We 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.
- Group reading schedule
- Lady Susan: Online text complements of Molland’s Circulating Library
- Lady Susan: List of Characters (spoilers ahead)
- Lady Susan: Plot Summary Letters 1-11
- Lady Susan: Quips and Quotes: Letters 1-11
© 2009 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose