but it was the sacred impulse of maternal affection, it was the advantage of my Daughter that led me on” (245). In heightened language that suggests an absolute horror of maternal tyranny she seeks to control the public face of the situation: “Can you possibly suppose,” she challenges Catherine Vernon, “that it was my object to make my own child miserable, & that I had forbidden her speaking to you . . . from a fear of your interrupting the Diabolical scheme? Do you think me destitute of every honest, every natural feeling? Am I capable of consigning her to everlasting Misery, whose welfare it is my first Earthly Duty to promote?” (289).
Whereas Geraldine and Fanny are restricted by the conventions of sentiment, Lady Susan’s presentation of herself as sentimental heroine attempts to clear a space for unfettered action. In order to deter Reginald’s arrival in town, she invokes her helplessness before the power of feeling and attempts to align Reginald’s action with rational interests, the preservation of decorum: “We have been hurried on by our feelings to a degree of Precipitance which ill accords with the claims of our Friends, or the opinion of the World. We have been unguarded in forming this hasty Engagement. . . . [T]he influence of reason is often acknowledged too late by those who feel like me” (300). But the language of the sentimental epistle is dangerous, the distance between authorial intention and readerly reception, as Eagleton has suggested, difficult to navigate: “My Letter, which was intended to keep him longer in the Country, has hastened him to Town” (301-02). The narrative control wielded by the sentimental heroine is ultimately limited to the power of passivity.
Finally, Charlotte Smith and Jane Austen discover in their experimentation with epistolarity a form that both defines and threatens the borders between private and social spaces as well as the understanding that letters should facilitate. In the historical world inhabited by Jane Austen, as Deborah Kaplan has shown, letters are distinctly social in nature, defining communities. We’re accustomed to thinking about letters, however, at least as they appear in fiction, as private documents, uniting one writer in an intimate relationship with one reader. Epistolary fiction—Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse—privileges the relationship of the confidante, where the outpourings of the individual voice, the secrets of the self, are exchanged. As Patricia Meyer Spacks argues, the epistolary novel in the eighteenth century becomes a female form that “clarif[ies] women’s claim to dominion over the realm of emotion” as it “suggest[s] how feeling can substitute for action to generate its own kind of plot” (70). But these spaces for the expression of feeling are not as private as they seem. Terry Eagleton, writing about Clarissa, points out that correspondence of any kind is by its nature political: “To ‘correspond’ is to implicate a set of political questions: Who may write to whom, under what conditions? Which parts may be cited to another, and which must be suppressed? Who has the authority to edit, censor, mediate, commentate?” (50). James How connects the public nature of any letter sent through the mail to its institutional authorization: the Post Office “sets up and then advertises the existence of impersonal spaces, which are continually there, and into which you can send your letters once they are written” (4). But these spaces, he claims, are not exactly private: “They are common spaces other people are also always using, and in which there is a sense for the letter writers and readers . . . that their letters are jostling and bumping up against multitudes of other letters sent by a variety of different and unfamiliar people” (4). And, Eagleton suggests, there’s always the possibility of a gap between intention and destination: “[l]etters, the most intimate sign of the subject, are . . . [liable to be] exploited for ends unforeseen by their authors. Writing and reading are always in some sense illicit intercourse—not only because they may be expressly forbidden, but because there is always the possibility of a fatal slip between intention and interpretation, emission and reception” (50).
The unreliability endemic to correspondence in a world that’s simultaneously chaotic and authoritarian is matched by the very instabilities of language. The letter’s existence as a missive in search of an audience complicates its identity as an expression of an authentic individual voice. Eagleton reminds us that “[t]he other to whom the letter is addressed is included within it, an absent recipient present within each phrase. As speech-for-another, the letter must reckon that recipient’s likely response to its every gesture” (52). The epistolary mode, then, blurring the divide between private and public, offers insight and secrecy that are revealed to be more and less than they seem.
