I keep going back to Jane Austen!
A couple of weeks ago, I bought a series of lectures from The Teaching Company’s Great Courses. By Professor Devoney Looser of the Arizona State University, they explore Jane Austen’s life and works, and examine the customs and morality of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century in which she lived. (see ##)
For anyone interested in Austen, these talks are a wonderful beginning to a study of her novels and short fiction.
This article focuses on one of her earliest stories, one which wasn’t however published until fifty years after her death.
Lady Susan , written when Jane was eighteen or nineteen, 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 already there. Here, in her own unique way, she 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, Jane Austen’s work is ever the equal of any social history of the period.
Note ## The lecture series is available from https://www.thegreatcourses.com/ in the literature section.