This is the start of another new blogging series!

I plan to go slightly more in-depth than a regular book review and, as an English student, talk about some of the significant themes and messages of a particular book.*

*My choice in books may or may not be influenced by what I’m studying in my English degree.

Lady Susan is an epistolary novella by Jane Austen, published posthumously in 1891, but she wrote it as a teenager, before her most popular works. It is about Lady Susan, a beautiful, manipulative, and flirtatious widow who seeks not only to marry off her daughter, but a second advantageous marriage for herself to ensure financial security.

Class and Society

I think a key theme in Lady Susan is class and society; Austen paints a world in which marriage is for riches, not love, and women have no chance of succeeding unless they are attached to a man. However, Austen takes this idea, which is common in her other novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, and completely subverts it. She criticises the patriarchal society in which she lives and writes about, by creating a strong female character who takes on remarkably “male” characteristics. Lady Susan toys with various men’s affections, controlling their emotions and thoughts towards her – just as Captain Wickham did in Pride and Prejudice, and Mr Willoughby did in Sense and Sensibility.

Patriarchy

Following on from this, Austen highlights the power Lady Susan has, despite the fact she is a woman in a patriarchal society. She is a ‘Lady’, not by marriage, but by birth, and so already belongs to a certain status, without the need of a husband. She is also a widow, a scarily powerful social position, because she is much older than the men she flirts with, as well as sexually experienced. Personally, I think this was Austen’s way of exploring subversive ideas as a teenager in a covert manner – it would be too unacceptable for her to behave in this way herself, so she fantasised and wrote about it instead. This may have also been the motivation behind the narrative arc of Pride and Prejudice’s Lydia, a giggly young girl easily swept along by notions of love, marriage and sex.

Gender

Another significant theme in Lady Susan is gender; although Lady Susan needs a man to provide her income, she challenges patriarchy and feminine stereotypes in other ways. Her interaction with her daughter Frederica is so unlike a conventional mother. She is cold and cruel, which might reflect a stereotypical 18th/19th century father instead – a distant figure who makes financial arrangements for the family, but lacks an emotional connection to them.  Speaking of lacking emotional connections, Lady Susan only develops relationships when it is convenient and beneficial to her. Whilst this is incredibly selfish, her selfishness highlights her rationality and logic – traits which were seen as more “masculine” than “feminine”.

In this way, then, Lady Susan does not fit the mould of a conventional feminine protagonist, but that’s what’s so good about Lady Susan.

Although I didn’t enjoy the character of Lady Susan, the epistolary style, or the rushed ending, I enjoyed how Austen fearlessly subverted all the conventions I’d come to expect from a typical Austen novel, and raised some key themes to think about in the process.

***

Thank you for reading this blog post! It was nice for me to “vent” a little in a more literary way, rather than just always focus on my likes/dislikes.

If you’d like to read more of these style of blog posts, please click ‘Like’ or leave some feedback in a comment below!

– Judith

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6 thoughts on “Themes in: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

  1. I read Lady Susan recently as well and I agree completely with you about its flaws but also about its subversive nature. Amazing that Austen should have created such a character so early in her writing career. I find myself secretly admiring Lady Susan though for her chutzpah!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Have you seen the recent film? I saw that before reading the novella, and I was surprised by how similar they were, in content though not in exact “who says what when.” In some ways, the film ending continues the masculine role that Lady Susan takes on, where she can “mother” a child using her marriage as a cover for the arrangement, and her clueless spouse has no idea. Thank you for sharing this! It definitely helps one understand why Lady Susan acts as she does.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t seen the film, although I have seen a few clips. Obviously, a film adaptation of an epistolary novel is going to differ because the way narrative is conveyed is completely different (to have an entire film of letter reading/writing wouldn’t exactly be engaging).

      Like

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