Home ›   |   Publications ›   |   Essay Contest Winning Entries ›   |   2020 Essay Contest ›   |   Lady Susan: The Coquette, Machiavellian, and Villain of Jane Austen’s Novels

Lady Susan: The Coquette, Machiavellian, and Villain of Jane Austen’s Novels

The coquette Lady Susan is a far departure from the heroines often spotlighted in Jane Austen’s novels. Austen normally leads us down a path where our heroine finds a happy ending, but Lady Susan presents us with a plot driven by a villain. Her creation of the infamous female is frustrating and clever. Lady Susan possesses all of the poise, beauty, wit, and cunning that makes her a seductive mistress with the power to manipulate the world around her. Through meddling with the lives of others, Lady Susan reveals herself as a Machiavellian. However, Lady Susan isn’t the only Austen character with the ability to disrupt the lives of others. Lucy Steele from Sense and Sensibility is another woman willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. Comparing the actions of Lady Susan to those of Lucy Steele and analyzing her actions toward men, her treatment of her daughter, and her overall goals reveals that Lady Susan is one of Austen’s most compelling villains.

In order to analyze Lady Susan as a Machiavellian, it is important to understand the term and how it relates to her as a villain in Austen’s novels. Machiavellianism refers to someone who uses tactics such as manipulation, deceit, and exploitation in order to achieve their goals. James Mulvihill explores in his article, “Lady Susan: Jane Austen’s Machiavellian Moment,” the Machiavellian theories of J. G. A Pocock and Victoria Khan in relation to Lady Susan’s behavior. Mulvihill first describes Pocock’s ideas which refer to Machiavelli’s The Prince to compare his ideas of “virtù” and “fortuna” and states, “Fortuna refers to the circumstances of life in this world, ‘pure, uncontrolled, and unlegitimated contingency,’ while virtù is the art of the provisional” (621). Mulvihill then goes on to explain Khan’s perspective, to which he relates Lady Susan’s Machiavellian behavior to most, stating:

Khan argues that by elevating the place of contingency in human affairs and thus exposing the false consciousness of humanist ethical claims, Machiavelli’s “rhetorical, dehypostatized virtù” also has the alarming effect of putting into question the very nature of an outcome—republic or tyranny? The implications for civil discourse of this ethos are diverse and unpredictable. (623)

Lady Susan’s Machiavellian behavior is a result of her lack of virtù towards the society around her. Her actions are unpredictable giving her the advantage of being a manipulative tyrant. Mixing her unpredictability with her connivery, Lady Susan can deceive those around her even when they’ve been warned of her cynical antics. Reginald De Courcy still finds himself entangled in Lady Susan’s seductive web despite being warned of her skills with the Manwarings. Her feminine charm overpowers his better judgement causing him to develop feelings for her. The disgruntled letters of Catherine Vernon exploit Lady Susan’s Machiavellian behavior and are best described when she writes:

her countenance is absolutely sweet, and her voice and manner winningly mild. I am sorry it is so, for what is this but deceit? Unfortunately, one knows her too well. She is clever and agreable, has all that knowledge of the world which makes conversation easy, and talks well, with a happy command of language, which is too often used I believe to make black appear white. (10)

If it weren’t for Mrs. Vernon’s knowledge of Lady Susan’s tactics, she too might have been deceived. Lady Susan is smart enough to know that her reputation will be working against her upon her arrival at Churchill. Word has gotten out about Lady Susan’s behavior at the Manwaring house and Mrs. Vernon already has a negative impression of her due to Lady Susan’s opposition to her marriage to Mr. Vernon. Well aware of these notions against her, Lady Susan composes herself to appear like a well-mannered woman of the eighteenth century. In reality, her moral compass is pointing only towards what will benefit her most, reflecting the ideas of Machiavellianism and virtù through her deceitful behavior. As Mrs.Vernon states, Lady Susan has the ability to make black appear white. These Machiavellian tactics of deceit are only the beginning of Lady Susan’s villainy.

Lady Susan’s behavior as a Machiavellian sets the foundation for the future villains of Austen’s novels. One such villain that adopts these tactics is Austen’s Lucy Steele from Sense and Sensibility. Lucy Steele’s cunning assists in her creation of chaos for Elinor Dashwood’s love life as she attempts to secure Edward Ferrars and his fortune. Although she doesn’t possess the same sexual prowess as Lady Susan, Lucy’s Machiavellian behavior allows her to be manipulative when she confides to Elinor her secret engagement to Edward, which of course distresses Elinor. Lucy, being very much aware of this mutual attraction between Edward and Elinor, shows how she is a Machiavellian in her coercing of Elinor when she says, “Though you do not know him so well as me, Miss Dashwood, you must have seen enough of him to be sensible he is very capable of making a woman sincerely attached to him” (127). Lucy is feigning innocence in this scene while essentially slapping Elinor verbally in the face. With Lucy being engaged to Edward, Elinor is left to feel confused and tortured. The comparison between these two characters and their Machiavellian behavior is further explained in Mulvihill’s article as he says, “In this respect, the novela anticipates Lucy Steele’s stealthy confidences to the honor-bound Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility” (627). Lucy’s ability to manipulate the honor of Elinor is a reflection of the tactics used by Lady Susan on her victims. It enables her to torture Elinor and makes Lucy a Machiavellian villain in Austen’s novels.

