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Moral Growth and the Heroine in Lady Susan

For readers familiar with Jane Austen’s mature novels, the first encounter with her novella Lady Susan can be something of a shock. The title character is a lying, manipulative widow, a heartless mother, and a presumed adulteress whose guiding principles are her own pleasure and profit—a far cry from the virtuous and good-hearted young heroines with whom we are familiar. Indeed, Lady Susan’s morally problematic qualities suggest that she has more in common with the antagonists of the novels than with the heroines.1 Her light sexual morals and her deception of Reginald remind us of seducers such as Mr. Willoughby and Mr. Wickham, and her selfish domination of others recalls Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mrs. Churchill, and Mrs. Ferrars. Yet the question of whether to class Lady Susan with the heroines or the antagonists is complicated by the fact that Austen gives readers continuous insight into Lady Susan’s motives and thoughts. Usually, Austen limits our glimpses of the antagonists’ minds to moments of colored narrative (as she does with Mary Crawford or Isabella Thorpe), reserving for the heroines alone the fullest portrait of private thoughts. As a result, her lady antagonists often occupy space on the periphery of the stories, their machinations known mostly at second-hand by the heroine. Lady Susan is at the heart of the story, both spoken of and, through her letters, allowed to speak for herself. Indeed, the epistolary form of Lady Susan surely accounts in part for Austen’s choice to place Lady Susan’s voice in the foreground. For the reader, the fun is in puzzling out the truth between Lady Susan’s performance (as relayed by herself and others) and her real motives. Austen cannot tell such a story without giving Lady Susan center stage. Hence, I believe that as we judge Lady Susan, we should not rely on the prominence of her voice in the narrative but rather on the unfolding of her moral character.

What is it that makes an Austen heroine a heroine? Despite what I may have seemed to suggest above, it is not moral perfection that sets them apart from the other characters. A heroine neither begins nor ends her story as a perfect person. What matters is that she learns to see herself more clearly: self-knowledge is a turning point that allows the heroine to correct her mistakes and to relate to others with justice, gratitude, and eventually, love. Consider the heroines most akin to the eloquent, confident Lady Susan: Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet, both attractive for their liveliness and self-assurance.2 Emma’s moment of self-knowledge comes after the infamous Box Hill outing, when she realizes that she has been deficient in kindness and Christian charity to Miss Bates and to Jane Fairfax; painful as the recognition is, it frees her to let go of her pretensions (both to personal perfection and to matchmaking) and thus to realize her love for Mr. Knightley. Similarly, the revelation of Mr. Darcy’s true character gives Elizabeth insight into herself: she sees that pride in her powers of judgment has led her to unjustified prejudice against Mr. Darcy. As a result, she learns to value him as he deserves, both for the good qualities he has possessed all along and for his gracious love that forgives her mistakes.

If, therefore, Lady Susan belongs in the company of Austen’s heroines, her character arc ought to follow the heroine’s general pattern of conviction, self-knowledge, and moral growth. However, Lady Susan appears to be the same conniving person at the end of the novella as at the beginning. Her failures frustrate her, insofar as they present obstacles to her “schemes,” but they do not cause her to reevaluate her principles or her character. Unlike the heroines, who learn from their mistakes, Lady Susan proves to be unteachable.

Her indisposition to be taught is first made evident from her choice of friends and lovers. Lady Susan discloses her real feelings, her schemes, and her love affairs to one person, her friend Alicia Johnson. Alicia makes an ideal confidant precisely because she shares Lady Susan’s opinions. After Sir James’s unexpected arrival at Churchill, Lady Susan takes comfort in knowing that her frustrations will be understood and shared: “My dearest friend, I was never so enraged before, and must relieve myself by writing to you, who I know will enter into all my feelings” (74). Indeed, Alicia’s support extends beyond emotional sympathy; she also facilitates Lady Susan’s affair with Mr. Manwaring by secretly forwarding letters between him and Lady Susan. Later, Alicia is willing (though ultimately without success) to help keep Reginald out of the way of their lovers’ tryst (93-4). Alicia shares her friend’s values, and the only time she seems to question Lady Susan’s choice is when she counsels Lady Susan to marry Reginald regardless of her feelings, since he will one day inherit his father’s fortune (87). She does not, however, challenge Lady Susan’s principles or her views of others, as the novel heroine’s friends generally do. For instance, Jane Bennet gently disputes her sister’s pessimistic judgments of others, especially of Darcy; Jane’s counterexample of “generous candor” ultimately teaches Elizabeth a valuable moral lesson (Pride and Prejudice 230). Likewise, Emma has Mr. Knightley to challenge her opinions of nearly everyone, including Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, Robert Martin, and Harriet Smith. However, Lady Susan is unlikely to receive any such beneficial correction from Alicia, since the two women already agree on nearly everything.

