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Happier Than They Deserve: The Justice of Jane Austen Within and Behind the Pages of Emma and Lady Susan

Lady Susan, self-assured, ambitious, handsome, clever, but decidedly not rich, with a borrowed home and duplicitous disposition, seems to unite some of the wickedest worldliness with the charms evident in another woman penned to life twenty-one years later—a woman who, unlike her ladyship, has seen too little of the world for anything to distress or vex her. In addition to their varying degrees of worldliness, Susan Vernon and Emma Woodhouse are divided by the disparity of their respective roles as villainess and heroine. Regardless of the parts they play in each of their novels, however, when standing side-by-side, it is their likeness which is most striking. Both are women born from the genius of Jane Austen and who rule their books up to their very titles. Their vanity drives them forward under the direction of their moral compasses, which are happily steered by their favorite true norths rather than objective morality. They scheme, they flirt, they say just what they ought, and they catch husbands of consequence. And in spite of the obstacles they set up for themselves and others, they both end up with more than they deserve. This point is made especially interesting as the reader who deems Lady Susan unworthy of such a fate is the same reader who will likely wonder why “the perfect happiness of the union” between Emma and Mr. Knightley was so slow in coming (Emma 453). The question as to why this is regards human nature, and as such, cannot easily be answered. Nevertheless, like Mr. Weston on Box Hill, “I will do my best. I am making a conundrum” (Emma 348).

Firstly, with Jane Austen’s adult novels richly peppered with women worthy of swift condemnation, why choose the heroine of Emma as a type and shadow of Lady Susan, the “[m]istress of deceit,” similar though they may be (Lady Susan 78)? Even as the admitted “heroine whom no one but [Austen would] much like,” Emma seems a far cry from a villainess (Austen-Leigh 157). Although the novel is an account of her most egregious errors, the reader will readily dismiss this fact as she seems well-meaning throughout the course of the book and appears to have a change of heart by the end. She sees the error of her ways, forgives Frank Churchill, makes amends with Jane Fairfax, and marries Mr. Knightley, whose rational nature guarantees her continued improvement. But she also sends Harriet Smith away to London, with nothing but a destitute heart, the letter that broke it, and no promise of repair. Even when Harriet finds her way back to love, Emma resigns herself to letting her former friend fall back into the social class from whence she came and, as Emma admits, never should have risen from (Emma 451). Additionally, her relationship with Jane Fairfax is riddled with snubs and unjustifiable jealousy, both of which are on Emma’s side. Her public treatment of Miss Fairfax is equally shameful, and it is not until after Emma’s harrowing chastisement at Box Hill that she attempts to make peace. Her intent is never malicious as Lady Susan’s might be, but if the novel were perhaps called Harriet or Jane, the reader would likely stumble in forgiving that haughty Miss Woodhouse.

To compare the consequences of Emma’s and Susan’s actions, it only follows that a comparison of their actions is made. Because each is an enemy to self-doubt, their schemes, flirtations, and deceptions are all undeterred. Frederica Vernon is a sad, neglected girl, a burden to her mother, a bit dim, and “totally without accomplishment” (Lady Susan 68). Harriet Smith is also without suitable parents and, as the reader is reminded at frequent intervals, an unsophisticated though sweet simpleton. As both are helpless in situation and temperament, they make irresistible subjects for the influences of Lady Susan and Emma, respectively. While Susan pushes Reginald De Courcy into despising Frederica, Emma pushes Philip Elton into loving Harriet. And while Susan tries to sway Frederica into marrying Sir James Martin, Emma tries to sway Harriet from marrying Mr. Robert Martin. All attempts eventually prove fruitless, which only adds to the striking similarity between the conspiracies. As for their attitudes toward their marriages, Emma and Susan are equally flippant, so long as neither is in love. After all, while “Frank Churchill and Miss Woodhouse flirted together excessively” (Emma 345), Mrs. Vernon welcomed into her home “the most accomplished coquette in England” (Lady Susan 47). For both of them, courtship and matrimony are just as well within their power as they are within that of potential suitors. Throughout the novella, Lady Susan facetiously regards her marital prospects as dependent on her whims. After a quarrel with Reginald resolves, Susan writes, “Humbled as he now is, I cannot forgive him such an instance of pride, and am doubtful whether I ought not to punish him by dismissing him at once after this reconciliation, or by marrying and teazing [sic] him forever” (Lady Susan 86). Likewise, when Emma is under the impression that she is in love with Frank Churchill, she considers her attractive power over him as inevitable. Moreover, every imagined proposal she concocts from him ends in her refusal (Emma 245). Again she treats the choice of marriage as strictly her own when standing second to Mrs. Elton at the long-awaited Crown ball is so humiliating as to “almost . . . make her think of marrying” (Emma 305). The tendency toward deception is another common thread between Susan and Emma (let no one forget the former’s charade as a caring mother and the latter’s fabrication of her boot’s absent lace), but another which cannot go unmentioned is the like tendency toward self-deception. Countless letters from Mrs. Vernon to Lady De Courcy rebuff Susan’s fanciful notions that everybody is wrapped around her finger. In Letter 22, for example, Susan boasts that her explanation of Sir James Martin’s history with Frederica was told to Mrs. Vernon with “with great success,” where Letter 20 professes Mrs. Vernon’s shaky belief in its being a half-truth if anything at all (Lady Susan 74).  Emma is practically an ode to self-deception, as every surprising revelation to its readers, from Mr. Elton’s being in love with Emma to Emma’s being in love with Mr. Knightley, is just as shocking to the heroine, she “who can see into everybody’s heart” Emma (379).

