Lady Susan: Group Read Letters 1-11: Summary, Musings & Discussion

Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sandition ( Oxford World's Classics) 2008We are now in a sad state; no house was ever more altered; the whole party are at war, and Manwaring scarcely dares speak to me. It is time for me to be gone. Lady Susan, (Letter 2)


Lady Susan accepts her brother-in-law Charles Vernon’s invitation to Churchill. She will deposit her daughter Frederica at a school in London. She reveals to her friend Alicia Johnson that even her discretion with Manwaring and an innocent flirtation with Sir James Martin have turned all the females of Langford against her and she must leave. Against her wishes, Frederica is violently opposed to marrying Sir James. Mrs. Vernon writes to her mother Lady De Courcy  suspicious of Lady Susan’s motives. Reginald De Courcy writes to his sister Mrs. Vernon revealing gossip about why Lady Susan left Langford intrigued to meet the most accomplished coquette in England. Lady Susan writes to her friend Alicia wary of Mrs. Vernon who holds a grudge against her, missing Manwaring. Mrs. Vernon writes to her brother Reginald revealing that Lady Susan is sweet and mild and can turn black into white. Lady Susan writes to her friend Alicia advising her not to waste her attentions on stupid Frederica, confident that Sir James will marry her. Reginald De Courcy arrives promising some amusement. Mrs. Vernon writes to her mother Lady De Courcy concerned for her brother’s attentions to Lady Susan. How could he forgive and be so duped? Mrs. Johnson writes to her friend Lady Susan advising her to marry De Courcy, an heir to a fortune. Lady Susan replies to Mrs. Johnson that she is not interested, and is not in want of money, though she actually is. She is smug about her conversion of his ill opinion. Mrs. Vernon writes to her mother Lady De Courcy alarmed at her brother’s reversal and regretting that Lady Susan ever entered her house.


From the very start we are suspicious of Lady Susan. Her reasons for the visit to her brother-in-law Charles Vernon’s home seem weak. She wants to get to know his wife and children? The letter is short and reveals little. The real truth begins to unfold in her letter to her friend Alicia where she spills the real reasons for her change of residence – even though she claims discretion with Manwaring and a mild flirtation with Sir James Martin, all the females in the house are against her and are at war! When she makes a chiding remark about not liking the country, we know that Jane Austen was sending a clue as to what direction the novel would take.

I take London in my way to that insupportable spot, a country village; for I am really going to Churchill. Forgive me, my dear friend, it is my last resource. Lady Susan, (Letter 2)

Jane Austen loved the country and was anxious to return to it when she was in Town. For her heroine to make such a cynical remark is not a gentle irony. It is a giant red flag for us to be wary. She has presented a character that will appose her own, and society’s values, who explains her affair with Manwaring matter-of-factly, and her reason for flirting Sir James Martin away from Maria Manwaring for the benefit of her daughter. Lady Susan is an adulteress and a manipulator who has been found out and expelled by the two women who she has maligned; forced to take refuge in her in-laws home, her last resource. Mrs. Vernon is introduced as a practical woman who is suspicious of Lady Susan’s reasons for her visit to Churchill. They have a history so we are also suspicious of her. Lady Susan opposed her marriage to her brother-in-law and has been “inexcusably artful and ungenerous since our marriage.” Does she hold a grudge? Who is telling the truth? Each of the two letters has both ladies revealing their concerns and objections to their confidants. Lady Susan’s unguarded explanation to her friend is flip and cynical. Mrs. Vernon on the other hand, attempts to be more eloquent and genuine. Austen has set up an interesting paradox.

My dear Sister,–I congratulate you and Mr. Vernon on being about to receive into your family the most accomplished coquette in England. Reginald De Courcy, (Letter 4)

This is our introduction to Mrs. Vernon’s brother Reginald. Being an admitted flirt himself, he is fascinated to meet a woman whose reputation as an accomplished coquette precedes her. He hears the local gossip from a friend and is eager to believe the worst reasons why she was expelled from Langford, feeding upon it with fervor. “[S]he does not confine herself to that sort of honest flirtation which satisfies most people, but aspires to the more delicious gratification of making a whole family miserable.” Only a similar personality would be piqued by such disreputable conduct. The combination of the two characters could play out interestingly. Is he a younger version of Lady Susan intrigued to learn her seduction secrets and bewitching powers?

