In 1805, Jane Austen transcribed a fair copy of an untitled manuscript that would later be named Lady Susan by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. First published in 1871 in his biography of his aunt, A Memoir of Jane Austen, the novella is written in the epistolary format popular in Austen’s youth. Consisting of 41 letters between the characters and a conclusion by the narrator, it was estimated by scholars to have been written when Austen was in her late teens between 1793-94. The plots revolves around an unscrupulous and scheming widow Susan Vernon who “without the charm of youth,” manages to seduce any man who takes her fancy, while plotting to marry off her young daughter for financial gain.
“She is clever and agreeable, has all that knowledge of the world which makes conversation easy, and talks very well, with a happy command of language, which is too often used, I believe, to make black appear white.” – Catherine Vernon, Letter VI
Lady Susan is a one of Jane Austen’s most surprising novels. Often overlooked by scholars and readers, it has lately become the bonus novel tacked on by publishers eager to entice buyers into purchasing yet another edition of Jane Austen’s Complete Novels, now beefed up from six novels to seven. In comparison to her younger and larger sisters, Lady Susan receives very little notice or praise. Scholars have not helped in its promotion brushing it off as a minor work; an early experiment by an author in the making who would never return to the epistolary format, nor pursue its publication during her lifetime.
Upon first reading, I was struck by the difference in tone to her later works. There is nothing subtle or gently reproving about the plot or characters that she is famous for – yet it is Austen – a younger and less polished version; raw, energetic, outrageous, and I love it!
After Austen’s death in 1817, the manuscript passed down in her family and was later sold to The Morgan Library in New York City. Since all of the original manuscripts of her six major novels no longer exist, Lady Susan is the only extant example of a complete novel written in her own hand today.