There are many similarities between Lady Susan and Emma, and the most significant of them could easily be the fatal flaws of each. Unlike a dramatic hubris, however, the threat of imperfection leads to chastisement, not punishment, for these women. Some might argue that Susan does receive her due by the end of the story, but the only two things Austen says stand in the way between her ladyship and happiness are the binds of fidelity and her conscience. Considering that neither hinders Susan’s actions throughout the course of the novella, it is improbable that they will do so after its conclusion. What is it, then, that lays waste to a balanced justice? Furthermore, why is it necessary to make a case in defense of Lady Susan at all, particularly when she is the more pitiable of the two (instead of a husband or money, she is left with a daughter she does not know how to raise)? Each question can be answered by the relationships the title characters have—the first, with the characters around them, and the second, with the presentation of their stories. In short, both can be answered by the brilliance of Jane Austen as a novelist.

The justice system in Jane Austen’s novels is not as neat as that of the Shakespearean standard. While some of Shakespeare’s characters are capable of moral ambiguity, the treachery of his “plain-dealing villain[s]” is undisputed by the surrounding ensemble of characters, the audience, and often themselves, thus leading to their inevitable demise (Shakespeare 524). Austen is renowned for characters who “are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader,” as Sir Walter Scott observed in his anonymous 1815 review of Emma (Scott 5). Because of this, Austen neither has perfect heroes or perfect villains, as human nature seldom allows absolute goodness or absolute evil. In Lady Susan, the character whose code of ethics attracts the reader’s trust is Mrs. Vernon. She is capable of sympathy, discernment, and altruism, a stark contrast to Lady Susan’s self-interest, duplicity, and lighthearted carelessness. Notwithstanding, if the reader is not wary, Mrs. Vernon’s tendency toward prejudice is likely to slip by unnoticed. The first character the reader meets is Lady Susan, whose first two letters are different in tone, content, and recipient, and as such, the reader knows of Susan’s artifice from the beginning. Mrs. Vernon seems to know this, too, and although she has never seen Susan before, her opinion of her as a perfidious flirt is firm. But because the convictions of the reader and Mrs. Vernon align, the latter’s premature judgments are overlooked. Upon Frederica’s arrival, Mrs. Vernon becomes her champion, but until she meets her in Letter 17, Mrs. Vernon is convinced that “she is a very perverse girl” (Lady Susan 63). Interestingly, Mrs. Vernon only knows this from “what [Lady Susan] insinuates,” meaning that in spite of Mrs. Vernon’s mistrust toward her ladyship, she is willing to accept select information (Lady Susan 63). Possibly the greatest irony in Mrs. Vernon’s behavior is in her scheming with her mother, Lady De Courcy, where the grossest crime Lady Susan commits is one they are also guilty of. Mrs. Vernon is adamant that Frederica is saved from an arranged marriage to Sir James, something which causes great uproar in the family once Frederica’s opposition to it is also discovered. Still, toward the end of the novella, the hopes that Mrs. Vernon and her mother hold for a match between Frederica and Reginald are met with his being “talked, flattered, and finessed into an affection for her” (Lady Susan 103). The words used in the Conclusion are rank with the same sweet underhandedness of their common enemy, Lady Susan Vernon. Everything Susan does is reprehensible—that cannot be denied—but it is difficult for a society to punish her in full for her misdeeds when so many around her transgress in the same way. If everyone in the book were dealt with justly, Miss Manwaring would not be the sole heiress of pity (Lady Susan 103).

Where Lady Susan is seen for her faults, Emma is seen for her perfections. The naïve belief that Emma Woodhouse is just what a young woman ought to be is held sacred by most in Highbury, and for the greater part of the book, Emma is chief among them. Her tendency to remain undaunted in the faith she has in herself is evident from the first paragraphs of the novel, where it is revealed that those responsible for correcting her—namely, her father, mother, and governess—too often fall short out of either blinding affection for her, or in being dead. There are arguably only two would-be threats in the novel: Mrs. Elton and Mr. Knightley; but the former is vulgar, presumptuous, and too broadly disliked among Emma’s admirers to usurp her position as the paragon of womanhood, and the latter is too much in love with Emma to expose her faults. Emma is also pleased with herself, and won’t deny any such happiness she believes is her due. “I always deserve the best treatment,” she says, “because I never put up with any other” (Emma 443). This pronouncement is spoken toward the end of her book, even after every humiliation and disappointment she endures. The end of Emma may leave her with a vanity less flattering than at its beginning, but never will she be dethroned as the queen of Highbury, whose borders to her are the borders of the world, so long as she or her neighbors have a say.

