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The Other Manipulative Women in Jane Austen's “Lady Susan”

Much has been said about “Lady Susan,” Jane Austen’s seventh little known epistolatory novel that she wrote when she was just in her teens. Fans of Jane Austen have raved about this piece as a fresh piece of Austen writing that departs from the usual kind hearted, innocent heroines of her six more popular novels. Most reviews and discussions focus on the main character Lady Susan Vernon, an attractive self-centered woman who delights in seeing the effects of her sly attacks on others and quite possibly lives for her moments power-tripping with both men and women alike. Certainly, Lady Susan’s character holds quite an appeal to most readers. She seduces men under the nose of much younger ladies, creates havoc in the peaceful lives of her in-laws, gets away with child abuse and still ends up rich, independent, sexually satisfied and with plenty of opportunities to do it all over again next season.

Kate Beckinsale in the Wilt Stillman 2016 film adaptation re-titled “Love and Friendship” succeeded brilliantly in portraying this colourful character. She dominates the film with her charm and wit that despite her brazen malice audiences cannot help but root for her and her equally conniving friend, Alicia Johnson (played magnificently by Chloe Sevigny). Against these intelligent two women, we are presented with other characters that are either naively dull or just plain stupid. The men in particular are completely at their mercy. Lady Susan’s brother-in-law, Charles Vernon is oblivious to everything that happens around him. Reginald de Courcy is easily convinced into changing his opinion through flattery and a pretty face. Sir James Martin is simply a mess. Stillman’s film stays faithful to the male characters Jane Austen depicts them he might have missed a few marks with the other female characters.

Love & Friendship Official Trailer #1 (2016) - Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny Movie HD

Catherine Vernon, the subtle fighter

When I first read Lady Susan as a teen, I was drawn, not just to Lady Susan but to the equally hostile words of her quite capable sister-in-law Catherine Vernon. Though the other Mrs. Vernon may not have the ruthlessness of Lady Susan, she comes out in letters to her family as an observant woman who is not easily fooled:

“I was certainly not disposed to admire her, though always hearing she was beautiful; but I cannot help feeling that she possesses an uncommon union of symmetry, brilliancy, and grace. Her address to me was so gentle, frank, and even affectionate, that, if I had not known how much she has always disliked me for marrying Mr. Vernon, and that we had never met before, I should have imagined her an attached friend. One is apt, I believe, to connect assurance of manner with coquetry, and to expect that an impudent address will naturally attend an impudent mind; at least I was myself prepared for an improper degree of confidence in Lady Susan; but her countenance is absolutely sweet, and her voice and manner winningly mild. I am sorry it is so, for what is this but deceit? Unfortunately, one knows her too well. She is clever and agreeable, has all that knowledge of the world which makes conversation easy, and talks very well, with a happy command of language, which is too often used, I believe, to make black appear white. She has already almost persuaded me of her being warmly attached to her daughter, though I have been so long convinced to the contrary. She speaks of her with so much tenderness and anxiety, lamenting so bitterly the neglect of her education, which she represents however as wholly unavoidable, that I am forced to recollect how many successive springs her ladyship spent in town, while her daughter was left in Staffordshire to the care of servants, or a governess very little better, to prevent my believing what she says.”

Vernon vs. Vernon: A catfight behind the polite smiles and graceful conversations.

Vernon vs. Vernon: A catfight behind the polite smiles and graceful conversations.

The film version has watered-down Catherine’s character to one who appears to be at a loss and at the mercy of Lady’s Susan’s schemes. By the end of the film, she is hardly remembered and seems to fade into the background among the others that Lady Susan ultimately takes advantage. However, in the original text, Catherine’s letters to her mother indicates that she too possesses claws and she rakes them in through subtle means. “I wish you could get Reginald home again on any plausible pretence; he is not at all disposed to leave us, and I have given him as many hints of my father's precarious state of health as common decency will allow me to do in my own house,” she writes to her mother. She then follows it with a description of her fears of the power Lady Susan has over her brother, before she concludes it with a direct entreaty: “If you can get him away it will be a good thing.”