One is apt, I believe, to connect assurance of manner with coquetry, and to expect that an impudent address will naturally attend an impudent mind. Mrs. Vernon, (Letter 6)

We begin to form opinions of the characters from their descriptions of events and their reactions to each other, and most importantly, who they are writing to. Lady Susan is all guarded sweetness to her in-laws and then lets loose with her confidant Mrs. Johnson, who may be as duplicitous as her friend to her husband in regard to her own affair. We are beginning to trust Catherine Vernon as the voice of decency and reason in the novel. Everyone around her seems to be bewitched by Lady Susan and blind to her faults. Her amiable husband gives her money and somewhere to live, and her brother is taken in by her charms, choosing to believe that the stories about her behavior at Langford were a “scandalous invention” totally reversing his objections, and then defending her. Only her parents, influenced by her perspective are on her side. And then, there is poor neglected Frederica. We hear from her mother that she is a stupid girl with nothing to recommend her. Even De Courcy, who has never met her wants to believe the worst. “Where pride and stupidity unite there can be no dissimulation worthy notice.” Only Mrs. Vernon is doubtful that Lady Susan has been a good mother, neglecting and bulling her child. Our confidence in her rose sharply when she told her mother that she grieves Lady Susan ever entered her house. There’s hope.


© 2009 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

49 thoughts on “Lady Susan: Group Read Letters 1-11: Summary, Musings & Discussion

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  1. The old adage ‘It takes one to know one’ certainly holds true here! Inasmuch as Reginald is piqued by Lady Susan’s disreputable conduct, Lady Susan is equally intrigued:

    …our party is enlarged by Mrs. Vernon’s brother, a handsome young Man, who promises me some amusement. There is something about him that rather interests me, a sort of sauciness, of familiarity which I shall teach him to correct. He is lively and seems clever… he may be an agreeable Flirt. (Letter 7)

    She certainly sees a bit of herself in him, doesn’t she? They are like two sides of the same coin, seemingly. And I love the throw away description of Reginald as ‘seems clever’… Ironically, Reginald, as well as all the other men we’ve been introduced to, are not clever enough to see through Lady Susan’s duplicity and are completely bewitched by her beauty, by her eloquence! I can’t help but laugh and wonder if the young Jane Austen was poking fun at the malleability of men’s mind?


  2. I love how almost everyone in the story is consciously performing a part. I cannot imagine this every becoming a film. All the action is in the hidden motives found in the letters; I picture the physical action being a lot of polite nothings and attempts to hide how much one dislikes someone else. I especially liked that in order to seduce a man (a very coquettish action) Lady S has “never behaved less like a coquette” (Letter 10).


      1. I recently watched Fanny Hill, I haven’t read the book yet though so I’m not sure if the book itself is formatted largely in letters or not. The movie was done with much of it being narrated in that manner and I think it turned out okay. I just think it’s not long enough to be a movie, so much would have to be added and that’s where things tend to go astray. I would trust some of the people who adapt novels for the BBC to do it, but Hollywood? No way.


        1. Has anyone heard as of 2009 Lady Susan is being adapted by British writer Lucy Prebble for Celandor Films and BBC4 ? I’d love any gossip. ;-)


          1. I hadn’t heard! I try to stay on top of what the BBC films department is up to (they are my favs can you tell?) but they always seem to fly some in under my radar!


  3. this reminds me so very much of my dread of misunderstandings in emails. how can we tell when a person is being sarcastic or honest or…not? when in want of a room, or money, or even company, who tells the truthiest truth and who embellishes, just a little tiny bit?

    i see a lot of that sort of thing happening here and i have to admit, when you aren’t the one being told on, told about or the one worrying about your standing, it’s a lot of fun to read.

    and really, who doesn’t love the feeling of being a snoop and reading someone else’s letters? and in this case, it doesn’t matter if you get caught!


  4. I am enjoying rereading Lady Susan. It has been so long since I have read it that I can’t remember too much of the plot. It’s like discovering a new Jane Austen story, which is always fantastic.

    I like the story being told through letters and getting everyone’s view points. It makes me wonder, did Jane know anyone that was like Lady Susan? Lady Susan almost sounds like a precursor to Scarlett O’Hara. She is an accomplished flirt, who only seems to think of herself. I feel bad for poor Frederica and can’t wait to read more about her!