Lady Susan likewise prefers compliant and complimentary lovers. Mr. Manwaring is ideal, for he excels at “saying those delightful things which put one in good humour with oneself and all the world” (56). Manwaring tells Lady Susan just want she wants to hear in order to feel perfectly satisfied with herself. This attitude presents a problem, for as we know, heroines only grow after becoming dissatisfied with their actions: Emma, previously enjoying a sense of her own perfection, needs Mr. Knightley’s, and more importantly, her own disappointment in her actions to teach her to do better. Likewise, Elizabeth must shift her frustration from Mr. Darcy to herself—“How despicably have I acted!”—before she can learn to be both candid and just (Pride and Prejudice 230). However, Lady Susan has precluded the possibility of any such useful disappointment in herself by insisting that her lovers always agree with her. Complaining that Reginald always requires a justification of “whatever he may have heard to [her] disadvantage,” Lady Susan pronounces, “I infinitely prefer the tender and liberal spirit of Manwaring, which impressed with the deepest conviction of my merit, is satisfied that whatever I do must be right” (65). After Reginald intercedes on Frederica’s behalf, Lady Susan laments, “He can have no true regard for me, or he would not have listened to her. . . . Ought he not to have felt assured that I must have unanswerable motives for all that I had done!” (76). While she finds it gratifying to convince Reginald that she is in the right, more gratifying still would be the knowledge that he loves her so well that he never doubts her in the first place. Clearly Lady Susan prefers to remain in a position of authority over her lovers; such superiority ensures that she can instruct them if they disagree with her, but it leaves her in no position to receive instruction herself.

While Lady Susan is able to regain her influence over Reginald after their brief falling out over Sir James’s courtship of Frederica, his trust in her is finally destroyed by the discovery of her ongoing affair with Mr. Manwaring. This overthrow of her schemes is a frustrating setback for Lady Susan, but not an occasion for moral reflection. Upon hearing that Reginald has unexpectedly called on Mr. Johnson and, while there, heard the story of Lady Susan’s affair from Mrs. Manwaring, Lady Susan responds with annoyance but not contrition: “This éclaircissement is rather provoking. How unlucky that you should have been from home! . . . I am undismayed however. . . . Depend upon it, I can make my own story good with Reginald” (94). Her term “unlucky” is especially telling, for it suggests that bad timing alone (rather than any misconduct on Lady Susan’s part) is responsible for what is “provoking” about the situation. Alicia, predictably, describes the event in much the same way: “I wish matters did not go so perversely. That unlucky visit to Langford! But I dare say you did all for the best, and there is no defying destiny” (97-8). Just like her friend, Alicia sees Lady Susan’s dalliance with Mr. Manwaring during her stay at Langford as merely “unlucky” rather than inherently inappropriate and immoral. Indeed, Alicia takes comfort in the fact that surely Lady Susan acted “all for the best,” a phrase that can only mean “all for Lady Susan’s pleasure and profit,” since it does not refer to her moral good. Alicia’s account of the disaster is actually strikingly amoral: if Reginald’s discovery is simply bad luck and a perverse destiny, then there is no reason for Lady Susan to feel contrite and to consider whether her actions have justly led to this frustrating result.

In the novels, the heroine cannot grow if she cannot recognize when her frustrations and humiliations are justly deserved. Elizabeth learns from her mistakes precisely because she cares about justice, both for herself and for Mr. Darcy. Miserable about having misjudged him so greatly, she exclaims, “How despicably have I acted! . . . How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation!” (Pride and Prejudice 230). She recognizes that her actions have deservedly brought about this moment of acute embarrassment and shame, yet her discomfort is salutary for it teaches her to value charity of judgment over the skepticism that readily looks for the worst in others. Like Elizabeth, Emma, too, is humiliated by the realization that she has behaved poorly. Immediately following Mr. Knightley’s reproof for her treatment of Miss Bates at Box Hill, Emma’s “feelings . . . were combined only of anger against herself, mortification, and deep concern. . . . The truth of [Mr. Knightley’s] representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart” (Emma 246). The correction she receives is painful, but Emma attends to it because she cares more for the truth than for her own comfort or pride. When she visits Miss Bates the next morning, she is “not . . . ashamed of the appearance of the penitence, so justly and truly hers” (Emma 247, italics mine). Both of these heroines are teachable because they acknowledge their fallibility and are open to correction. Ultimately, their mistakes do not oppress them but provide the catalyst for moral growth.

