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The “Artful” Lady Susan: Austen’s Most Powerful Female Villain

In all of Jane Austen’s novels, there exists no character quite like Lady Susan. Decidedly immoral yet possessing unsurpassed abilities of brilliance and manipulation, Lady Susan blends the charm and intelligence of an Austen heroine with the wickedness and self-interest of a George Wickham or an Isabella Thorpe. Such a remarkable character lends itself to ambiguous interpretations, yet the standards of behavior set by Austen’s other novels clearly indicate how Lady Susan is to be judged. Through the absence of characteristics such as empathy, shame, and willingness to remedy past behavior shared by Austen’s heroines and the presence of similarities with antagonists from other novels, Lady Susan is revealed to be a villain. Yet her role in the novella is unequaled by other antagonists in Austen’s novels, solidifying her status as the most powerful female villain.

Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice best represents the standard against which Lady Susan should be judged by readers precisely because she also possesses several of Lady Susan’s positive attributes. According to other characters in their respective works, Elizabeth and Lady Susan are both considered beautiful, witty conversationalists with lively manners. Mrs. Vernon remarks upon Lady Susan’s “happy command of language” as her principal weapon for deceit (Lady Susan 12). Crucially, the two women are also intelligent and perceptive, with the ability to use their understandings of human character to anticipate others’ actions and chart their own best course. Despite these similarities, Elizabeth and Lady Susan’s principles and motives widely differ, but the likeness allows for a fair comparison of the two women’s conduct.

By Lady Susan’s own admission, “grace and manner” are the most significant characteristics to possess (Lady Susan 14). In other words, the appearance of goodness is preferable to the actual possession of principled values. Elizabeth, on the other hand, consistently strives to conduct herself in a manner which reflects her delicate sense of morality and attempts to convince her younger sisters to conduct themselves similarly. Following her sister Lydia’s flight from Brighton with George Wickham, Elizabeth demonstrates concern and empathy for her family members who are greatly affected by the event (Pride and Prejudice 269). Lady Susan, in contrast, does not display the same solicitude for her family members. She refuses to properly educate or consider the feelings of her daughter Frederica, for whom she has no patience and whom she verbally abuses in letters to her friend Mrs. Johnson as a “horrid girl” and a “chit” (Lady Susan 31, 48). Lady Susan’s dismissal of others’ feelings extends even to those whom she has personally harmed; she calls Mrs. Manwaring “insupportably jealous” despite her own contribution to Mrs. Manwaring’s unhappiness (Lady Susan 5).

Beyond Lady Susan’s unprincipled and manipulative actions, Mrs. Vernon is further shocked by her sister-in-law’s lack of shame, and the ease with which she deceitfully manipulates an account of her actions and motives. In the novella’s conclusion, the lack of “consciousness of guilt” on Lady Susan’s part causes the astounded Mrs. Vernon to “almost turn from her with horror” (Lady Susan 82). In contrast, Elizabeth Bennet’s sense of shame is so delicate that she blushes not only for her own conduct, but also that of her family members. Notably, “she blushed, and Jane blushed” over the careless way in which the newly wed Mr. and Mrs. Wickham paraded into Bennet household without the slightest recognition of the pain which they had caused in the family from their ill-conduct (Pride and Prejudice 292).

As is characteristic of Austen’s heroines, Elizabeth is able to feel ashamed of her past prejudiced judgements and changes her ideas accordingly, guided by her sense and strong principles. Although Elizabeth’s mistaken judgement of Mr. Darcy’s character is central to the novel, another, smaller, instance suffices to illustrate how removed her moral standards are from those of Lady Susan. When Lydia speaks unkindly about Mary King, upon recounting Wickham’s attentions to her, Elizabeth is disgusted by the similarity between her sister’s careless words and her own previous thoughts which she had once “fancied liberal” (Pride and Prejudice 206). This willingness to improve upon one’s past mistakes is not shared by Lady Susan and is perhaps the most distinguishing factor that separates her from other protagonists as a villain. Lady Susan suffers no pangs of remorse and adheres to the pursuit of her interests, changing them only when she is foiled by Mrs. Manwaring’s recounting her story to Mr. De Courcy.

A close female comparison to Lady Susan can be found in the character of Isabella Thorpe from Northanger Abbey. Lady Susan’s artfulness, self-interest, and habit of manipulating people for her own ends are all echoed in Isabella’s actions, and both women share the goal of marrying a wealthy man. While Isabella Thorpe’s machinations are less sophisticated than Lady Susan’s, the two characters both employ similar tactics of dissembling and deceiving. Both Isabella and Lady Susan secure the admiration and affections of James Moreland and Reginald De Courcy respectively, intending to marry them to increase their own wealth. In the process, both women profess their friendship and affection to the sisters of their intended husbands, although with varying results, as Catherine Moreland is far more credulous than Catherine Vernon.

