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The Art(s) of the Coquette: Dramatizing the Duplicitous in Lady Susan and Northanger Abbey

Villainy is more than the sum of its immoral parts. The villainess knows this best, for she exists in a realm where the immoral act and the gender of its actor are inextricable: her morality and femininity are linked such that transgressing the standards of any one inevitably entails transgressing those of the other. In the eighteenth century, such concerns crystallize in the figure of the coquette, a “woman . . . who uses arts to gain the admiration and affection of men” (“Coquette,” def. 1a). Indeed, for philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, coquetry is “born with women”; “[t]hey all possess it” (563). In Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and Northanger Abbey, these “arts” of the coquette—the “cunning” and “pretence” used to “attain” her “ends” (“Art,” def. 11a)—are made artistic, duplicity become drama. As coquettes, Lady Susan Vernon and Isabella Thorpe embody an artfulness that manifests as performance, and as such, their performances vary in style, skill, and efficacy. Where Isabella’s contrary coquetry only superficially grants her male attention, Lady Susan’s experienced one is more ambitious in goal and powerful in execution, shaped by a performance that is as skilled as it is expertly directed.

Coquetry is figured as an epidemic of sorts in the eighteenth century, so widespread as to have cohered into what a 1711 edition of the Spectator calls “our present numerous Race of Coquets” (“News”). In Austen, one need only turn to Lady Susan and Northanger Abbey to find the “most accomplished coquette in England” (47) in Lady Susan Vernon herself and a portrait of a “vain coquette” (204) in Isabella Thorpe. Here are two characters who seem to be cut from the same cloth: both “handsome” (66; 33) women who have “artless” (69; 193) companions (Frederica; Catherine) and who trifle with, and eventually lose, two men (Manwaring, Reginald; James, Captain Tilney). But as coquettes, these two women also underscore how coquetry is not inert but active, seeking to materialize itself through performance. One fictional eighteenth-century text makes salient such a characterization, deeming coquettes “showy figures” with a “strong desire” for the “public display” of their talents in the “eye of the world” (Memoirs of a Coquet 5). Coquetry wants to be seen; it is “showy,” reaching outwards towards its own “public display.” What Lady Susan and Isabella do, then, is turn the “showy” into a show, the artful into an art. Coquetry becomes a performance for them, one to which they each bring a distinct signature and skillset. In this way, their “arts”—cunning, pretence—come to be inflected with the word’s Latin root ars, denoting “artistic . . . skill” (“Art”).

That Lady Susan and Isabella turn the artfulness of the coquette into a theatre of kind renders their coquetry twofold: it is duplicitous in that it is a performance, but as a performance, it is also stylistically distinct in the way it enacts that duplicity. All performances are not created equal, however; to say that they are stylistically distinct is not to say that they are all equally effective. Lady Susan and Isabella may be cut from the same cloth, but what Lady Susan fashions from that cloth is, ultimately, much more sophisticated in both its art and its efficacy.

Isabella Thorpe’s coquetry is conventional, and parochial in its conventionality; it sees men and only men, the “admiration” and “gratification of vanity” (“Coquette,” def. 1a) they potentially offer one. What Isabella seeks is clear: “a carriage at her command, a new name on her tickets, and a brilliant exhibition of hoop rings on her finger” (116)—in essence, the riches and status that marriage to a man will afford her. And when, discussing headpieces, she remarks, “The men take notice of that sometimes” (41), she vastly understates her motivation. It is not merely “sometimes” that Isabella is alert to what “the men take notice of,” it is all the time.

What, then, does this conventional coquetry entail? Coquetry, for Isabella, comes with a marked performance style, one defined by an affected contrariness that seeks to elicit the opposite of what it is ostensibly about; in this case, to attract men’s notice under the pretence of repelling it. Isabella’s idiom lays bare this coquetry as contrary performance through the way in which she scolds men to attract their interest. This much is apparent in her flirtation with Captain Tilney, a flirtation which occurs despite her engagement to James. When Captain Tilney lets her know that even if her “heart” is not “independent,” men still “have eyes” which “give” them “torment enough,” Isabella retorts, “You men have none of you any hearts,” and promptly relieves his “torment” by “turning her back on him” (139). Herein her response, though superficially a chastisement, is a transparent attempt to feed the unfolding flirtation. The scene has already made this clear: Isabella’s contrariness is the turned back that seems to spurn but that in fact leaves “the edge of a blooming cheek . . . still in view” (139).

More broadly, however, Isabella’s reliance on scolding is emblematic of how her performance constantly cues its audience to react in a way that will in turn cue her own coquetry. In one conversation, Isabella asks Catherine to point out Henry Tilney to her and then directly, and seemingly unrelatedly, bids James, “Mr. Morland, you are not to listen. We are not talking about you” (55). In response, James is understandably confused—“But what is all this whispering about?”—and Isabella is, of course, triumphed; he gives her exactly what she wants: attention, which she continues to draw out: “I knew how it would be. You men have such restless curiosity!” (55). The logic of her idiom is thus made clear: Isabella says something provocative, and then (affectedly) scolds her interlocutor when they are indeed provoked. Having told James not to listen, Isabella excites his interest, for which she then scolds him as overeager “curiosity.” Herein Isabella becomes, from a dramaturgical standpoint, akin to an actor who reads the action of a play (“[James is not listening to Isabella’s conversation]”) out loud rather than actually acting it. For it is not enough for James simply not to listen; he must know that he cannot listen, and his not listening must be canvassed by them as a topic of conversation.

