Jane Austen’s “Naughty” Lady Susan

loveandfriendship-mv-5 After Austen’s death, several unpublished works remained. One of those was “Susan,” a short novel that made fun of the convention of Gothic fiction. Originally, it had been sold to Benjamin Crosby & Co. in 1803. Shortly before Jane’s passing, her brother Henry bought back the still unpublished manuscript from Crosby for £10 (the amount advanced for the privilege of publishing the story). Needless to say, Crosby had no idea at the time of 1803 purchase that he held a manuscript from “A Lady,” the authoress of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility

Although ill, Austen made some changes in the story line, most obvious was the renaming of the heroine to Catherine Morland. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were released after Austen’s death. But what of her “Juvenilia”? Three unfinished (but nearly complete) manuscripts remained, along with other snippets and poetry. Among those was a complete novella (about 23,000 words in total) entitled “Lady Susan.” If you have not read it, join the Austen Authors’ Read-Along. “Lady Susan” is written in letter format (epistolary style), which are in first person, with the ending being summed up by a third person narrator. 

We assume the story was written when Austen was about twenty years of age. The watermark on the paper she used for the manuscript is 1805. Why was “Lady Susan” not published along with the other novels that made an appearance after her death? Some would argue the length of “Lady Susan” did not lend itself to publication in a time where publication was often a hardship on the author. Others would say the nature of the character of Lady Susan was not in line with the image Austen’s family wished to portray to the world of first their sister and later their favorite aunt. 

Austen’s niece Caroline said in a letter to James Edward Austen Leigh (1 April 1869) that “Lady Susan” was written “when the nonsense was passing away and before her [Jane Austen’s] wonderful talent had found its proper channel.”

love-and-friendship Like me, I am certain many of you have seen “Love and Friendship.” If you have not seen the flick, but plan to do so, know that the character of Lady Susan is NOT your usual Austen fare. Lady Susan is beautiful and enchanting, excessively so. [Heck, Kate Beckinsale plays her…enough said.] Lady Susan is also quite amoral. She is an amorous and sensual widow. 

The letters that comprise the story line allow Austen to reveal Lady Susan’s personal thoughts without the “filter” of a third person narrative. We learn of her seduction of a married man, Mr. Manwaring…of her flirtations with Sir James Martin supposedly to detach him from Miss Manwaring so he takes up with her daughter Frederica instead, etc. Lady Susan is not the type of character for whom the audience with cheer, but she is one for which those who read the story will know empathy. 

IMG_20150311_231128-1243x829 The image of the “squeaky clean” Jane Austen does not completely fit with the character of Lady Susan. Our “Jane” is a vicar’s daughter. She does not have knowledge of sexually manipulative women! LOL!  One must remember that this story was written in the mid 1790s. The style and the use of the letters would be acceptable by those of the era. Austen read such stories herself. However, by the end of King George III’s reign, tastes had changed. Moreover, Henry Austen, who saw to the publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, may have thought Lady Susan resembled his late wife. In the 1790s when Jane wrote the novella, Eliza de Feuillide was also a flirtatious widow. Did “Cousin Eliza” serve as the model for Lady Susan? Henry’s biographical notes upon his sister describe Jane as “thoroughly religious and devout.” The story of “Lady Susan” would not lend itself well to that image. 

Although quite young at the time, in the novella, Austen controls the tension and the tone of the piece. She employs the techniques of what could be called black comedy. [A black comedy (or dark comedy) is a comic work that makes light of serious, disturbing and/or taboo subject matter.] Critics say, “The reader’s complicity is constantly caught and compromised during the course of the narrative.” (The Free Library)

Note! This post originally appeared on Austen Authors.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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5 Responses to Jane Austen’s “Naughty” Lady Susan

  1. Pingback: Austen On Dit | Austen Authors

  2. Regina, I was fortunate to see Whit Stillman discuss his movie “Love and Friendship” (nee “Lady Susan”) at the JASNA AGM this Sat evening (10/7/17) in Huntington Beach, CA. He believes Austen continued to edit the manuscript until 1805, which I believe is a correct surmise. That period being fallow for Austen, I also think she routinely revisited all she had written, which may be why she lovingly preserved her juvenilia. Whit also discussed his novelization of the movie, which takes the text in a totally different direction, more “post-Austen” quasi-Victorian than Austen. I was intrigued enough to buy his version to go along with Jane’s. Though he had used Kat and Chloe in an earlier movie, he had another actress lined up for “Love and Friendship,” but when that fell through Kate jumped at the chance. His use of Chloe had him convert the sidekick to an American ex-pat to avoid the risk of a poor British accent. Whit turned out to be an open, engaging, and serious Austen reader/lover. He attended several AGM sessions. Movies too often fail to capture the spirit of a book, but his does a great job of capturing the essence of Lady Susan.

  3. nmayer2015 says:

    I quite enjoyed the movie of lady Susan under Love and Friendship– not much friendship around. I think Austen put this aside when she decided to write a d8ifferent kind of book. I do believe it was a deliberate choice on her part and not any force from her family. She had proven to herself that she could write such a story. I do think that trying to cast aspersions on Eliza for various smart and somewhat immoral characters is wrong and betrays a dislike of the person by the critic. Most authors do take bits and pieces of friends, family, and enemies plus what they read and what they see on TV or the movies to make up characters.
    That she wrote it at a fairly young age is remarkable .
    Most people do not think Jane Austen was sweet, pure, and high minded because of Henry’s biography or because her father was a clergyman. Most readers do not know anything about her life. For years her Pride and Prejudice was put out I a set of books of classics for children.
    I think Lady Susan shows Austen could have written more on that line if she had wanted to but she made a decision of her own free will not to.

    • Sadly, I understand. Some of my earlier works were “sexier” because my former publisher wished it. Even so, I was not always comfortable with the pieces. I prefer to write as I do now.

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