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!
- Lady Susan: Group reading schedule
- Lady Susan: Online text complements of Molland’s Circulating Library
- Lady Susan: List of Characters (spoilers ahead)
- Lady Susan: Summary Letters 23-33
- Lady Susan: Quotes & Quips Letters 23-33
- Lady Susan: Group Read – Letters 1-11
- Lady Susan: Group Read – Letters 12-22
© 2009 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose