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Austen’s Aberration: The Unconventional Character of Lady Susan

Few authors are as well renowned and respected for their portrayal of complicated characters and the nuances and idiosyncrasies of their social interactions as Jane Austen. However, perhaps one of Austen’s most intriguing characters to contemplate is not from her more well-known works. Rather, it is the character of Lady Susan who is depicted in the short epistolary novel that bears her name. One of Austen’s Juvenilia, Lady Susan presents the reader with a particularly interesting case, as the protagonist can in no way be considered one of Austen’s traditional heroine characters. In most Austen novels, while the protagonists certainly pushed the limits of the social norms of the time, they were still generally portrayed as being morally upstanding or having laudable personalities. Meanwhile, many of Lady Susan’s attributes such as her coquetry, borderline abusive parenting, and general manipulativeness would likely cause Austen’s other characters to blush. It can be said with some confidence that Lady Susan is a fascinating aberration from what became the norm for Austen later in her writing career. The question then becomes, should we consider Lady Susan as an outright villainess or does Austen want us to view her as a more nuanced anti-heroine? An analysis of the traits traditionally associated with anti-hero or anti-heroine characters and careful consideration of Austen’s portrayal of Lady Susan suggests that she is not an anti-heroine, but rather a complex villainess.

The first trait one traditionally associates with anti-heroines is having ends or motives which are viewed by the reader as justifiable or at least understandable. Sara Amato articulates this aspect of the traditional anti-heroine character, noting, “While their actions are worthy of disapproval, the underlying reason behind the action is often understandable which allows audiences to forgive their actions to some degree” (4). Similarly, Jonathan Michael argues that the anti-heroine is tainted by vices and moral flaws and yet, despite this, holds “appropriately desired” goals. Examples of such anti-heroes or anti-heroines include vigilantes, vengeful family members, or cops willing to bend the law in order to achieve justice.

Turning to the more direct question at hand, does Lady Susan exhibit these traits? Regrettably, all of Lady Susan’s most important actions in the novel seem to have selfish and arguably evil motives behind them. This makes it difficult for readers to ever really “root for” Lady Susan, as tends to happen, Amato argues, with most well-written anti-heroines (2). Three of Lady Susan’s actions warrant further analysis to illustrate this point: her affair with Manwaring, her attempt at marrying off Frederica to Sir James, and her seduction of Reginald. To begin with, Lady Susan’s motives for carrying on an affair with Manwaring appear to stem from less than worthy origins. In comparing Reginald to Manwaring, Lady Susan offers us insight into what inspired her relationship with the latter. She writes that Reginald is “less polished, less insinuating than Manwaring, and is comparatively deficient in the power of saying those delightful things which put one in good humour with oneself and the world” (Lady Susan, letter X). Throughout the novel similar remarks are made about Manwaring which elucidate that Lady Susan’s affair with him is not driven by hopes of marriage or financial security, but rather because he flatters her and she finds his obsequiousness pleasing. Indeed, we cannot say that the motivation is marriage or wealth as Manwaring has a wife who is relatively young. Similarly, reprehensible motives are found to be present in Lady Susan’s attempt at marrying off her own daughter Frederica. While she passes her efforts off as motherly concern, in reality, she has less than altruistic motives. For one thing, we learn that Lady Susan finds her daughter unbearable. In the lady’s own words, Frederica “was born to be the torment of my life” (Lady Susan, letter II). Indeed, rather than hoping to marry off Frederica for her own good, it seems more likely that Lady Susan is attempting to secure for herself further financial security. However, perversely, she does not want to marry Sir James herself because she recognizes how unbearable it would be, calling Sir James “contemptibly weak” (Lady Susan, letter II. What we learn from all this is that in order to secure financial wellbeing for herself, Lady Susan would be willing to force her daughter into an intolerable marriage. Finally, if we examine Lady Susan’s seduction of Reginald, we find that her reasons are at best trivial and at worst malevolent. In her earlier letters, Lady Susan suggests that her goal is merely “subduing an insolent spirit” and giving herself something more interesting to do than talking with Mrs. Vernon (Lady Susan, letter VII). Hardly admirable ends. However, later in the novel, after Reginald has nearly left the house over Lady Susan’s treatment of Frederica, she reveals a more devious reason for her relationship and possible marriage to the now subdued Reginald. Exposing a truly unforgiving side, Lady Susan suggests that she would punish Reginald for his ever defying her by “marrying and teazing him for ever” (Lady Susan, letter XXV). Hence, after examining Lady Susan’s most noteworthy actions, it is clear she does not exhibit the first common trait of an anti-heroine, namely worthy motives.