Lady Susan’s villainous behavior is best exposed through her relationships with men which are the driving force for her Machiavellian behavior. In the book, Jane Austen and the Drama of Women, authors LeRoy W. Smith and Bryan Bardine explore how the patriarchal culture of the eighteenth century presented Lady Susan with the challenge of obtaining superiority over her male counterparts. In order to gain that superiority, Lady Susan must take on the tactic of assuming a “male” role. Rather than waiting to be seduced by a wealthy man, Lady Susan takes it upon herself to be the seducer to get what she wants. Smith and Bardine expand upon this stating, “She attempts to turn masculine morality to her own advantage and to acquire the sexual and social power that it embodies. She becomes, indeed, the ‘cruising shark’, the female counterpart of the male seducer” (52). Lady Susan exemplifies these characteristics in her seduction of Sir James Martin, Mr. Manwaring, and Reginald De Courcy. Each man that she seduces presents to her a growth in sexual and social power. Martin provides a source of marriage for her daughter, Mr. Manwaring is her lover whom she hopes to marry for his polished manners and wealth, and De Courcy provides her entertainment and a solid second choice should things with Mr. Manwaring not work out. Lady Susan displays her Machiavellian behavior through her yearning for superiority in a male-dominated world. She further demonstrates this in her behavior towards De Courcy as she gloats, “There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority” (12). Not only does she crave superiority, but Lady Susan also enjoys toying with the emotions of men. From the very beginning, Lady Susan preys on the feelings of Reginald in order to amuse herself. Even when De Courcy is on the brink of breaking things off with her, Lady Susan is able to flex her superiority in order to sway things back in her favor as she brags:

Oh! How delightful it was, to watch the variations of his countenance while I spoke, to see the struggle between returning tenderness and the remains of displeasure. There is something agreeable in feelings so easily worked on. Not that I would envy him their possession, nor would for the world have such myself, but they are very convenient when one wishes to influence the passions of another. (45)

When Lady Susan’s plans fall apart, she adjusts her tactics in order to regain control. As a result, Lady Susan has to acknowledge her error in expressing her anger towards Reginald as it is the cause of his wanting to leave Churchill. To compensate, Lady Susan quickly switches gears and attempts to resolve things with Reginald on his own terms. Mulvihill explains this behavior stating, “Indeed, a deft practitioner of the ‘rhetorical, dehypostatized virtù’ in the Machiavellian ethos, Lady Susan inhabits a world of rhetorical appearances” (630). Lady Susan’s ability to change her personality in order to persuade whoever she is trying to manipulate or deceive is a powerful display of her Machiavellianism. Lucy Steele uses this tactic when she manipulates Elinor in a similar way to get what she wants. These traits are displayed when Austen writes, “From this time the subject was never revived by Elinor, and when entered on by Lucy, who seldom missed an opportunity of introducing it, and was particularly careful to inform her confidante of her happiness whenever she received a letter from Edward…” (146). Lucy is wasting no time in indulging in her superiority by rubbing her secret engagement to Edward in Elinor’s face. Both Lucy and Lady Susan are vying for superiority in their situations and enjoy the discomfort they bring to their victims as a Machiavellian would.

