02 October 2007

Lady Susan: Jane Austen's first attempt at writing

Coquette Caper

Author: Jane Austen
Published: 1871 (written much earlier)
Pages: 80 pages

One of Jane Austen's earliest works, this novel, written in an epistolary form, didn't get published as late as 1871.
Clearly, Austen was trying to find her feet in the literary world and chose a form that was relatively easier to write.

The story has Lady Susan as its central character, a natural born coquette, who has an easy way with men of all ages. Widowed lately and economically weakened, Lady Susan uses her eloquent charms and grace to entice men, more as amusement and a reiteration of her power over men than anything else.

The fact that Susan manages to entrap the best of men, inspite of not being in the bloom of youth, surprises everyone around her, except herself.
Among the three men who fall in love with her, one is her sister-in-law's brother, Reginald, a handsome young man, who though initially wary of her reputation, gets so utterly charmed when he meets her, that in due course even proposes marriage -much to the dismay and shock of his family.
Her second lover and probably the only one for whom she betrays some true feelings is Mr Manwaring, a much married man who is deeply enamoured by lady Susan.
The third one is Sir James, who is so much in love with her, that he's even ready to marry Lady Susan's daughter, Fredrika, on her command.

Like all other Austen novels, this one too casts an ironic look at nineteenth century England, with its ingrained hypocrisy. And even though Lady Susan is the author's primary object of satire, all the other characters are satarised in at least a small measure. Catherine Vernon, who is dead against her brother Reginald marrying Lady Susan, is quick to note that she mustn't antogonize the latter too much, amidst the possibility of the latter becoming her sister-in-law.
Again, Lady Susan's trusted friend, Mrs Johnson is quick to politely sever ties with the former when she sees herself getting into the least bit of trouble.

However, it must be said that the limitations of the form prevents the story from gaining any sort of real depth and even the characters remain far from being well-etched. For a lead character, Lady Susan has been portrayed as incredibly unidimensional and flat. Austen is guilty of treating her in a charmless way and it's never quite clear how she manages to trap every man she meets.

Though the central character, quite obviously, Austen is trying to bring out the amorous, illicit, amoral world that lurks beneath the surface respectability and propriety that is projected.

While the book is obviously not one of Austen's best, it doesn't fail to demonstrate her trademark wit, irony and delightful play of sentences.

Sample this:

"Oh, how delightful it was to watch the variations of his countenance while I spoke! to see the struggle between returning tenderness and the remains of displeasure."

"I do not wish to work on your fears, but on your sense and affection."

"But a state of dependence on the caprice of Sir Reginald will not suit the freedom of my spirit"

This should give an indication of why an Austen novel is an irresistible read, in any form
-Sandhya Iyer


Alexander said...


As a self-confirmed Austen addict, I thought it might interest you as a kind of curiosity what the prices for Austen's first editions currently are. There will be an auction in New York in about two weeks where first editions of all six major Austen novels will be offered. Estimated minimum prices range from 7500 USD for the posthumously published (together) Northanger Abbey and Persuasion to 40 000 USD for Sense and Sensibility.

The distribution of wealth, it seems to me, is somewhat unequally distributed in this world. So, hopefully, are psychotic passions for collecting.

sandhya said...

Wow - why am I not surprised. The number of Austen addicts out there in the literary world and their level of devotion far exceeds that for any other author.

Anita said...

Hello from Virginia, USA.
I was blog surfing and landed here.
Recently, I listened to Lady Susan on tape (from the library), and was interested because it was written by "Jane Austen."
If I had not found your review of it, I probably would have a hard time remembering the story when I summarize it in my book journal - so thanks for giving me some help. :)
I was hoping to enjoy it like I enjoyed listening to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
Best wishes with your continued book reviews.

rohit said...

Must be an enjoyable read Lady Susan by Jane Austen. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by "to read" list.