Lady Susan: Group Read Letters 23-33: Summary, Musings, & Discussion

Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Minor Works (1988)I must warn you of one thing – – do not let Frederica Vernon be made unhappy by that Martin. He wants to marry her; her mother promotes the match, but she cannot endure the idea of it. Reginald De Courcy (Letter 23)


Catherine Vernon writes to her mother delighted that Lady Susan and Reginald’s quarrel has separated them. Catherine Vernon writes to her mother agitated that Lady Susan and Reginald are reconciled, Frederica is still unhappy after Sir James’ departure, and sickened by Lady Susan’s deceit. Lady Susan writes to Alicia triumphant that Reginald is more devoted than ever, scheming to punish Frederica, Mrs. Vernon, and Reginald. She is off to London to complete the match. Mrs. Johnson writes to Lady Susan encouraging her to come to London,  advises her to marry Reginald, but to wait on her plans for her daughter. Mrs. Vernon writes to her mother warning that Reginald is on his way home, but may follow Lady Susan to London. Frederica stays with her. Mrs. Johnson writes to Lady Susan glad that De Courcy is all her own, but miffed by her own husband. Lady Susan writes to Alicia pleased that Manwaring has arrived, but hesitant to marry Reginald until the old man is dead. Lady Susan writes to Reginald putting off their meeting and the delaying the marriage. Lady Susan writes to Alicia of Reginald’s surprise visit asking for her to entertain him since Manwaring is expected. Mrs. Johnson writes to Lady Susan in agony. Mrs. Manwaring has revealed Lady Susan’s affair with her husband to Mr. Johnson and Reginald. Lady Susan writes to Mrs. Johnson provoked but undismayed.  She is confident that she can make Reginald see her story.


As Letter 23 from Mrs. Vernon to her mother opens on an upbeat note, I become wary. She is “delighted the affair that has caused so much agitation is over,” but is it? How could she think that Lady Susan, the “Mistress of deceit” would let Reginald go and agree to remove Sir James so easily? I didn’t. I think that Austen is playing with us here, setting the story up for another surprise. A woman with an ego like Lady Susan will want the last say, and her revenge. And boy does she get it.

While Catherine Vernon learns from Frederica of the fall-out from the quarrel of Lady Susan and Reginald, we suspect that Lady Susan is scheming to reverse everything and everyone against her. I was disappointed in her being able to reverse Reginald’s anger and mend their relationship so easily, but Lady Susan’s speech in her defense to Mrs. Vernon was, well, just amazing.

“Good God!” she exclaimed, “what an opinion you must have of me! Can you possibly suppose that I was aware of her unhappiness! that it was my object to make my own child miserable, and that I had forbidden her speaking to you on the subject from a fear of your interrupting the diabolical scheme? Do you think me destitute of every honest, every natural feeling? Am I capable of consigning HER to everlasting: misery whose welfare it is my first earthly duty to promote? The idea is horrible!” Lady Susan (Letter 24)

Everything she is accusing Mrs. Vernon of assuming is in fact true! She is using all of her guilt strings to placate Mrs. Vernon into submission. She even goes so far as to admit fault in a round-about-way and reproach herself! She didn’t know Frederica was unhappy. She didn’t know her daughter was so smart and could tell the difference between a man of no understanding and one who did. If this does not dispel any doubts of her being a negligent mother before, then there is no argument now. Happily, Catherine Vernon is not buying any of it.

I left her almost in silence. It was the greatest stretch of forbearance I could practise. I could not have stopped myself had I begun. Her assurance! her deceit! but I will not allow myself to dwell on them; they will strike you sufficiently. My heart sickens within me. Mrs. Vernon (Letter 24)

This letter is probably the most significant in the novel. It reveals how underhanded and to what depth Lady Susan will sink to manipulate her prey. It also shows that when Lady Susan was written in Jane Austen’s late teens she was keenly aware of what craft words can weave “when first we practice too deceive.”  This is a great example of what amazes me about Austen’s early skill as a writer and how after reading Lady Susan I understand her so much better. She is showing us the darker side of human nature in a more overt way than we experience in her mature novels. It takes a brilliant mind to scheme at this level; to seek out conflict and manipulation to feed their need for a challenge. This concept obviously intrigued Austen well enough to develop this novel. We can only imagine how even more fascinating the story could have been if in maturity she had approached it again. Lady Susan may be an anti-heroine to her spirited Lizzy Bennet or reserved Anne Elliot, but she is one captivating creature, ready to win at any cost and I am enthralled.

[A]t present my thoughts are fluctuating between various schemes. I have many things to compass: 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 since Sir James has been dismissed; for, in reconciling Reginald to me, I was not able to save that ill-fated young man; and I must make myself amends for the humiliation to which I have stooped within these few days. Lady Susan (Letter 25)

And so she plans her revenge and heads to London where her confidant and partner in duplicity, Alicia Johnson awaits. Two spiders perched in their webs! Whence Lady Susan goes, people tend to follow, especially men, supplying her with two lovers at the same time which she must juggle. One, Reginald De Courcy, she wants to marry, eventually, but not until his father is dead and not to impeding her freedom, and the other, Mr. Manwaring, holding the strongest charm imaginable making him irresistible –  a jealous wife – placing him just beyond reach of marriage, but close enough to offer that clandestine rush she desires. Oh my! We are getting deeper and deeper into the dark side of human nature that is handled so subtly in the major novels. In her correspondence with Alicia we see the closest truth she will tell anyone, and the fabulous wickedness let loose.

My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die. Lady Susan (Letter 29)

He must not come till Mainwaring is gone. I am still doubtful at times as to marrying; if the old man would die I might not hesitate, but a state of dependance on the caprice of Sir Reginald will not suit the freedom of my spirit. Lady Susan (Letter 29)

In Lady Susan’s ideal world, men are either play things, or nuisances that should die. When in letter 30 she writes to Reginald who is awaiting her command for their reunion in London, she explains that their meeting must be delayed, and also their marriage. She feigns propriety, unable to incur the censure of Mr. Vernon (her meal ticket) and the world by a marriage too soon after her husband’s death. Oh really? Since when did propriety ever rule her life? We know from past experience that Reginald is “hasty in his resolutions” and jealousy of Manwaring, so when she plants the bait and conveniently mentions that she is amusing herself with Manwarings entertainment in London, the predicable happens. Reginald arrives. What man violently in love would not rush to her side? One does not tell a man that he can not see you and then in the same breath mention another man favorably without expecting results. That’s basic man manipulation 101. Interestingly, she has also sent for Manwaring. This Lady likes to live on the edge! At the same time she is having her adulterous rendezvous with Manwaring, Reginald, whom she has sent to Alicia’s is learning the truth. Mrs. Manwarings, the jealous wife, also arrives at Alicia’s requesting the  interference of her guardian Mr. Johnson.

[B]efore I could be aware of it, everything that you could wish to be concealed was known to him, and unluckily she had wormed out of Manwaring’s servant that he had visited you every day since your being in town, and had just watched him to your door herself! Mrs. Johnson (Letter 32)

Austen then gives Mrs. Johnson one of the best lines in the novel. “What could I do? Facts are such horrid things.” Indeed they are! Even though Alicia is in agony and distressed over the incriminating event, Lady Susan, with her cool and calculating reserve is provoked, but not dismayed. With the ease and confidence of a master schemer, she tells Alicia to “depend on it, I can make my story good with Reginald.” So well she knows the foibles of men!


© 2009 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

25 thoughts on “Lady Susan: Group Read Letters 23-33: Summary, Musings, & Discussion

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  1. I’ve just closed my copy of Jane Austen’s Minor Works at page 304. I was SO tempted to go on reading but this forcing myself to respect the deadlines of our schedule is making the experience much more thrilling and , as I already wrote, great fun. Here are my reflections for today.
    1. Reading and re-reading this third group of letters, I started reflecting on young Jane Austen being so masterful in her use of language. If she created an incredibly skillful heroine, who could master people and the same course of the events with her ability in using words like Lady Susan, how good did she herself have to be with words? She was indeed an already wonderfully talented young writer, though only in her teens!
    2. I’ve been particularly charmed by evil characters recently. Especially well written or well acted ones. Not the stereotyped flat villains but those with a certain complexity and psychological insight. Wicked Lady Susan is the result of a particularly free Austen, maybe due to her young age. L.S .is definitely and devilishly wicked. In the letters to her friend, Mrs Amelia Johnson, she reveals the most evil of her feelings, her most unscrupolous soul, she confesses with no dismay all her worst thoughts. She is so confident in her skills and feels no sense of guilt at all nor any regret for what she does. Once her affair with Mr Manwaring is revealed to Reginald – who wants to marry her! – and to Mr Johnson by Mrs Manwaring herself, Lady Susan is so bluntly sure of herself: “Reginald will be a little enraged at first, but by Tomorrow’s dinner, everything will be well again”. These evil souls are so fascinating! Don’t you think so? Pray not to meet them on your way but in a novel they make the day!
    3. I like Mrs Catherine Vernon much. She is the only one who is not subjected to Lady Susan’s schemes and tricks. This means she must be quite intelligent and very sensitive. She is balanced and pragmatic, so different from Lady Susan. But she is her only real antagonist, the only one who can cope with her in a fair confrontation.
    4. Last but not least, I hoped Reginald was the hero of this novel. But it seems Jane Austen had not a very high esteem of men in that period of her life (What about the rest of her short life, I wonder?!?), if we have to judge from the mail characters we ‘ve met here and so far! What disappointment! They are really at the mercy of the women around them! Look at poor Mr Johnson, dead Mr Vernon, Lady Susan’s brother , Mr Manwaring (soon found out by his wife!), young Reginald. Not a dashing bunch of heroes!
    Where is my Captain Wentworth or my Mr Darcy?


