After being introduced to Jane Austen’s Lady Susan via A Soiree with Lady Susan, Austenprose’s rollicking cyber group read, replete with wagging tongues and fluttering fans, I delighted in discovering this ‘most accomplished Coquette in England’. So different from other Austen heroines, I welcomed her all the more for her flagrant flaws and mercenary machinations. Regretfully, as Jane Austen never got the chance to revise this novella, the limitations of the epistolary form did leave me with a desire for more.
Enter Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway’s novel Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, which certainly fulfills this desire… and more! This clever re-imagining by a mother and daughter team turns my previous notion about this heroine on its head. It intriguingly opens with an Austen inspired witticism:
A woman with neither property nor fortune must ward off this affliction by cultivating the beauty, brilliance, and accomplishment that will blind a promising suitor to the want of a dowry. When she is securely married… she must never sink to complacency, but always keep sharp, for it may be her unfortunate lot to survive her spouse and she will be thrown back upon her wits once more.
Thus, the stage is set. Antedating where Austen’s story begins, the novel unfolds with a credible backstory that explains why Lady Susan’s reputation as an accomplished coquette springs from malicious gossip gone awry. Born Susan Martin, who from the cradle has been matched to her young, wealthy, and titled cousin Sir James Martin, she chooses, instead, to marry the much older and recently knighted Sir Frederick Vernon. Becoming Lady Vernon, she inadvertently makes an enemy of Mr. Charles Vernon, her husband’s younger brother whose suit she categorically rejected. Hell hath no fury like a man scorned! He slovenly casts aspersions on Lady Vernon’s character that, like all gossip, assumes a life of its own. When Sir Frederick dies with the understanding that Charles would provide for his wife and daughter as he had stipulated, the embittered Charles reneges on his verbal promises. Driven out of their home by Charles and his insipid and gullible wife, Catherine De Courcy, Lady Vernon and her daughter, Frederica, rely on the generosity of friends who place them in compromising situations that escalate the rumors. Lady Vernon is forced to endure the advances of the married Mr. Manwaring. Frederica is expelled from school for her kind-hearted gesture to save a friend from a ruinous elopement. Untenable, they return to Charles’ home and confront him with his responsibility, which he continues to evade. When Reginald De Courcy, Catherine’s brother, curiously arrives to meet the infamous Lady Vernon, the winds of persecution start to shift. Lady Vernon maintains the protective façade of her coquetry, but underneath, her uncanny understanding of human nature and social manipulations allow her to find a way out of their financially dire situation. Using the “most effective method of persuading both Reginald and Catherine to do anything, which was to urge them in the opposite direction”, Frederica is sent off to the forbidding estate of the De Courcy’s. Will Lady Vernon’s gamble pay-off or just put shy Frederica in a more precarious situation? Compounded with the return of the rebuffed Sir James Martin, a frivolous man who delights in flouting society’s expectations and making mischief, will Lady Vernon and Frederica’s pursuit for matrimonial bliss be thwarted forever?
Although I loved Lady Susan as a villain, I loved Lady Vernon more as a heroine. Frederica, who was barely given a voice in Austen’s original oeuvre, deservedly receives her full heroine due in this re-telling. It departs materially from Austen’s plot at certain points, but its prose and humor are so reminiscent of Austen that it is meaty enough to satisfy. Both Lady Vernon and Frederica, echoing the trials of sister tandems Elinor-Marianne and Lizzie-Jane (albeit here as mother-daughter), are imbued with similar wit, strength, and resiliency that we have come to love in Austen’s beloved heroines. Lady Vernon’s unerring wit outwitting a fickle society obsessed with gossip keeps this novel fresh for a modern audience whose inquiring minds want to know. Peppered with allusion to and appearance of several characters from Austen’s other canons truly make this novel a delicious read. So, read it not just once, for its story; not just twice, for its spin of the original work; but perhaps thrice, for all the other witty winks to Austen. After all, there is no such thing as having too much Austen in the daily diet.
Review by Regency Romantic
5 out of 5 Regency stars
Lady Vernon and her Daughter, by Jane Rubino & Caitlen Rubino-Bradway
Crown Publishing, New York (2009)
Hardcover (328) pages