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A Matter of Judgment: or An Examination of the Unanswerable Motives of Lady Susan Vernon

Although they did not know it at the time, the abrupt arrival of Lady Susan Vernon before the doors of her brother-in-law’s impressive country seat, Churchill, was to prove the most sensational occurrence in the whole course of the De Courcys’ dull pastoral lives. Indeed, so magnetizing is the personality of this widow—so polarizing the effects of her presence (and scandalizing the details of her reputation)—that she immediately assumes ascendency over the larger De Courcy family’s lives and correspondence, presiding as either the writer, recipient, or subject of every one of the forty-one letters that are exchanged in the course of the text chronicling their affairs. No character of the novella exists but to think, breathe, and write of Lady Susan; each character is consumed with the conundrum that is Lady Susan—obsessed with solving her contradictions, integrating her impossible inconsistences, and finally arriving at some understanding or judgment of her character.

Indeed, while the story may be said to possess a plot of sorts, even that plot revolves around the question that so absorbs its characters and which thereby forms the true heart of the narrative: what is one to think of Lady Susan? At her essence is Lady Susan an admirable or abhorrent creature—a heroine wronged by a cynical society or a villainess saved from ruin only by the most brazen duplicity? Given the preeminence of these questions in the minds of the characters, it is only fitting that, in turning our attention to this novella, we address ourselves to this same conundrum—that of forming a judgment of Lady Susan’s character. In setting about to analyze her character, we have access to an aid unavailable to the characters of the novella; we know their fictionality—their status as the creations of an accomplished authoress to whose judgment we may appeal as final arbiter of the doings of the inhabitants of her universe. Accordingly, it is to Austen’s various cast of players—her heroines, villains, flirts, and fops—that we must appeal as we seek to form an accurate understanding of Austen’s intentions in creating this enigmatic character.

A cursory examination reveals that Lady Susan differs from every one of Austen’s classic heroines in an essential detail; she is the only Austen protagonist who is herself a mother. Austen might easily have made her widow childless; that she gifted her a child is evidence that Lady Susan’s performance as a mother is essential to an understanding of her character and thus merits analysis. And what do we find when we bend our eye to Lady Susan’s maternal exploits? Why, we find a schemer on a scale that dwarves Mrs. Bennet’s clumsy attempts to raffle her daughters off to the surrounding gentry, a sadist whose proportions quite overthrow General Tilney’s claims to twisted Gothic autocrat. From the moment of her introduction, Lady Susan reveals herself to be deep within the coils of a plot to wed her young uneducated daughter, Frederica, to a wealthy but imbecilic man whose true infatuation is with herself. Lady Susan’s machinations, however, have encountered some small encumbrance—namely Frederica’s acute emotional aversion to the man, Sir James, and utter horror at the notion of being joined to him eternally. An affectionate mother—or even a marginally caring one—would react empathetically to the pain of their child; would seek to alleviate that pain and would shrink from being its cause. Not so Lady Susan. Proclaiming her daughter “the greatest simpleton on earth” (44) for refusing to marry Sir James—whom, incidentally, she herself has begged off marrying on the grounds that he is “contemptibly weak” (44)—Lady Susan casts about for a means of coercing her miserable young daughter into submission to her intractable will and discovers one in the scheme of placing the girl (whose education she has wholly neglected) in school. In this enterprise, Lady Susan’s intent is not to improve Frederica’s reasoning but to crush her spirit: “She will not remain long enough at school to understand anything thoroughly . . . school must be very humiliating to a girl of Frederica’s age and . . . I wish her to find her situation as unpleasant as possible” (51). Where threats will not crush her daughter’s sense, Lady Susan hopes discomfort will.

In a letter to her own mother, Mrs. Catherine Vernon (née De Courcy) describes Lady Susan’s maternal manner skeptically, proclaiming, “From what I now see of the behaviour of each to the other . . . I am led to believe as heretofore that [Lady Susan] has no real love for her daughter” (66). Were she privy to Lady Susan’s correspondence with Alicia Johnson, as we are, Mrs. Vernon might have augmented the terms of her accusation; might have adjudged Lady Susan guilty not merely of apathy but of actual antipathy; might have declared her not merely unaffectionate but actually malevolent in her behavior towards her daughter. For malevolent Lady Susan is, and on a scale unachieved by any other Austen parent. Even Mrs. Bennet, whom readers of Austen are apt to regard critically, never sought consciously to pain her daughters. That she injured their prospects at many turns is indisputable; that she did so through poor judgment rather than malice is equally incontrovertible. Indeed, as she makes abundantly clear throughout the narrative, Mrs. Bennet’s primary concern is not in having herself obeyed but in securing the comfort of her children (87).1 Compare this to Lady Susan’s professed resolution to “render [Frederica’s] life thoroughly uncomfortable till she does accept [Sir James]” (52, emphasis mine). More chillingly still, contrast it with Lady Susan’s response to discovering that her daughter, living in daily terror of her mother’s schemes, has confided her fears to the only source of aid not forbidden to her by her mother:

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 . . . and I must make myself amends for the humiliations to which I have stooped with in these few days. (86)

When confronted by multiple sources with the reality of her daughter’s misery, Lady Susan refuses to reevaluate her position and instead calcifies in that position; Lady Susan will not only have her way—she will harvest her pound of flesh while she is at it. Far from grieving over the emotional torture she has inflicted on Frederica, she resolves to increase Frederica’s pain—and to expand her reign of terror to encompass her sister-in-law and suitor. While rejecting his proposal, Elizabeth Bennet indicted Mr. Darcy’s character by accusing him of demonstrating a “selfish disdain of the feelings of others,” (148) a flaw she found both base and insurmountable. Such an accusation, if leveled against our current protagonist, would prove a lessening of sentence, for far from ignoring the feelings of others, she is actively concerned in them—that she might better manipulate them. Lady Susan has no disdain for the feelings of others; she cultivates a vicious delight in ascertaining and then torturing those feelings.

This cruelty—and corresponding refusal to brook criticism—although both shocking and condemning in their own right, do not constitute but rather are symptomatic of the true flaw in Lady Susan’s character. I observed at the opening of this piece that the question of judgment formed an essential aspect of Lady Susan’s plot; I had been more accurate in proclaiming that the theme of judgment is fundamental to Jane Austen’s entire canon. In offering this observation, I employ the word not in our modern punitive sense, but rather as Austen meant it—as the ability to form opinions and observations—particularly regarding personal character—that are reflective of reality and based upon universal truths, rather than mere personal preferences or inclinations.

Indeed, the question of judgment appears perpetually in Austen’s canon. The entire plot of Pride and Prejudice (suggestively titled First Impressions in its earliest drafts) revolves around the erroneous impressions or judgments Elizabeth and Darcy form of one another on their first meeting, judgments they spend the remainder of the novel painfully correcting. In Northanger Abbey Catherine learns how dreadfully her judgment has been overrun by her Gothic novels, in Sense and Sensibility Marianne suffers great pain through her thorough misjudgment of her first beau Willoughby, and in Emma our heroine discovers that through her vanity she has misjudged Harriet Smith, Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, Mr. Elton, Mr. Knightley and, most surprisingly of all, herself. More specifically, in the wake of a series of shocks regarding the errors of her judgment, Emma realizes that it is precisely her misconception of herself—the overestimation of her own powers—that led her to misjudge her acquaintances: “How to understand the deceptions she had been thus practicing on herself, and living under!—The blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart! . . . With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everybody’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody’s destiny” (373-74).2 It is in that act of confronting themselves with the evidence of their own poor judgment that Austen’s heroines come first to acknowledge their own flaws and then to set about reconstructing their self-image and revising their judgement to incorporate that increased wisdom. In this way, Austen’s heroines achieve not only knowledge of themselves but also development of their character. Upon reading Darcy’s letter proclaiming the true history of her former favourite, George Wickham, Elizabeth falls into a reflection upon the blinding effects of her vanity, culminating with the declaration, “Till this moment, I never knew myself” (159, emphasis mine).3 This proof of her shortcomings leads Elizabeth to reexamine her understanding not only of the situation but of her core self and to acknowledge the flaws she finds there. Thus, admission of error, increased self-knowledge, and development of informed judgment form a tripartite trial that the Austen heroine must conquer if she is to be numbered a heroine.4 Having established this theorem, we turn to Lady Susan’s beguiling figure to discover—does she, too, progress through this journey of judgment to join rank with Austen’s heroines?