    1. I agree. There are no heroes to admire or to fall in love in to. It seems that the prime emotions that the readers will gain from reading Lady Susan is anger for LS and pity for all those she wrapped around her finger.


      1. JA once wrote, albeit flippantly; ‘I do not want people to be agreeable, it saves me the trouble of liking them’. I wonder if LS is intended as a send-up of C18th correspondence novels like Dangerous Liasons ?
        Admittedly, I’m appalled at Lady Susan’s treatment of her own daughter; sneering at the girl’s virtue and when Lady S can no use Frederica as a pawn- she convientently forgets her existence.
        As for Reginald, he’s too milky to inspire anger in me.


    2. Maria – in my research on Lady Susan one criticism is that the novella is not balanced, Lady Susan is too dominant overpowering the other characters. The budding romance between Frederica and Reginald is almost a love story and Reginald is almost a hero. I don’t want to talk too much ahead of the reading – so will touch on this again.


  2. I was thinking the same thing Maria, this is a world of females. Not one of the men seem to have a real backbone, and the one that MIGHT have had one is so easily duped by a pretty face it it’s just sad!


  3. I wonder at the kind of friendship that women like Lady Susan and Mrs. Alicia Johnson have between them. Obviously, they’re tarred with the same brush:

    a. They do not marry for love but for money — Hence, Lady Susan has Reginald on a leash and Alicia admits that ‘Nothing but my being in the utmost distress for Money, could have extorted it from me.’ (Letter 26)

    b. In the ‘absence’ of a husband, they prefer to have ‘true enjoyment’ in the form of dallying with other men — Lady Susan with Manwaring and Reginald; Alicia with an ‘engagement’ her husband knew nothing of in Letter 5

    c. They treat men as mere play things — Lady Susan writes to Alicia: You will not find (Reginald) a heavy companion, and I allow you to flirt with him as much as you like. (Letter 31)

    Yet, their friendship is a fragile thing because it is based on shallow foundations. I do believe that when Alicia informs Lady Susan that she can not stay with them when she comes to town because Mr. Johnson had made her promise (by extortion!) and subsequently because of Mr. Johnson’s gout, this provokes Lady Susan to make her stinging joke about what a mistake Alicia made ‘in marrying a Man of his age! — too old to be agreeable, and too young to die.’ (Letter 29). This in turn, I believe, is what prompted Alicia to say she was NOT in the house when the whole ‘eclaircissement’ happened. I truly think she was at home. Even Lady Susan says: ‘I thought myself sure of you at seven.’ (Letter 33). Alicia knew what was happening, but had no sway over her husband on this matter. I daresay she was even a little delighted in taking Lady Susan down a peg, she with her two lovers! Is it very scandalous of me to think so? ;-)

    As aforementioned by Maria Grazia, they are such delicious villains on the paper, but I’d shudder to meet them in real life, I wager!


    1. How shocking ;-) It may be scandelous but I think J.Austen intends the letters to be read as a cynical study of high society, slightly satirical. Alicia Johnson strikes me as being of an immoral & callous mindset, similar to Lady Susan…Joanna Go, I think you may be correct… Alicia, enjoyed flirting with Reginald- and is delighted Mrs Manwaring’s revelation of Lady Susan’s Other affair may detach Reginald from LS…Consider Lady Susan’s opening line, ‘That tormenting creature Reginald is here’. (Letter 31) Alicia is stuck with a boring, gouty husband. She may believe LS does not deserve dangling two attractive lovers ?
      Gossip ! Will Alicia Johnson foil Lady Susan and outdo her as a schemer ? *Fans self rapidly* ;-)


  4. I think what I love most about this letter format so far is how much everything is open to interpretation; there is no all-seeing narrative voice to describe events. The suggestions mentioned above that Lady Susan intentionally provoked Reginald into coming, and that Alicia wanted to take her down a peg, certainly provide food for thought.

    I also agree that Reginald is not much of a hero–impetuous, easily persuaded, foolishly chivalrous in defending a woman’s honor whether or not she is worth it. Even his name seems to lack the romance of Frederick or Henry. Is he also younger than heroes in the later books? I thought he was twelve years younger than Lady Susan, who is put at about 35; even Henry Tilney was in his mid-twenties.

    Finally, in some ways this makes me wonder what Austen’s relationship with her own mother was. Emma and S&S are the only books with sympathetic maternal figures, and in those cases they are much less influential characters.


    1. Mystrygirl87, I like the epistolary format also. I feel like a voyeur – an interesting intimate perspective. The format does have its limitations — no dialogue and little description. Austen seemed to be frusterated with this and begins to add characters quoting dialouge in the letters around letter 20. Even at this young age, she was pushing formats – exploring. I admire her for that.


  5. I think that is an advantage of the epislatory novel.The letter-format does allow a reader immediate access to intimate thoughts and motives of each charecter.
    To Mrs Johnson, Lady Susan confides she’s determined Frederica will marry Sir James, thoughts on punishing people who’ve displeased her (Letter 25) Yet, I now wonder if charecters like Mrs Johnson use letters to conceal their real thoughts…Agree, the men are whimps, only Mr Johnson seems a sensible man warning Reginald of Lady S; if Alicia’s letter is true. (Letter 32)
    Reginald may fancy himself as a flirt, but I doubt he undertands women at all well.
    Actually, just in my opinion many of Austen’s heroes intially misunderstood women- think of Edmund dazzled by Mary Crawford (MP) Darcy admits in his letter to Lizzy, he drew the wrong conclusion in his observations of Jane with Bingley. (P&P) I don’t know if Reginald is capable of much self-examination to redeem himself as any hero.
    Mrs Morland is a sympathetic, motherly charecter- but NA’s story is set mainly in Bath. away from the Parsonage…well, a descendent of Charles Austen told me Jane never got along with her mother- though I doubt Jane was as badly treated as Frederica, and she was close to her sister.
    I think Jane may’ve drawn on a real life person for Lady Susan- Mrs Craven; grandmother of Austen family friends, Martha & Mary Lloyd. Mrs Craven, herself a beauty, locked up and beat her daughters till they fled home to escape he despotic rule. So Lady Susan wasn’t so unreal !


    1. I like the comparison of Reginald with Edmund and Darcy! Is any man capable of self-examination? =D

      Yikes… Mrs. Craven! Wouldn’t want to be her daughter! Jane Austen certainly met some colorful people in her lifetime. But her genius, of course, was her astute observation and depiction of not only such people, but even seemingly ordinary people.


    2. I think Reginald is an interesting character. Don’t judge him too harshly. You may change your mind by the conclusion. I enjoy characters that have deep faults. It gives the author and the readers a great ride to see them struggle and grow. Austen liked this aspect also. Many of her characters have faults, but only the ones she wants you to feel deeply about evolve in the novel. When I think of her heroines, only Fanny Price and Anne Elliot do not change much. Anne was constant and loyal in her principles and love. Fanny is a rock of fortitude, which may also be her greatest fault in interest for the reader.

      In my research on LS, I also read about Mrs. Craven. It has also been suggested that Austen’s cousin Eliza de Feuillide may have influenced her. There definitely had to be someone to inspire her LS. One does not dream up such a character without some external influence and inspiration. Duplicity, deceit, and extreme coquettetry are learned skills! I shudder to think that they are instinctual and in this case, Jane Austen understood Lady Susan because she was a bit like her herself. I does take one to know one. Maybe this was the darker side of her personality that her family tried to hide in their biographies and with Cassandra destroying her correspondence? Just a thought. ;-)


  6. Don’t the characters of Alicia Johnson and Lady Susan make you curious–curious when, where and how they met and became “friends?” It’s an interesting friendship that they have, especially since Mr. Johnson apparently does not approve or like Lady Susan. I agree that Alicia must have enjoyed watching the chaos begin as it surrounds her in her house. I picture a smug smile on her face, much like I envision a similar one on Caroline Bingley’s face at times in P&P.

    This group of letters really show how much a villianess Lady Susan is. She is just cruel to her daughter and anyone and everyone who surrounds her. Does she think she can get away treating people like this forever? When will it catch up to her? (Ok, it is now, but doesn’t it just make you mad and sick to your stomach all at the same time?)


  7. This would be a good collection to have. I have Sanditon by Jane Austen and Another Lady, but do not have any of the rest of these in this edition.


  8. I have not had the chance to read Lady Susan, but have enjoyed the Austen books I have read including Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, and S&S. I am planning a trip to New York in November and intend to see the exhibit at the Morgan Library.


  9. Lady Susan! She certainly does make play things of men in this section. I agree with all of the comments above, I would LOVE to learn the backstory of Lady Susan and Alicia’s friendship. It certainly is interesting how they plot together and have the same ideas on what men are. It’s sad really that they do not seem to believe in love at all. Men are just means to an end.


  10. I loved getting to know Lady Susan. She’s so charmingly wicked :) Even though she’s despicable, I can’t help liking her. Wanting to know more about her.


  11. Since I just found this today, I’ll have to back over all these posts and read them along with the book. Will be an enjoyable exercise. I hop the library carries Jane’s complete works.


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