Another quintessential characteristic of anti-heroines is that they are redemptive characters. Such characters can exhibit many of the same flaws we see in Lady Susan, or worse, but the story has a positive character arc. What we mean by this is that the character who we had regarded as reprehensible ends up growing in some way or affording us with some redemptive act. It is this aspect of anti-heroes or anti-heroines that Jonathan Michael thinks makes them so attractive. In Michael’s words, “Whether it’s to see them make better choices, slowly improve over time, or lay down their lives so that someone else might live, redemption is a powerful and resonating piece of storytelling.” A good example of such an anti-hero would be Charles Dickens’ Sydney Carton who appears in A Tale of Two Cities. Consistent with the first trait of anti-heroes discussed here, Carton is a character who has serious vices. Carton goes so far as to describe himself as a “self-flung away, wasted, drunken, poor creature of misuse” (Dickens 107). Furthermore, Carton is the disappointed lover of Lucie Manette, a quality that is more pitiable than it is heroic. And yet, in a redemptive act of self-sacrifice for his look-a-like Charles Darnay, it is Carton who ends up being the “hero” of Dickens’ novel. In his final act of self-sacrifice at the guillotine, he is described as having been “sublime and prophetic,” a massive change from the description we are afforded earlier in Dickens’ work (Dickens 267). Carton is a perfect example of the character arc observed with most anti-heroes or anti-heroines. As Sara Amato describes, “Upon first impression, anti-heroes often seem untrustworthy, criminal, and perhaps unlikable, but as their stories strategically unfold audience members learn the reasons behind their ethically questionable ways and usually begin to root for the character” (2). Another way to put this is that anti-heroes or anti-heroines still possess some heroic qualities. While they are much more flawed than the traditional hero or heroine they still afford the audience with hope for humanity as their story plays out and they change for the better.

So then, does Lady Susan exhibit any such redemptive qualities? Here the unfortunate answer seems to be no, yet again. In fact, Austen makes this clear as her epistolary novel concludes by revisiting Lady Susan after much of the drama of the plot has unfolded. Far from learning her lesson, she seems to continue to repress her daughter and attempt to marry her off to Sir James. When this fails, we learn that she herself marries Sir James. Furthermore, we observe that her behavior is just as veiled and manipulative as ever when Mrs. Vernon comes to meet her, suggesting little change to Lady Susan’s character. As Austen notes in her conclusion, Lady Susan reveals “no remembrance of Reginald, no consciousness of guilt” (Lady Susan, conclusion). Thus, Austen, rather than showing us that Lady Susan has learned her lesson or exhibited any type of redemptive behavior, reveals to us that Lady Susan has remained the same manipulative, flirtatious villainess we came to know throughout the course of this series of epistles.

Having looked at the two traits most common to anti-heroines, it is informative to examine how Austen communicates the nature of Lady Susan to her readers and the possible models or inspiration for the villainess. First, the choice of the medium of an epistolary novel affords a unique opportunity for character analysis that is particularly informative in examining Lady Susan’s motives and her scheming nature. As the novel juxtaposes the letters of the more innocent characters in the narrative, with those of Lady Susan, we are given a unique opportunity to observe her villainy. Throughout the novel, we are given accounts of Lady Susan’s behavior by the other characters, as well as learning her real feelings and intentions from her own epistles. We witness, for example, how Lady Susan attempts to pass herself off as caring deeply for her daughter, and then discover, from the lady herself, her hatred for and annoyance with Frederica. We witness how Lady Susan makes a tremendous effort to appear well-mannered and courteous, but then learn of her manipulative reasons for doing so, such as conquering the heart of young Reginald. Furthermore, it is revealing to see how Lady Susan communicates with those she is attempting to manipulate, like Mrs. Vernon or Reginald, and then contrast this with how she writes to her confidante, Mrs. Johnson. With the former, she puts on the semblance of kindness and courtesy, but she shows her true colors in her writings to the later.