Perhaps the character who suffers the most from Lady Susan’s villainy and Machiavellianism is her daughter, Frederica. It is clear from the first mention of Frederica that Lady Susan is hardly fond of her as Lady Susan says, “She is a stupid girl, and has nothing to recommend her” (11). From this point on, Frederica presents herself as an obstacle for her mother. Attempting to run away and reaching out to Reginald De Courcy in a plea to save her from her unwanted marriage to Sir James Martin, and even falling for De Courcy threatens everything that Lady Susan had been scheming for. The bond of blood isn’t powerful enough to stop Lady Susan from exerting her Machiavellianism on her daughter as she says, “I must punish Frederica, and pretty severely too, for her application to Reginald; I must punish him for receiving it so favourably, and for the rest of his conduct. I must torment my sister-in-law for the insolent triumph of her look and manner since Sir James has been dismissed…” (46). Lady Susan’s relationship with Reginald is threatened due to her daughter’s attraction to him resulting in her plans for her daughter’s marriage to Sir James Martin to fall apart. Lady Susan has had things her way until her daughter’s arrival (Mulvihill 628). After this, Lady Susan’s world begins to fall apart as Reginald questions her motives for her daughter’s well being and Mrs. Vernon begins to interfere on Frederica’s behalf. In an attempt to control her daughter, Lady Susan goes so far as to forbid her daughter from confiding in Mr. or Mrs. Vernon about her troubles. In a comparison to Lucy Steele, Mulvihill says, “This behavior, once again anticipating Sense and Sensibility’s Lucy Steele, is symptomatic of an inherently tactical perspective” (629). In Lucy Steele’s case, she presents the tactic of being heartbroken about her separation from Edward. Meanwhile, Lady Susan is feigning the appearance of a mother whose rebellious daughter is causing her grief. As Mulvihill explains, Lady Susan’s scheming ultimately puts her in the same category as the Machiavellian villains of Shakespeare’s plays and, “It also underscores the changing circumstances compelling her to revise her tactics as she continually reacts to events by attempting to impose form on contingency” (629). Frederica’s actions force Lady Susan to revise her tactics in order to maintain the balance and superiority she’s created. Ultimately, the cruelty she exhibits towards her daughter reflects how her Machiavellianism makes her a compelling villain.

It is easy to get wrapped up in the drama of Lady Susan’s promiscuity which alludes to the possibility that her ultimate goal is to find a man. Even though we are presented at the very beginning with the idea that Lady Susan wants to have an affair with Mr. Manwaring, her antics in thwarting those who cross her seem to take a higher precedence in her list of priorities. Her Machiavellian behavior is evident in her spiteful tactics towards Mrs. Vernon, Frederica, and Reginald De Courcy. Margaret Drabble, the author of the introduction to Lady Susan sums Lady Susan up best saying, “She is Machiavellian, but there is an attractive quality to her plotting: one can hardly blame her for wanting to outwit her jealous sister-in-law, and for wanting to make Reginald De Courcy fall in love with her” (xiii). While she certainly enjoys the drama that comes from her toying with the emotions of men, Lady Susan’s true motives lie in the fact that she wants superiority over those around her. In comparison, Lucy Steele wants the same thing which is expressed in Lynda Hall’s book, Women and ‘Value’ in Jane Austen’s Novels: Settling, Speculating and Superfluity where she states, “Lucy is pretty but illiterate; she is shrewd but rustic. Her social and monetary values, however, reflect the widespread nature of this kind of speculator, banking on the good character of others to increase her expressed value on the marriage market” (117). Lucy’s ultimate goal is to gain a husband with money and is reflected when Austen writes:

The whole of Lucy’s behavior in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience. (368)

When Edward no longer has money, Lucy quickly switches to marrying his brother. Even though Lucy’s initial motives were to torture Elinor, her ultimate goal is to marry one of the Ferrars and live comfortably with their fortune. Both Lucy and Lady Susan’s goals lead them to being Machiavellian villains.

Ultimately, Lady Susan proves to be a villain who disrupts Jane Austen’s typical heroine protagonist that finds their “happily-ever-after.” Through her cunning, scandalous, and scheming behavior she helps create a path of mayhem for other villains like Lucy Steele to follow. As Drabble says about Austen’s novels, “Lady Susan, with her apartment in Upper Seymour Street, her flippant remarks about her friend’s husband, her cruelty to her daughter and her ruthless selfishness, is unique in her [Austen’s] work” (xii). Her willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve her goals in an age where a woman’s voice was limited is to be admired. Lady Susan is a total disruption to the norms of the eighteenth century and through her comparison to Lucy Steele, it is evident that she is a Machiavellian villain.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon, Ed. Margaret Drabble, Penguin Group, 2003.
  • _____. Sense and Sensibility, London, VIVI Books, 2014.
  • Drabble, Margaret. Introduction to Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon. Penguin, 2003, pp. xiii-xiv.
  • Hall, Lynda A. Women and “Value” in Jane Austen’s Novels: Settling, Speculating and Superfluity. E-Book, Springer International, 2018. pp. 115-121. Doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-50736-1.
  • Mulvihill, James. “Lady Susan: Jane Austen’s Machiavellian Moment.” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 50 no. 4, 2011, p. 619-637. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/srm.2011.0002.
  • Smith, LeRoy W and Bryan Bardine. Jane Austen and the Drama of Women. E-Book, The Macmillian P. LTD, 1983. pp. 51-55. Doi: 10.1007/978-1-349-17184-2.
‹ Back to Publication