Other characters do not have either the right or the will to consign Susan and Emma to the fates justice demands, but the critical reader certainly does. Despite this, Emma manages to retain her heroic title yet again while Susan takes the condemnation, and it is Jane Austen’s careful orchestrations for the portrayal of each character which must take the blame. As the “compiler” of Lady Susan’s letters, she picks and chooses what the audience is allowed to see and how they see it. As already touched upon, the use of Mrs. Vernon as a biased voice of reason adds to the view of Susan as wicked, but many of Susan’s own words do the same. One of the few glimpses into Susan’s humanity—“I am tired of submitting my will to the caprices of others.”—is betrayed by undertones of hypocrisy (Lady Susan 98). It is also greatly overshadowed by other admissions, such as “There is something agreeable in feelings so easily worked on,” the anthem of her character (Lady Susan 85). With all her layers of deception, not even the reader gets to know Susan as she really is; in her frank letters to Alicia Johnson, she has the power to choose how she is to be perceived. She blithely paints herself as a villainess and finishes it with overripe confidence. She has enemies and she knows it, but they are also women under the restraints of social convention whose powers of persuasion are the only tools against her. And if persuasion is a lady’s most formidable weapon, then Lady Susan brandishes hers with unmatched ferocity: “She is clever and agreable [sic] . . . with a happy command of language, which is too often used I believe to make black appear white” (Lady Susan 50).

Emma, on the other hand, cannot so easily shield her true self from the reader, as the direct line between them is her mind. In Emma, Austen presents an intimate narrator whose close relationship with the heroine ensures that the audience sees Emma as always right or else sympathetically repentant of her wrongs. There are moments when it appears that they actually converse, such as when their words are woven together during Emma’s reflections on the love she supposes Frank Churchill has for her:

[S]he could not doubt his having…a conscious preference for herself; and this persuasion…made her think that she must be a little in love with him, in spite of every previous determination against it.

“I certainly must,” said she. “This sensation of listlessness, weariness, stupidity . . . I must be in love[.]” (Emma 243-244)

It is not often when Emma admits her faults, but when she does, what is emphasized is her resolve to change, rather than the brevity of her resolutions. One such example comes after Mr. Knightley humbles Emma for her insulting behavior to Miss Bates on Box Hill, and she feels her mistake very keenly and very deeply: “Time did not compose her. As she reflected more, she seemed but to feel it more. She never had been so depressed” (Emma 352). With all her guilty wretchedness, she goes to the Bates home to make amends early the following morning. What is not so overt to the reader is Emma’s fear of losing Mr. Knightley’s good-opinion rather than that of the Bateses (Emma 353-354), and the fact that she does not visit again until she learns of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax’s secret engagement and hopes to befriend the bride-to-be (Emma 423).

By the respective closes of Emma and Lady Susan (and in the most Austen way), every loose end is tied together by the knot of matrimony. Definitive of the shared fate of the good and the bad, Frank Churchill writes, “If you think me in a way to be happier than I deserve, I am quite of your opinion” (Emma 414). Absolute justice might dictate more solemn punishments for Emma and Susan, but their faults and those of others are too alike for the scales to return to the perfect balance as seen in traditional literature. If the balance is different in the world outside the page, it is because of where the storyteller places emphasis. Susan’s wickedness is no secret, and at very best the reader will regard her as an anti-heroine. What keeps Emma as Highbury’s high and mighty heroine is the promise that Emma is good, and when she does blunder, the reader is hastily reassured that Emma is trying to change. To borrow the words of Mrs. Vernon’s last epistle, justice unappeased might wish there were a better prospect than now appears of what Emma and Susan receive, which the conclusion of Austen’s novels might elicit expectations of. Unless Miss Austen deems it necessary to return from the dead, it is not very likely.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. 1815. Edited by Fiona Stafford, Penguin Books, 2015.
  • _____. Lady Susan. Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon. Edited by Margaret Drabble, Penguin Books, 2003.
  • Austen-Leigh, James Edward. Memoir of Jane Austen. Richard Bentley and Son, 1871. eBook transcribed by Les Bowler, 2006.
  • Scott, Walter. “Review of Emma in the Quarterly Review, 1815.” The British Library, The British Library, 2014. www.bl.uk/collection-items/review-of-emma-in-the-quarterly-review-1815.
  • Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. William Shakespeare: Complete Plays. Fall River Press, 2012. 524. Print.
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