It is also enlightening to consider Austen’s choice to portray Lady Susan as a recently widowed woman, which draws on a rich literary history of using such a character type. Jay Arnold Levine argues that Lady Susan can find predecessors in the “Merry Widows” of Roman comedy, women Levine describes as “dangerously endowed with experience and independence” (24). Levine notes how the role of the “Merry Widow” evolved over time, observing that “the sentimental (and usually feminine) novel of the later eighteenth century tends to avoid the use of the widow for comic purposes, but it often preserves the social and moral traits of the older humorous treatments” (25). In this capacity, the widow is often portrayed as one of the following: an impoverished figure, a foil or companion to the heroine, or a villainess. The last of these types is the one which Levine argues most clearly applies to Lady Susan (26). We find a similar character in Frances Brooke’s Lady Julia Mandeville (1763). As Levine notes, the widow Anne Wilmot in this novel is the quintessential Merry Widow, exhibiting “vivacity, elegance, flirtatiousness, extravagance, and a scorn for country manners” (26). This list of characteristics is strikingly similar to that observable in Lady Susan. So, in a sense, Austen seems to be drawing on a long history of characters who are portrayed as women with the wrong type of experience and often a good deal of villainy.

Austen’s intent of portraying Lady Susan as a villain can be further inferred from how the villains of her later works act in a strikingly similar fashion. Consider, for example, Caroline Bingley of Pride and Prejudice. While Miss Bingley is nowhere near as coquettish or manipulative as Lady Susan, she exhibits many similar types of behavior. For one thing, Miss Bingley contrives to have her brother marry Miss Darcy for the status in society and wealth it would afford them. As Jane Bennet notes to her sister in a letter, “[I]t should seem by her manner of talking as if she wanted to persuade herself that he is really partial to Miss Darcy” (Pride and Prejudice 110). This whole situation is similar to how Lady Susan attempts to have her own daughter marry Sir James to secure numerous advantages for herself. Miss Bingley also appears to have some intentions toward Mr. Darcy, though Lady Susan is far more effective in her flirtations. Another striking similarity between the two is their willingness to lie and manipulate the more innocent characters of their respective stories. While Lady Susan’s lying seems to be far more systematic, we learn from Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth Bennet that Miss Bingley deliberately lies to her brother, concealing the fact that Jane Bennet is in London (Pride and Prejudice 148). Additionally, in a similar fashion to how Lady Susan decries her daughter Frederica’s lack of accomplishments and simplicity, Miss Bingley makes a point of criticizing the Bennet sisters for their embarrassing family relations, country manners, and comparatively small number of accomplishments. This comparison reveals that Lady Susan bears all the marks of one of Austen’s villainesses. In other words, Lady Susan is not intended to be an anti-heroine; rather her behavior is consistent with that of other villains from Austen’s writings.

In an informative essay, Lionel Shriver clearly defines villains, distinguishing them from anti-heroes. Shriver argues that villains are characters “whom readers are invited to revile with relish - who are deliciously unattractive on purpose” (Shriver). This description seems particularly apt for Austen’s Lady Susan, a protagonist whose behavior seems crafted to provoke the reader at each letter of the epistolary novel. While Austen does not portray Lady Susan in a manner that can be described as heroic in any fashion, the novel is no less intriguing. Lady Susan affords readers a unique look into another side of Austen not usually revealed in her later protagonists. In Austen’s more well-known characters, a comparative idealism and heroism is often present. It is thus an intriguing opportunity to read a story written by Austen whose main character yields us a view of a much less charming side of humanity. Just like any Austen writing, Lady Susan is a carefully crafted character analysis, but in this case, an analysis of a character that most will find off-putting or even villainous. While Lady Susan is in no way the Austinian norm, it is no less deserving of recognition for literary merit and enthralling writing.

Works Cited
  • Amato, Sara A. Female Anti-Heroes in Contemporary Literature, Film, and Television. 2016. Eastern Illinois U, MA thesis. thekeep.eiu.edu/theses/2481. Accessed 29 May 2020.
  • Austen, Jane. Lady Susan. The Jane Austen Society of North America - Ohio North Coast, www.jasnaonc.com/p/jane-austens-lady-susan.html. Accessed 29 May 2020.
  • _____. Pride and Prejudice and Related Readings. New York, Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2000.
  • Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities and Christmas Stories. New York, Book League of America.
  • Levine, Jay Arnold. “Lady Susan: Jane Austen's Character of the Merry Widow.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 1, no. 4, 1961, pp. 23-34, doi:10.2307/449385. Accessed 29 May 2020.
  • Michael, Jonathan. “The Rise of the Anti-Hero.” Relevant Magazine, 26 Apr. 2013, relevantmagazine.com/culture/rise-anti-hero/. Accessed 29 May 2020.
  • Shriver, Lionel. &Ldquo;Perfectly flawed.” The Financial Times, 21 Oct. 2011. Nexis Uni. Accessed 29 May 2020.
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