Both Charlotte Smith and Jane Austen call attention in these novels to the limits of the reliability of the letter in actually effecting correspondence between individuals. For Smith’s correspondents, believing in the sentimental convention that feeling and expression should coincide, the mutuality of truth and honesty dictates the transaction. Bethel is the trusted friend and mentor to Desmond; Fanny is Geraldine’s sister, her “second self” (326). Nonetheless, there are gaps in the intimacy of their correspondence: Bethel writes repeatedly, wondering why Desmond has concealed his whereabouts; a letter’s origin can be (and is) concealed, its honesty rendered partial. Geraldine, despite her love for her sister, behaves as a censor, imploring Fanny to “check [her] vivacity” (189) and chastising Fanny’s angry criticism of the brutality of Geraldine’s husband (188-89) and her mother’s indifferent tyranny to her daughters; Fanny’s transgressive speech and writing break the silence that Geraldine’s sense of duty imposes. The result is increased isolation for both heroines.
In Lady Susan, honesty is not a necessary element of correspondence. The novel’s first letter to her “dear Brother” is a display of Lady Susan’s “eloquence,” her ability to frame her own advantage as feeling: “I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profitting by your kind invitation when we last parted . . . ” (243). Though she rhetorically bows to Mr. Vernon’s “power,” what really matters is that she is “determined” to visit (244). Susan’s second letter, to her friend Mrs. Johnson, with its natural, conversational directness, immediately punctures her conventional professions of family affection: “Charles Vernon is my aversion, & I am afraid of his wife” (246). The bulk of the novel’s correspondence, however, reflects the straightforwardness of this second letter: Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson, Catherine Vernon and her mother share an intimacy and unity of purpose that allows for directness. That directness can have its dangers or limitations, as when Catherine’s letter describing Reginald’s involvement with Susan finds its way into the hands of the weakened patriarch whom they would protect. Susan’s letter alerting Mrs. Johnson to Reginald’s visit is frustrated by the absence from home of its addressee. Deceptions can be easily practiced, illicit letters conveyed. Though in a neighborhood of voluntary spies, Lady Susan’s bare assertion that Manwaring’s letters come from his wife is enough to convince, and even the milky Frederica manages a letter to Reginald. Further, letters can often reveal a level of unreliability that has less to do with the honesty of the writers than with their inability to read or predict their circumstances.
Letters, then, are as liable to convey misrepresentations, misunderstandings, and mistakes between correspondents as they are to convey legible or transparent truths. That effect is magnified at the level of narrative legibility where readers attempt to decipher authorial intent. The epistolary mode is essentially a democratic form in which authorial control of the narrative is ceded to the readers, who are provided with the material out of which to connect bits of evidence and construct judgment. The dangers of such a strategy became apparent early on to Samuel Richardson, who found himself compelled to add chiding footnotes to instruct wayward readers in the proper attitude toward his hero-villain, Lovelace.
The epistolary fictions of both Charlotte Smith and Jane Austen evidence this kind of intentional obscurity. In Desmond, the absence of an authorial voice vexes critical attempts to assess Smith’s attitude toward her heroines. Throughout the novel, Geraldine defines herself as a martyr to duty, obeying a dissolute husband who commands her to travel with her children to a war-torn country. Does Smith create in Geraldine, as Chris Jones suggests, “a parody heroine, carrying conventional behaviour to a ludicrous extreme, while at the same time engaging in activities which subvert traditional standards” (74)? Or does Smith, as Eleanor Wikborg argues, “problematize the ideal of female submission” while paradoxically “transforming women’s enforced surrender to male power into an erotic fantasy of validation” (526)? Geraldine’s final letter, written before Verney’s death frees her, affirms this submission: “I have much to suffer with him and for him” (406). The novel’s conclusion effectively silences the heroines: the final three letters recounting the courtship of Geraldine and Fanny are written to Bethel by Desmond and Montfleuri; even the women’s voices are overwhelmed in the sudden imposition of the courtship plot. Judith Stanton, writing about Smith’s personal letters, argues that “[i]dealistically she believed in a code of honor and a cult of sensibility even after they failed her” (19). Desmond’s ambiguities, then, seem to reflect the intersection of ideal systems and experience realized in both fiction and in fact.