Altogether, these instances elucidate how the modus operandi of Isabella’s coquetry is a distinctly gendered one, localized in the dissonance between what she wants to say and what she cannot say. Hers is a way to enact a desire by seeming to enact its very inverse, to attract men’s notice without outright asking for it. By effectively saying, Pay attention to me not paying to you, Isabella affords herself a kind of plausible deniability, a way to dismiss her flirtation with men by claiming not to be flirting with them. Such a villainy is understandable, if morally dubious. That is, Isabella is a villain not because her coquetry is unique or shocking, but because it perverts what Austen calls “the finesse of love” (35), skewing the small, everyday contrivances of courting into a thinly veiled and male-centric performative behaviour. In so doing, Isabella picks and chooses parts from a system that is meant to operate in its totality. There is a kind of “finesse” to love, yes, but it must also exist under the broader context of decorum and principles, a context of which it constitutes only one part.

In the world of Austen coquettes, Isabella Thorpe might figure as a proto-Lady Susan of sorts. Had she more time and knowledge, she might, perhaps, have become a “great proficient” (Austen, Pride and Prejudice 154), for Lady Susan is the image of the coquette grown experienced. Her “intentions are,” evidently, “those of absolute coquetry” (54): she sees winning over Reginald’s affection as a “project” (52) that will (and does) “afford [her] amusement” (56), has no qualms admitting to her “vanity” (85). And yet Lady Susan is also presented to the reader as a well-rounded woman in every respect: she is “clever and agreeable,” her “manner winningly mild,” with “a happy command of language” and “all the knowledge of the world which makes conversation easy” (50). It is not surprising, then, that she brings with her a much more potent arsenal of coquettish arts than Isabella. As Reginald puts it, Lady Susan “does not confine herself” to the “honest flirtation” of “most,” but “aspires to” a “more delicious” kind of “gratification” (47). Accordingly, her performances are generous in their scope and ambitious in both goal and execution, targeting whomever will act as a means to her ends.

Where Isabella’s performance imputes its own cues to its audience, Lady Susan’s takes its cues from the idiosyncrasies of the scene. In her reconciliation with Reginald after he accuses her of mistreating Frederica, Lady Susan offers a play-by-play of the intricacies of her performance, evincing an image of a seasoned performer invested in the quality of her work. To begin, she has a vision for her performance as it is unfolding, one which she recounts to Mrs. Johnson in retrospect: “If my countenance expressed what I aimed at, it was composed and dignified – and yet with a degree of pensiveness which might convince [Reginald] that I was not quite happy” (85). This is not a facile or predictable performance, as with Isabella, but a measured, exact one. Herein the reaction is informed by the action: the “composed and dignified” countenance is that of the woman who has been mistakenly accused when she is in the right, its “pensiveness” her disapproval at having been accused to begin with. (Lady Susan is, of course, in the wrong, but that is of little matter to her.) That she necessitates only a “degree of pensiveness” is telling, as if she were adding a subtle stroke of shading to the portrait of her countenance. More than just retrospectively evaluating her performance, however, Lady Susan takes care to pay close attention to its effect as she is delivering it, “to watch the variations of [Reginald’s] countenance while [she] spoke” (85). Gone is the turned back of Isabella’s performance; in full view here, the countenance tells all. With the interaction recounted to Mrs. Johnson, Lady Susan finishes, “Here I concluded, and I hope you will be satisfied with my speech” (85). The line’s effect is to clinch the showcase of the performance; to say, here is my performance, observe how it worked just so, and now, I will pause for appreciation.

And indeed, Lady Susan’s performances work, and work well. When she delivers her aforementioned “speech” to Reginald, its “effect on” him is “no less favourable than instantaneous” (85). Such is the effect on the man who deems her “the most accomplished coquette in England” only to ascribe such a thought to “her bitterest enemies” (60) ten pages later. Even Mrs. Vernon, who “cannot help suspecting the truth of everything [Lady Susan] says,” has no choice but to admit to her apparent “earnestness” and “solemnity of expression” (72). Here is something far more insidious than Isabella Thorpe’s.