Even a cursory examination of the novella reveals the dooming truth: far from triumphing through Austen’s heroic trial, Lady Susan seeks categorically to overthrow that trial. Not only does she fail the test, but she rejects its terms outright, subversively seeking to instate her own rival countervision of reality. This vision looms insidiously as she praises her favourite lover, the adulterous Lord Manwaring, proclaiming, “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, emphasis mine). We see it lurking in the frenzied distemper with which she chastises her less satisfactory admirer, Reginald De Courcy upon his expressing doubt over the full justice of her behavior towards Frederica: “How dared he believe what she told him in my disfavor! Ought he not to have felt assured that I must have unanswerable motives for all that I had done!” (76, emphasis mine). Through both her behavior and her dictum, Lady Susan brazenly decrees that her character is not to be judged based on external criteria of morality, wisdom, or experience and instead demands of others that they acknowledge her person as the only guide to their own judgment. Whereas one of Mr. Knightley’s great merits as a hero was the fact that he was “one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them” (8), Lady Susan prevents and punishes any such critical behavior in her suitors, actively perverting or distorting their judgment through her duplicity. As regarding a developing self-knowledge, Lady Susan at no juncture of the novella achieves deeper awareness or knowledge of herself—and how could she? As we have seen, the sense of having done or judged wrongly is key to developing such knowledge; for Lady Susan, however, such an admission would signal destruction. If one is to stand as an infallible arbiter of judgment, one must be without flaw; thus, Lady Susan cannot admit or acknowledge a fault without destroying her entire conception of herself—and of the world. To protect this vain notion of herself, therefore, she refuses categorically to allow for the possibility of being in error, simultaneously sacrificing the ability to truly know herself—or to be counted among Austen’s heroines.5

To ascertain the true evil of this dictum, however, we must return to the subject of Lady Susan’s treatment of her daughter. Indeed, while Mrs. Vernon raged against Lady Susan’s lack of maternal affection, no character in the novella seemed fully to grasp the true nature of Lady Susan’s malignancy towards Frederica. When we revisit the topic through our new lens, Lady Susan’s motive in neglecting Frederica’s education crystallizes; this was no negligence, but a concerted effort to prevent Frederica from developing her own judgment—Lady Susan’s cruelty towards Frederica springs from her resolve to squelch any threat to the rule of her own judgment. More heinously still, Lady Susan acted as a saboteur not only of Frederica’s own judgment, but also of her reputation, as is demonstrated by the contemptuous opinions both Mrs. Vernon and Reginald express prior to ever meeting the girl.6 That Lady Susan has allowed Frederica to be so uneducated as to garner this reputation is appalling; more sinister still is the suggestion that Lady Susan is responsible for forwarding this interpretation of Frederica. This possibility first suggests itself when Reginald reports an account of her as having “not even manners to recommend her” and as being “equally dull and proud” (47). Our own experience of Frederica’s personality later in the novella illustrates the impossibility of such rumors arising from personal interactions with her - so from whence might such a portrait arise? We find our slanderer mere moments later as we encounter Lady Susan, in a moment of rage, fuming to Mrs. Johnson over Reginald’s defense of Frederica, whom she revealingly describes as “a chit, a child, without talent or education, whom he had been always taught to despise” (76, emphasis mine). None other is concerned with Reginald’s idea of Frederica; the only person who could possibly have taught him to despise her is Lady Susan herself. Not content merely to prevent Frederica from forming judgments of her own, Lady Susan also actively distorts anyone’s ability to make a right judgment of her—an act that would have damaged Frederica’s reputation permanently had not the Vernons interfered.7

That Lady Susan is a clever woman, beautiful and even brilliant, no reader of her exploits will deny; that she employed those skills to torture the emotions and pervert the judgment of the many innocents in her acquaintanceship is equally undeniable. If any further proof is required to convince the reader of Lady Susan’s iniquity, I would urge them to consult Austen’s characters themselves on the subject. Displace Lady Susan to Highbury and see her in conversation with Mr. Knightley—the same Mr. Knightley who reprimanded Emma for issuing a single insensitive comment to one over whom she had some slight social advantage.8 Imagine Lady Susan as the companion of the sensible Elinor Dashwood—see her outstripping Lucy Steele in both conniving and cruelty. Consider her as the walking mate of Fanny Price, whose sensibilities revolted against Mary Crawford’s comparatively sincere plot to attach one single man to herself in matrimony. This series of consultations can yield only one conclusion: had Lady Susan appeared in a novel alongside a true Austen heroine, she could only have been that novel’s villain.