In Northanger Abbey, Austen uses Isabella’s artfulness as a foil for Catherine’s candor to clearly indicate the motives of a true heroine. While Catherine’s insight is occasionally lacking, her kind heart is lauded by Henry, Eleanor, and the narrator, while Isabella’s designing actions are condemned. This dichotomy appears in full force when Catherine shows the Tilney siblings James’s letter detailing Isabella’s betrayal.

“Prepare for your sister-in-law, Eleanor, and such a sister-in law as you must delight in! Open, candid, artless, guileless, with affections strong but simple, forming no pretensions, and knowing no disguise.”

“Such a sister-in-law, Henry, I should delight in,” said Eleanor with a smile. (Northanger Abbey 281-282)

This exchange between Henry and Eleanor serves as a joke between them, as Catherine does not perceive that Henry is complimenting her while sarcastically referring to Isabella. More importantly, it exemplifies what a heroine should be, the opposite of artful and unprincipled, which Lady Susan is known to be.

In general, characters who say the opposite of what they feel are those whose morals are not what they ought to be. General Tilney, the main villain in Northanger Abbey, serves as an example of this type. General Tilney continually gives speeches which convince Catherine Moreland of his “generous and disinterested sentiments on the subject of money” yet he later unceremoniously sends her away upon discovering that she was not an heiress as he had believed (Northanger Abbey 285). On a smaller scale, General Tilney assures his son that he can be content with a meagre dinner spread during their visit to Woodston, but Henry understands his father’s character well enough to know that an extravagant meal was expected (Northanger Abbey 287-288). In contrast, Austen’s heroines take care not to utter falsehoods while avoiding breaches of social conduct and use their sense and conversational skills to delicately accomplish this task. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet focuses on what she can “safely say,” to Mr. Collins in congratulating him on his marriage, dodging lying despite her dislike for him (Pride and Prejudice 203). Lady Susan’s statements, large or small, do not attempt to adhere to moral standards and she relates falsehoods with ease, from expressing her devotion to her late husband’s “sacred” memory to her claiming innocence in the Manwaring affair (Lady Susan 55). Thus, Lady Susan’s tendency to follow the General Tilney model of both substantial and petty deceit further identifies her as a villain.

Despite these parallels to other characters, Lady Susan’s abilities of deception outstrip those of other villains. In another Pride and Prejudice parallel, Lady Susan shares the quality of having the “appearance of [goodness]” without the substance with George Wickham (Pride and Prejudice 211). Both characters care not for other people’s feelings and pursue their own interests while charming others into believing stories of their innocence in past transgressions. However, the power of Wickham’s manners and countenance is diminished when Elizabeth learns the truth about his past behaviors and acquaintance with the Darcy family, and she begins to see “an affectation” in his addresses to her (Pride and Prejudice 219). Yet Mrs. Vernon, while suspicious of Lady Susan throughout the entire novella, remains astonished by her sister-in-law’s extraordinary persuasive skill. Although cognizant of all Lady Susan’s flaws of character due to knowledge of her opposition to the Vernons’ marriage and conduct with others, Mrs. Vernon marvels that the former’s conversational powers make an astounding impression even on her “resentful heart” (Lady Susan 13). Lady Susan is such an accomplished villain that she can convince even Catherine Vernon, who was predisposed against her from the first, to doubt her own judgement.

Lady Susan is unique in that it is the only work that features a female as the principal villain. Northanger Abbey has General Tilney, Pride and Prejudice has Wickham, Sense and Sensibility has Willoughby, Persuasion has Mr. Elliot, Mansfield Park has Henry Crawford, and Emma lacks a clear main antagonist. Although Isabella Thorpe plays a role as an antagonist with principles similar to Lady Susan’s, her influence does not extend to the main conflicts of the plot. Lady Susan’s actions are the result of extensive and brilliant schemes that cause harm to all the other characters in the novella. As Austen’s main works feature the importance of women’s strength of character and ability to reason through predicaments, these traits are fascinating to perceive in one of her villains. Although Lady Susan’s actions are reprehensible and she represents the character traits that Austen did not value in her heroines, creating such a powerful woman is yet another instance of Austen furthering the literary development of the strong and independent female protagonist. Perhaps Lady Susan’s brilliance and remarkable personality is why Austen allowed her to have a happy ending of sorts, in which her main goals of marrying well and continuing the affair with Manwaring are more or less satisfied, although her original plans were thwarted. By charming readers along with her acquaintances, Lady Susan demonstrates the extraordinary power that can be wielded by a female villain.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Lady Susan. Electric Book Company, 2001.
  • _____. Northanger Abbey. Lancer Books, Inc, 1968.
  • _____. Pride and Prejudice. Barnes & Noble, Inc, 2011.
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