Part of why Lady Susan’s coquetry is so potent is that she pairs the performer’s skill with the director’s vision. For her performance to hit its mark, the surrounding characters must also hit theirs. Lady Susan works at this from the outset: she enters Churchill with a plan—“to win [her] sister-in-law’s heart through” her “children”—and sets about orchestrating circumstances to ensure its success, for “know[ing] all” the children’s “names already,” she seeks to “attach [her]self . . . to one in particular,” whom she will “take on [her] lap and sigh over for his dear uncle’s sake” (49). Such foresight points not to an improvised performance, but a premeditated, carefully calculated one. Lady Susan’s directorial management extends beyond herself, for she also subjects her daughter to control of the same vein: she “depend[s] on” Frederica to “[observe] the rules” that she has “laid down for” her “discourse” (70) with the Vernons. So long as she plays the meek, obedient daughter, Lady Susan can continue to perform her coquetry: to trifle with Reginald’s affections and be “clever and agreeable.” But when Frederica goes off-script and breaks with her appointed “discourse” by writing to Reginald, she becomes, instead, the “heroine in distress” (83). In response to this “sudden disturbance of” her “schemes,” then, Lady Susan must “compass” further “measures” to re-establish directorial authority: to acquit herself of maternal cruelty, to “punish” (86) Frederica for disobeying her and Reginald for believing Frederica. This play will proceed only if its director is “satisfied with the posture of affairs” (75), and nothing short of full creative control will be brooked.

To be so well-rounded, to bring together such performative finesse with directorial sensibilities, is to have power. Notably, Lady Susan is invested in a form of power that is intrinsically about disparity; hers is the upper hand that is as much about elevating herself as it is about subjugating others. Never is this more explicitly stated than when Lady Susan writes that, upon meeting Reginald, her “desire of dominion was never more decided” (55). And indeed, she brings her desire to fruition—“I have subdued him entirely . . . and made him . . . at least half in love with me” (55)—rendering Reginald so susceptible to her power that only a “very few words” from her have the capacity to soften him “into the utmost submission” (85). His sister recognizes this power, noting that here is a woman who has “contrived by the most artful coquetry to subdue” Reginald’s “judgement to her own purposes” (56). Lady Susan’s ability to “influence the passions of another” (85), then, is not about “influence” so much as it is about “dominion” and “submission,” the knowledge that she can “subdue” if she so pleases.

Unlike Isabella, to call Lady Susan a villain is to reduce the fine gradations and deft manipulations of her art. Hers is something far more “dangerous” (53) than mere villainy, for not only is she a woman with her own selfish agenda, but also the skill to put that agenda into action. Examples of this dangerousness abound in the novel: Lady Susan has “perverted abilities” (96), “bewitching powers” (47), “captivating deceit” (47), a “deep art” (58). And “against reason, against conviction” (53), people are drawn to her power; it is, after all, “captivating,” even in its “deceit.” Mrs. Vernon may sometimes see through Lady Susan’s “pathetic representation[s]” (66), but ultimately, there is no denying the potency of Lady Susan’s arts. If there is a woman who can “make black appear white” (50), then it may very well be this “mistress of deceit” (78).

That Lady Susan and Isabella have transgressed is clear, but as to the resolution of those transgressions, the fate of the coquette is left commensurate to her performative prowess. In her plea for reconciliation with James, Isabella is loath to muster any effort for her own cause, leaving it to Catherine to “set all to rights” and “explain every thing to his satisfaction” (203, emphasis added). Paired with an already facile coquetry, such “shallow artifice” (203) leaves Isabella with nothing in the end. Lady Susan’s “deep art,” however, begets a more ambiguous ending. In the conclusion of the novel, Lady Susan loses Reginald and instead weds the man she intended for her daughter. As to whether she “was or was not happy in” this “choice,” the narrator tells the reader, “I do not see how it can ever be ascertained” (103). Remarkably, here is a character so duplicitous, so adept at performing, that even her own creator does not pretend to see past her performance. Reader and creator alike are left to “judge from probabilities” (103).

Through Lady Susan Vernon and Isabella Thorpe—who embody, to borrow Henry James’s phraseology, an “artful artlessness” (148) and an “artless artfulness” (38), respectively—Austen contributes to the eighteenth-century “Race of Coquets.” Far from simply consolidating it as a trope of female villainy, however, she reinscribes coquetry as a genre of performance unto itself—a distinctly female genre, but only insofar as it is informed by the rules of conduct to which women are subject. As to the villainy of these coquettes, it is not the presence but the perversion of performance that renders them suspect. Indeed, some 140 years later, Erving Goffman illuminated the stage on which these women stand by aligning the “theatrical” (iii) with the everyday, characterizing any “activity,” artful or not, that “serves to influence” others as “a ‘performance’” (8). Lady Susan and Isabella, then, do not erect a stage for their performances so much as they step onto—and weaponize—one that they recognize to have always been there. If the “eye of the world” is what they have sought, then the stage has certainly offered a good view.

Works Cited
  • “Art.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, 2020..
  • Austen, Jane. Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon. Edited by Margaret Drabble, Penguin, 2003.
  • _____. Northanger Abbey. edited by Marilyn Butler, Penguin Books, 2003.
  • “Coquette.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, 2020, 
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. Edited by Stephen M. Parrish, Norton, 2000.
  • Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Penguin Books, 1956.
  • James, Henry. Roderick Hudson. Osgood, 1876. American Fiction, 1774-1920.
  • Memoirs of a Coquet; Or the History of Miss Harriot Airy. W. Hoggard, 1765. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
  • “News.” Spectator, no. 66, 1711. Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Burney Newspapers Collection.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “The Age of Wisdom Fragments.” Emile, Or, On Education, Dartmouth College Press, 2009, pp. 150-684.
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