‘Eyes of a Hunting Cat’: Jane Austen’s short novel, Lady Susan

 Lady Susan, a short novel in letter form, remains unknown to many Austen fans even though a movie version, Love and Friendship, was made recently.

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The Tedettes Jane Austen Bookclub with their discoveries about Lady Susan. The movie is on the right.

The novel is packed with exquisitely written barbs and eyebrow-raising cynicisms, the best delivered by Lady Susan herself as she confides her schemes to her ally, Mrs Johnson. Here is Lady Susan speaking of the wickedly expensive schooling of her 16 year old daughter, Frederica.

Not one lover to her list

“To be mistress of French, Italian, German, Music, Singing, Drawing etc. will gain a woman some applause but will not add one lover to her list.”

Austen is thought to have written Lady Susan before Northanger Abbey, but exactly when is not known.  The Austen-philes quoted below guess at 1803, 1805 and 1808, which puts Austen in her mid to late twenties. She wrote the first version of Pride and Prejudice, of course, when younger still.

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Lady Susan, a short novel in letter form, by Jane Austen, here portrayed.

A Lion In The Path

“Lady Susan … (is) a lion in the path of those persons who would call Jane Austen charming, soothing, refreshing etc.  G. H Lewes, when he recommended Charlotte Bronte to “follow the counsel which shines out of Miss Austen’s mild eyes” was unaware of Lady Susan, where Miss Austen’s eyes are those of a hunting cat. … In controlled grimness it looks forward to a masterpiece never written.”

Sylvia Townsend Warner, novelist, wrote the assessment above in a 1951 essay published by The British Council.  (The essay, sadly, is probably no longer available, even if you do have one shilling and sixpence net*).

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But who, you ask, is Sylvia?

Before Becky Sharp there was Lady Susan

But David Cecil, author of  A Portrait of Jane Austen , is among many Austen-philes determined to keep Miss Jane’s eyes as mild as possible.

“Lady Susan Vernon is a sort of blue-blooded Becky Sharp, an unscrupulous adventuress, far more sensational in her evil doing than any character in Jane Austen’s later books.”

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The Tedettes Jane Austen Bookclub (and Knitters). Their main bother is to find the bonnets.

Cecil thinks of the novel as a youthful experiment, even a mistake.

“It is lively and readable … All the same, Lady Susan is not a success. Jane Austen had no acquaintance with smart society and has to describe it from hearsay: with the result that her picture lacks the intimate reality with with she portrays the country gentry … We may suppose she realised this for she made no effort to have the book published in her lifetime … She was gradually learning her art.”

The Perils of Gout

Mawson’s Guardian thinks that if a reader’s frisson of guilty delight is a desirable part of entertainment then young Austen had thoroughly learnt her art.  Even the brutal lines in Lady Susan  that make Cecil wince are delivered superbly. Here is Lady Susan commiserating with Mrs Johnson about her husband’s gout.

“My dear Alicia, of what mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age!  just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout – too old to be agreeable, and too young to die”.

Mr Johnson (Stephen Fry in the movie) has forbidden Alicia from seeing Lady Susan on pain of her being despatched to his properties in America if she persists, for he believes Lady Susan to be a Bad Influence.  If you’ve never seen Fry play a ruthless role, watch on as he delivers the line, “I hear the Atlantic crossing is very cold this time of year”.

Subtle, Terrifying

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The Tedettes with their prized Folio editions of Jane Austen’s work

 Richard Church, in the Foreword to the Folio edition of Austen’s shorter works, is perplexed that Austen even penned such a work as Lady Susan.

“This is a masterpiece, powerful, subtle and terrifying. It is as cruel as Les Liaisons Dangerous by de Lachol. This Lady Susan may well be compared to  ..  Madame de Merteuil for coldness of soul, amoral cruely and icy lust. What was this feature of Jane Austens’s personality? so primitive, unladylike and deadly? Here was no chronicler of the drawing room and the country house tea party.”

 Bright Eyes

What kind of eyes did Jane Austen really have?  We’ve all seen portraits of her (there’s one above in this post).  Here is a word-portrait penned by her nephew. (Jane and Cassandra loved the role of Aunts.)

“In her person she was very attractive. Her figure was rather tall and slender, her step light and firm, and her whole appearance one of health and animation. In complexion she was a clear brunette with a rich colour, she had full round cheeks  with a mouth and nose rather small but well-formed, bright hazel eyes and brown hair forming natural curls around her face.”

Hmm, so hazel eyes, greenish eyes, and bright. The green of a hunting cat’s eyes, perhaps?

Take your own look at Lady Susan who herself certainly seems to deserve the description. And then enjoy Kate Beckinsale’s excellent portrayal in the inexplicably renamed, but otherwise guiltily-delightful film, Love and Friendship.

Where to find Lady Susan, in various editions: On BookDepository, on Amazon, and various editions on Abehbooks.com 

AbeBooks. Thousands of booksellers - millions of books. You are at Baffled Bear Books. Here writes Mark, guardian and blundering typist for Mawson Bear, Mawson is a Ponderer of Baffling Things and one of this bright world’s few published bears. He is the writer bear of It’s A Bright World To Feel Lost In.