The epistolary form Jane Austen chooses for Lady Susan leads to similar ambiguities, vexing judgment of both the heroine herself and the novel’s conclusion. Does the novel condemn Susan in favor of the more socially and generically acceptable models of Catherine Vernon and Frederica? Warren Roberts suggests that the centrality of “scandal and the moral subversion of society” is “interesting [to Austen] precisely because it was wicked” (129). Lady Susan provides an opportunity of voicing that fascination. William Galperin argues that “[a]lthough it is virtually impossible to regard the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon as a role model for a presumably female readership, it is just as impossible to perceive the cultural order, which seeks to contain and to thwart her, in a more positive light” (121). Indeed, as Galperin points out, the difficulties of judgment are related to generic form: “this novella—composed of letters that have apparently been retrieved by an editor—chronicles a period in Lady Susan’s life demarcated by the death of her previous (and older) husband and by the acquisition of a new husband. . . . Marriage is a conspiracy now. And its purpose . . . is to remove women to a place where they are inaudible, invisible, and where their only agency is in serving the landed and patriarchal interests in which they are presumably subordinate and . . . continually vulnerable” (122-23). As in Desmond, the female voices that have defined this novel are silenced by generic demands: “This Correspondence, by a meeting between some of the Parties & a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post office Revenue, be continued longer” (311). The voice of the heroine is replaced, Galperin notes, by that of a misogynistic editor with a “Fieldingesque mode of authority” (123).
But what does the replacement of epistolary negotiation by narrative authority mean? Susan Sniader Lanser suggests that Austen felt an actual “impatience with the (now waning) letter novel” (67-68). Most explanations (such as that of A. Walton Litz, who sees Austen as “frightened” [n.p.] by the possibilities of narrative authority she’d begun to test in Catherine) rest on the problem of narrative control. Mary Poovey argues that Lady Susan’s “artful power” is “[s]o compelling and so complete . . . that the only way Austen can effectively censure her is to impose punishment by narrative fiat. Predictably, this entails disrupting the epistolary narrative and ridiculing not just the correspondents but the morally anarchic epistolary form itself” (178). Susan Pepper Robbins declares that the conclusion embodies “clear moral judgments. The narrative voice has indeed become a source of order and value” (223). But Favret’s view seems more convincing: here “epistolary art is in league with social consensus and parental authority. Rather than managing the letter into a parody of anarchy, Austen begins to see it in a more threatening aspect, as a paradigm of law” (144-45).
Indeed, it’s the narrative voice that begins to seem anarchic with its multivalent ironies. Catherine Vernon’s asserted affection for Frederica is undercut by the pragmatics of correspondence: she “cease[s] writing minutely or often” (311) to her niece when she suspects that Frederica writes under surveillance. Mr. Vernon, who, the narrator reminds us, “live[s] only to do whatever he was desired” (311), keeps his subordinate role. Frederica remains a cipher to be read one way by her aunt, another by her mother: “the same restrained Manners, the same timid Look in the presence of her Mother . . . assured her Aunt of her situation’s being uncomfortable” (311) while Lady Susan “acknowledg[es] in grateful delight that Frederica was now growing every day more & more what a Parent could desire” (312). Reginald might be “talked, flattered, & finessed into an affection for her . . . in the course of a Twelvemonth”—a longer time than might be expected since his “feelings were no less lasting than lively” (313). Even the heroine’s fate is ironically inconclusive: whether to class either marriage to the wealthy and foolish Sir James or estrangement from the Vernons as reward or punishment is impossible. The narrator, indeed, cedes authority: “I do not see how [her happiness] can ever be ascertained. . . . The World must judge from Probability” (313).
What appears as anarchy in the third-person Conclusion to Lady Susan is converted in the following decades into a style in which a character’s self-revelation and the narrative comment can be simultaneous, multiplying while controlling ironies. A simple story—a single plot, a household of characters who perform but don’t develop—gives way to a pattern of intersecting plots involving three or four families in a country village, all of whom, as E. M. Forster has it, are “round, or capable of rotundity” (74). In Lady Susan, the young Jane Austen exploits a form in such a way that she both adopts its conventions and challenges them. This novel deftly evokes the familial and social—even the linguistic—tumult of the decade, but ultimately Austen discovers an eloquence all her own.
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