    Your review was fantastic!

    laarlt78 (at) hotmail (dot) com


  5. Why it has taken me this long to read Lady Susan is beyond me. I’m hooked and can’t wait to see what happens to Lady Susan and her “stupid” daughter. I’m loving it!!!


  6. I have wished someone would make a movie of Lady Susan. The industry seems pretty quick to take an Austen story and turn it into something else….why not use one that’s a little spicy to begin with.


    1. I have wished the same, Lynnae! Somehow, I see it something like The Age of Innocence… with the use of voice over revealing the character’s true thoughts while the action is showing quite the opposite. Or as you say, a modern adaptation would be welcome!


    2. Lynnae – it is indeed ripe to be plucked for a movie. There was talk of it being adapted by he BBC, but I have heard anything as of late. Since the BBC will not be doing anymore bonnet dramas for a while, we will have to be content with Emma 2009 for a while.

      There was a new stage play of Lady Susan though in Berkley, CA last July. Many of the attendees of the Republic of Pemberley’s AGM attended. Wish I had seen it.


  7. I enjoy how the letter-format allows us, as readers, to be in Lady Susan’s confidence; like Mrs Johnson. ;)
    Lady S exhaults in excercising her powers; ‘There is an exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike acknowledge one’s superiority’. (Letter 7)
    By contrast, she’s exasperated despite her best amicable behaviour, her sister-in-law still dislikes her…’it shews an illiberal & vindictive spirit’ (Letter 5) Hmm. It takes a woman to know a woman ?
    My impression is Reginald is ready to be fascinated by Lady Susan. Sure, he’s aware of her conduct; ‘By her Behaviour to Mr Manwaring, she gave jealousy & wretchedness to his wife & by her attentions…deprived an amicable girl of her Lover’ (Letter 4) yet he is intrigued…. ‘I long to see her’. Interesting how Reginald’s Contempt is reserved for the ‘dull & stupid’ daughter.
    Jane Austen maybe commenting on the naivity or mallability of young men over pretty women, even ones of dubious reputation. Reginald intends to ‘form some idea of those bewitching powers’ (Letter 5) Huh ? I think before he’s met Lady S, his judgement is subdued- easy game for Lady S !
    No wonder Catherine Veron is alarmed-‘They are now on terms of the most particular friendship’ (Letter 11). I wonder if Lady Susan is Jane Austen’s depiction of the attraction of evil ?


    1. Attraction of evil… hmmm… that is some food for thought. I do find it interesting that Jane Austen never puts an amoral and scandalous heroine quite so center stage again in her other novels. We do have Lydia Bennet, Lucy Steele and Mary Crawford, but they are peripheral (and certainly pivotal) characters, but not the main heroines.


      1. true and I wonder if Mrs Vernon plays a bigger role than we think… we are lead to like her and put her centre stage… she is the detective and Lady Susan the villian… perhaps Lady Susan is not the heroine and Mrs Vernon is. Agatha Cristie did something similar with some of her books… Miss Marple is of course the herione and yet she hardly features in some of the stories.


        1. Possibly, the moral tone and style of Lady Susan is similar to C18th epislatory novels where an immoral charecter frequently dominates centre stage By the time Jane A. wrote Lady Susan, the correspondence form of novel was less popular…Cath. Vernon is no dupe but so far, I think her letters show her a shrewd observor of Lady Susan.
          Mrs Vernon may provide a moral centre in the story- it may be interesting to see if she shares centre stage with Lady Susan.


    2. Mandy – you have selected some of the best quotes and points of interest. Excellent. I am as intrigued by Reginald De Courcy as he is of Lady Susan. We shall see what transpires. LA


  8. Never thought I would love a villianess so much. Lady Susan is so cleverly written. I’m loving it.

    Wonder what Jane must have witnessed to imagine these characters. She didn’t write of private meetings between men as she has no knowledge of it but she writes so well of this type of woman – facinating!

    Mr Mainwaring must be a piece of work don’t you think? Stay sharp Mrs Vernon – your house is about to collapse.