To proclaim Lady Susan a villain is not at all the same thing as declaiming her as a character whom we must universally despise; indeed, the aplomb with which Austen penned her impish scamps proves the delight she sourced from their foibles. Austen’s governing principle in these instances, if her Miss Steeles and young Thorpes are any indication of her true sentiments, is akin to Mr. Bennet’s rule of conduct; it is through her villains that she seems most gleefully to “make sport for [her] neighbours, and laugh at them in [her] turn” (278). Lady Susan’s villainy, as we say, cannot prevent us from sourcing the greatest delight from the wicked cunning of her character; nor can the panache of her person prevent us from acknowledging that, in applying her pen to the creation of Lady Susan, Austen smiled and smiled—yet wrote a villain.



1To be sure, Mrs. Bennet threatened never to see Elizabeth again if she rejected Mr. Collins; that this threat was issued in petulance rather than vindictiveness is proven not only by their continuing to live in comparative civility under the same roof, but also by Mrs. Bennet’s explanation of the source of her concern: “If you [Elizabeth] take it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage in this way, you will never get a husband at all—and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead.—I shall not be able to keep you” (87).

2While the full passage is much too lengthy to include here, I would urge the reader to examine it in its entirely to grasp fully the nature and comprehensiveness of Emma’s epiphany (See Emma 373-74).

3As with Emma’s experience of dawning self-knowledge, I feel the abridgment of Elizabeth’s reflections, while necessary given my limited space, removes much that reinforces my main argument. As this passage is much shorter, I will indulge myself by quoting it in full:

“How despicably have I acted!” she cried.—“I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust.—How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation!—Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly.—Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.” (159)

4Space constraints forbid me from conducting a complete survey of Austen’s heroines, but independent examinations of each figure reveals that each is either in the midst of, or has already undergone just such a “tripartite trial.”

5I have observed that Lady Susan achieves no increased self-knowledge, which is to say that she in no sense grows or evolves in the course of the novella. Were I more acerbic, I might remark that, much like Milton’s Satan, Lady Susan actually devolves throughout the course of the narrative, falling from the pitch of her affair with the seductively suave Manwaring to the clumsy advances of the tediously earnest Sir Reginald only to be overthrown by him and end the novella as the wife of Sir James, whom she began the novella by describing as “contemptibly weak” (44). I might remark this, I say—but that would be to begin upon another essay entirely.

6Prior to meeting Frederica, Mrs. Vernon expresses her relief that the young girl will not be accompanying her mother to Churchill, explaining, “A girl of sixteen who has received so wretched an education would not be a very desirable companion here” (46). Reginald is more straightforward still and proclaims prior to Frederica’s arrival at Churchill that, “where pride and stupidity unite, there can be no dissimulation worthy notice, and Miss Vernon shall be consigned to unrelenting contempt” (47). This contempt does Mr. De Courcy no credit, but make no mistake; it is Lady Susan who has placed Frederica in such a position as to invite it.

7Note the true cruelty of this passage. Not only has Lady Susan taught another to despise her daughter, but she nominates Frederica’s lack of education as a point against the girl, despite the fact that this is an area over which Frederica holds no control and which has, in fact, been the doing of Lady Susan herself. Lady Susan is the cause of the inferiority that she then employs maliciously to upbraid and undermine Frederica.

8I refer, of course, to the infamous Box Hill incident, in the wake of which Mr. Knightley delivers his extremely popular “Badly done, indeed!” (340) speech to Emma. I should also here refer to the impatience both Mr. Knightley and, indeed, Emma herself express towards the presumptuous Mrs. Elton who, for all her ill breeding, accomplishes but little mischief when compared with Lady Susan’s mastery of manipulation. Indeed, the further one introduces Lady Susan into Highbury society, the more judgment one finds awaiting her in the spectres of the alliances she would most certainly seek to establish and the designs she must surely plot to advance; we will therefore draw the curtain upon this tantalizing tableau and recall only its effect in reinforcing Lady Susan’s status as a social villain of the highest order.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. edited by James Kinsley. Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • _____. Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon. Edited by Margaret Drabble, Penguin, 2003. 
  • _____. Pride and Prejudice. Edited by James Kinsley. Oxford University Press, 1990.
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