Themes in: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Hello, my name is Judith! Welcome to my blog, ReadandReview. Instead of a book review, this will be thematic book discussion.

Lady Susan is an epistolary novella by Jane Austen, published posthumously in 1891, although she wrote it as a teenager. 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

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.

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 – 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.

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.


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Have you read this book? What did you think? 

– Judith


This post was last updated in January 2020.

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

  1. 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

  2. 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

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