  9. Lady Susan has revealed herself surprisingly … different. I thought Emma was the most “imperfect” – and for this reason the most human , realistic and likeable – among Austen’s heroines but reading the first eleven letters I’ve immediately realized Lady Susan was pleasantly … evil: vain, selfish, enterprising, free, cold, emotionless, deceitful. May I stop here? Despite all that, just like Mr Manwaring or Reginald De Courcy, one can but be charmed by “the most accomplished Coquette in England” because she indeed “possesses a degree of captivating deceit which” IS “pleasing to witness & detect”.
    If I have to be utterly honest there is something I did NOT like in her: as a mother, I found incredibly disturbing her indifference, if not cruelty, to her daughter, Frederica. Her calculated subtle deceiving trick of faking an interest in her daughter’s education – but in a boarding school far from home and everybody the girl knew – in order to push her to marry Mr James, a man F. deeply disliked, was awfully evil!


    1. I must agree Maria, mistreating your child is dispicable. It is fun to watch Lady Susan scheme and flirt with adults, but difficult to see her neglect and manipulate Frederica. This really puts her in another league. LA


  10. Pssst Laurel Ann, Hi Everybody,
    I’ve not yet read all 11 letters, and I’m not in for winning the NA book (I already ordered it, and I don’t live in the US) but I saw or found something strange not only in your above post, but when I Googled “the problem” to be sure if I was right, (I was) I saw that many others made the same typo.

    Once upon a time there was a man called Sir Winston Churchill who didn’t live in one of the many places in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and the US that are called Church Hill or Churchhill .
    (ok I’m silly) ;o)

    From the first moment and the first letter where I read Churchhil, I envisioned myself a lovely green hill with a few real English sheep grazing near a small village church halfway that hill…

    OK I’ve yet read more of the letters to say something more.
    Never judge to early, I suspect a suprising plot of some sort…?


    1. Hi Yv, not quite sure exactly what you think the typo is. If it the spelling of Churchill, I have also seen it spelled Churchhill. My Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Minor Works edited by R. W. Chapman lists the spelling as Churchill. Since he was the scholar who edited the inaccurate first published text of Lady Susan, and did so from the original manuscript, I trust him. If that does not satisfy your curiosity, a good researcher always goes to the primary source document which in this case is the manscript of Lady Susan in Jane Austen’s own hand. I included an image from The Morgan Library of letter 19 in my post ‘On the Trail of Lady Susan’. Just click on the image of the letter to see a large image. The letter states Churchill as the spelling. This is of course only one letter. Jane Austen may have spelled it Churchhill elsewhere. Since I have not seen the entire manuscript, I must trust R. W. Chapman. Thanks for your question. LA


  11. I pity Frederica. I cannot imagine how one could handle such a mother who bore you with no affection (and I bet Lady Susan wished Frederica never existed) and forces you, feeds you with happiness that you do not find happy at all!

    I do not know much for now how much will be unveiled on Frederica’s character for I am still on Letter XX but her Aunt (if the wife of your brother is considered an Aunt to your child, that is) is being so motherly to her and finds her amiable and feels sympathy for her that I wished Frederica was Mrs. Vernon’s daughter.


  12. So far I find Lady S. intriguing but not quite likable; Moll Flanders was more of a criminal but more disarming for me personally. I think it’s because aside from Lady Susan’s first letter we’ve only seen her true colors to Mrs. Johnson or criticism from Mrs. Vernon; the deceit isn’t really practiced on the reader. I think Laura’s comparison to Scarlett is very apt.

    Austen has Lady S. secretly corresponding to Mainwaring under the guise of writing to his wife. Not only is this deceitful, but didn’t propriety forbid men and women from personal correspondence unless related or engaged?


  13. Ah, I didn’t know that. Churchhill seemed more logical to me. (being a church on a hill)

    I’m new to reading Jane Austen’s books and checked the village name in several online publications. Mollands which you suggested and that I use untill my book arives also uses two x h.

    I’ve now read letters 1-11, and I’m still not sure about Lady Susan’s character, Everyone has opinions about everyone, and I’m curious about Mr. Smith’s role in the matter.

    Btw I’m not sure about how the reading scedule works, should we have read the letters 11-22 before saturday (tomorrow) or do we read them in the days from saturday untill next wednesday?


