I have been reading (re-reading actually) some of Jane Austen’s early works.
A few days ago, I blogged about her History of England, written when she was sixteen. That she meant the piece to be be humorous I have no doubt; the description of herself as a very partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian gives the game away. But what is so remarkable about the History is Austen’s grasp of satire, a talent that blossomed and flourished as she got older.
Lady Susan , written when Jane was eighteen or nineteen, but not published until half a century after her death, demonstrates her considerable maturity and understanding of the world. An immature work when compared to Pride and Prejudice, and even Emma, it is, if one does not judge too harshly, a gem of a novella. That budding wit and satire is there again, now on an adult stage. Here, in her own unique way, Jane laughs (as always) with – and at – her characters as they love and stumble through their lives of balls, salon parties and ennuie.
Written almost entirely as a series of letters between the chief characters, the epistolary form popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Lady Susan is remarkable for its portrayal of perfidy and promiscuity within middle class society. It introduces us to the eponymous and euphemistically flirtatious lady (for goodness sake don’t mention adultery or sex!), who is willing to sacrifice her daughter for her own pleasure.
“She is a stupid girl, and has nothing to recommend her.”
Lady Susan is expert at manipulating facts and opinion, as well as men, and for a while seems to be getting her own way. She is cold and calculating, especially in relation to the future of Frederica, her daughter, whom she is determined to marry off into wealth. She plans a match with Sir James Martin, an ‘older’ man, while she goes after Reginald de Courcy, a ‘younger model’, herself.
Lady Susan is not great literature. The epistolary technique eventually stalls, and Austen shows her (literary) immaturity by having to resort to third person narrative for the conclusion. However, in the end the protagonist’s cleverness works against her. And while the final twist is amusing, it is difficult to say whether the ending is a happy or sad one.
Jane Austen’s novels are sometimes a challenge for the modern reader. The language of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is unfamiliar. Often, words she uses have a different meaning to that attached to them today; others, like ‘unexceptionable,’ have gone out of fashion. She euphemises too in the delicate manner of the age. She delights in long speeches which occasionally become detached from the speaker and unless one is reading very slowly and carefully it is easy to lose the thread of the conversation. I think this is especially true of her earlier works. However, perseverance brings its own reward – (and anyway, with Lady Susan, the reader can easily get through it twice in one or two sittings).
As a commentary on English upper middle class manners and foibles, Austen’s work is ever the equal of any social history of the period.