Lady Susan, however, finds nothing dissatisfactory about her own actions. After losing Reginald, she declares to Alicia, “[I] can safely assure you that I never was more at ease, or better satisfied with myself and everything about me, than at the present hour. Your husband I abhor—Reginald I despise—and I am secure of never seeing either again” (98). Far from questioning her own deeds, she simply regains her complacency by blaming and avoiding those people who have opposed her wishes; she then moves on to her next conquest of the far more amenable Sir James. Later when Mrs. Vernon meets Lady Susan in London, we are told that “[Mrs. Vernon] was met with such an easy and cheerful affection as made her almost turn from [Lady Susan] with horror. No remembrance of Reginald, no consciousness of guilt, gave one look of embarrassment” (101). Such is not the contrition of Elizabeth or Emma; rather, Lady Susan’s behavior here perhaps most resembles Mr. Wickham’s utter shamelessness upon returning to the Bennet household after having nearly ruined Lydia: “[H]ad his character and his marriage been exactly what they ought, his smiles and his easy address, while he claimed their relationship, would have delighted them all” (Pride and Prejudice 349).

Lady Susan does not prove teachable, but in the end, does her lack of change matter? After all, she still achieves her ultimate goal of marrying a wealthy man. Sir James may not have been her first choice, but it seems no betrayal of Lady Susan’s practical principles to swap one wealthy bachelor for another when it becomes evident that the first is no longer within her power. For her, love and courtship is a gamble; a perverse bit of luck may mean a particular prize slips from her fingers, but as long as she takes another prize, she has certainly not lost the game. Thus, in a sense her scheming is still rewarded. However, does she really win a reward of the same order that the heroines do?

The marriages that end the novels satisfy because the heroines have proven deserving of their reward, happy love. Emma and Elizabeth are worthy for their virtue: the justice and charity they have learned through the painful discovery of their mistakes prepares them to be loving and generous wives. They are also worthy because their trials have brought them into closer intimacy with and appreciation for the men they marry. Emma learns to recognize the affection Mr. Knightley has long shown her. Elizabeth discovers that Mr. Darcy has far more good qualities than she once believed, his love and forgiveness being the best of them. Marriage is thus a fitting reward and real source of happiness because these young women (and their respective spouses) have shown they possess the qualities that ensure a fulfilling relationship.

However, a marriage of mutual respect and love is not what Lady Susan has ever sought. Reginald she valued as a conquest, the proof of her powers, but she never cared for him personally. She thinks even less of Sir James, whom she considers “contemptibly weak,” and indeed Austen hints at his future trials as Lady Susan’s husband: “Sir James may seem to have drawn an harder lot than mere folly merited. I leave him therefore to all the pity that anybody can give him” (44, 103). Austen is equally ironic about Lady Susan’s prospects for happiness: “Whether Lady Susan was, or was not happy in her second choice—I do not see how it can ever be ascertained—for who would take her assurance of it, on either side of the question? The world must judge from probability. She had nothing against her, but her husband, and her conscience” (103). We know that Sir James is a weak fool and that Lady Susan’s conscience puts her at no pains to respect husbands, either her own or those of other women. As for probability, we have seen precisely how such unequal marriages turn out in Austen. Her novels are full of such unhappy mismatches: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Maria Bertram and Mr. Rushworth, Lucy Steele and Robert Ferrars. Such domestic strife is the closest Austen ever comes to punishing her characters; unlike the moralizing novelists who are her contemporaries, Austen does not devise disastrous ends for her antagonists. Lady Susan’s fate most resembles that of Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility. Although Lucy unkindly uses both Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, her selfishness and greed do not earn her a well-deserved spinsterhood. Rather, Lucy gets just what she wanted, a marriage to the wealthier of two suitors. Yet her marriage is punishment enough: both husband and wife have weak moral character, and their domestic life is portrayed as a series of petty squabbles (Sense and Sensibility 428). Lady Susan may have more control over Sir James than Lucy does over Robert Ferrars, but there is no reason to expect that her marriage will be any more harmonious. Lady Susan has not learned, as the heroines do, the virtues that would allow her to receive the reward of true happiness. Instead, she belongs among the antagonists, and her punishment is simply to remain who she is.


1I prefer the term antagonist to villain when speaking of Austen’s morally bad characters. To call them villains suggests a more complete or intentional wickedness in their actions than seems appropriate. Such characters tend to act out of selfishness or moral weakness rather than a primary intent to harm others. They are more properly antagonists, since their selfish desires place them at odds with the hero and heroine.

2In her introduction to the text of Lady Susan, Margaret Drabble notes, “Many readers have seen in [Lady Susan] the expression of something which Jane Austen deliberately repressed or criticized in her later work: the spirit represented by Elizabeth Bennet, Mary Crawford and Emma, which has some of the same qualities, however differently it manifests itself in each” (13).

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. Edited by Stephen M. Parrish, Norton, 2000.
  • _____. Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon. Edited by Margaret Drabble, Penguin, 2003.
  • _____. Pride and Prejudice. Edited by Pat Rogers, Cambridge UP, 2006
  • _____. Sense and Sensibility. Edited by Edward Copeland, Cambridge UP, 2006.
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