    1. Hi Yv, Churchhill may have been an earlier English spelling that evolved into Churchill. Yes, Mollands does have the orginal spelling of Churchhill and Maninwaring from the first edition of Lady Susan in 1871 which was published from an inaccurate copy of the manuscript. That version is what is availbale in many e-texts. Some of the place names in Jane Austen novels do exsist, others are her invention. In letters 1-11, Austen wants to keep up guessing about Lady Susan. Her past history, reputation and personality is revealed by other characters and her reactions to them. Mr. Smith, I think, is just an excellorator to the plot. He is spoken of, but never appears. You do read ahead of the group schedule posting. That way you are ready to talk about it. I hope that this was helpful. Thanks for joining in. LA


  14. Knowing how difficult it would have been for any woman to achieve anything close to power during this time, I was impressed by Lady Susan’s ability to manipulate everybody around her.
    Granted, she is a great beauty, so I wasn’t too surprised when she turned poor Reginald (and every other man) to her cause, but even Mrs. Vernon acknowledges that her charms are so great that they have even managed to thaw her “resentful heart” a bit. Now that is power!
    I agree with everyone who stated that they felt bad for Frederica. Lady Susan might be that much easier to love if she used all of her delicious wickedness to benefit them both.
    And I love the format. Maybe it’s because we see the same story from several different POV’s… or maybe it is because I’m a big snoop.
    I’m having a delightful time at this soiree. Thanks for the kind invite!


  15. I love that Lady Susan is nothing like any of Austen’s other main characters. You read it and can’t believe it. She really is delightfully wicked. It’s hard not to like her or want to understand her. If I can feel that way about her, it is no wonder that so many of the other characters in LS feel the same way. She has this way of captivating her audience that makes her such an intriguing villainess. What is she up to? Who is she after? Can the reader believe anything they read from Lady Susan?


  16. Oh dear… I missunderstood, I’m reading behind you all in that case…
    I’ve read 1-23 at this point. *Ü*
    (still reading online, my ordered books probably arrive this weekend…)

    But I’m enjoying myself, thanks to you (all)!


  17. Hope I am not too late in joining. Your soiree has corresponded with the 1st and 2nd week of school for me, and I have had so much to read! Well, a little more than usual anyway ;) I am enjoying reading Lady Susan so far, mostly because it is nice to see a little of the youth of Jane coming out in her work. You can definitely tell it is an early work of hers because her later works are much more subtle. Thank you for the invite and I will keep reading!


  18. Poor Lady Susan. She can’t have her man, so she’s going around creating havoc with other people’s relationships. Namely her daughter.

    I’m curious to know if divorce was an option for couples during the Regency period. And, did Mr. Mainwaring stay with the Mrs. for the money?


    1. I recall in ‘Mansfield Park’ there is a reference to ‘newly divorced’ Mrs Maria Rushworth who didn’t remain long with H.Crawford; after she realized he would not marry her. (MP. Ch.44).
      My impression is in Regency era, divorce was an option for wealthy men, not women, on grounds on adultry and they had to petiton Parliament for permission to divorce.
      Presumably, a divorced woman was ruined. At least, Maria Rushworth wasn’t accepted back into society although we hear no punishment for for ex-lover H.Crawford.
      Married couples did seperate (the Prince & Princess of Wales were legally seperated) . Alicia Johnson mentions Manwaring as hard up for cash and she had a fortune…whatever the physical degree of Lady Susan’s flirtation with Manwaring; Mrs Manwaring appears convinced of the guilty nature of her husband’s liason with Lady S,- probably from the letters Lady Susan writes under the guise of writing to his wife…’Poor Manwaring gives me such histories of his wife’s jealousy!’ Mrs. J (Letter 28)
      Apparently, their imprudent conduct was scandelous enough to create a separation between husband & wife…’the Manwarings are to part; I am afraid Mrs M. will come home to us again. But she is still so fond of her Husband & frets…’ Mrs Johnson (Letter 38).
      Not sure of the Manwarings’ financial arrangements. Despite oppostion to the marriage by her guardian, Mr Johnson; I doubt Manwaring married her without gaining finanical benefit.
      On his seperation, Manwaring wasn’t free to marry Lady Susan…Agree, LS is destructive in people’s relationships. I think she enjoys feeling power. Although her reputation must be in smithereens after havoc with the Manwarings; I think Lady S gets off more lightly for her conduct than, say, Mrs Rushworth in MP or Eliza Brandon in S&S.


  19. I am glad Oxford is reissuing their World Classics editions. I have been reading works by Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell and have enjoyed having access to the Oxford editions with their excellent essays and supplemental materials.


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