Catherine may at times appear to be in danger from the spell of her sister-in-law’s deceptions, however, her good sense always prevails and she remains steadfast in her ways to protect her family. She is motherly, sensible and caring of those she loves including her younger brother and niece. I was left with the impression that the entire novella wasn’t just about that one formidable woman in the title character, but about two women who were silently waging a catfight on equal footing through the mask of politeness. A passage in the conclusion describes the two women’s private little battle over guardianship of Frederica:

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“The first hope of anything better was derived from Lady Susan's asking her whether she thought Frederica looked quite as well as she had done at Churchhill, as she must confess herself to have sometimes an anxious doubt of London's perfectly agreeing with her. Mrs. Vernon, encouraging the doubt, directly proposed her niece's returning with them into the country. Lady Susan was unable to express her sense of such kindness, yet knew not, from a variety of reasons, how to part with her daughter; and as, though her own plans were not yet wholly fixed, she trusted it would ere long be in her power to take Frederica into the country herself, concluded by declining entirely to profit by such unexampled attention. Mrs. Vernon persevered, however, in the offer of it, and though Lady Susan continued to resist, her resistance in the course of a few days seemed somewhat less formidable.”

Lady Susan may have employed demure delaying tactics for her daughter to remain in her custody but Catherine appears to know just how to combat such tricks without issuing a direct confrontation. In the end it is Catherine who wins the standoff by getting what she set out to do: the security of both her niece and brother under her wing. Lady Susan, on the other hand, settled for marriage to a silly man and gloating rights over Miss Manwaring—a major step down from her original scheme of getting her daughter married off to the cash cow while getting the equally wealthy younger man for herself. Austen may have enjoyed bringing to life Lady Susan’s character and providing her with as many memorably acerbic lines, but she was not the only biting character in this work.

Morfydd Clark as a naive Frederica Vernon

Frederica is another interesting female figure that should be taken with a second glance. Lady Susan’s teenage daughter wrote but one letter in the entire novella but such a letter revealed quite a lot about her. She is not “the greatest simpleton on earth” as her mother describes her but a young woman with sense. The fact that she had attempted to run away spoke of her courage and capability to chart a new life for herself. When she is caught and sent back to her mother to endure the pressure of being married to a silly man she cannot endure, she finds a way to defy parental authority yet again by appealing to her mother’s lover, telling him honestly about what she felt about the situation imposed upon her.

“I always disliked him from the first: it is not a sudden fancy, I assure you, sir; I always thought him silly and impertinent and disagreeable, and now he is grown worse than ever. I would rather work for my bread than marry him. I do not know how to apologize enough for this letter; I know it is taking so great a liberty. I am aware how dreadfully angry it will make mamma, but I remember the risk.”

Morfydd Clark in Wiltman’s film portrays her as a shy young girl, easily cowed by her mother and by the end seems oddly convinced that Lady Susan did right by her in the end, with not even a hint of rebellious indignation. When she, the Vernons and Reginald hears of Lady Susan’s marriage to Sir James Martin, Frederica sincerely expresses how she “wishes them all the happiness in the world.” Similarly, when her mother was mentioned during her own wedding, Frederica says with innocent sincerity: “I am enormously grateful to her. Without her, I would never have found such happiness.”

So was this an indication that she, like the other hapless men in this story, eventually also succumbed to Lady Susan’s tricks to change their opinion in her favour? We can never be certain if that was what Austen intended as she never bothered to fully develop Frederica’s character or let her voice be heard save for that one letter. However, one possibility is that Frederica may be more cunning than what she seemed.

At the end of the story when Austen narrates that Reginald was “talked, flattered, and finessed into an affection for her [Frederica] which, allowing leisure for the conquest of his attachment to her mother, for his abjuring all future attachments, and detesting the sex, might be reasonably looked for in the course of a twelvemonth.” Exactly who did the “talking, flattering and finessing” towards a marriage to Frederica is not certain. Catherine and her mother may have been the obvious culprits as the family would have benefitted greatly into the match and would have seen an advantage into settling Reginald with a good girl that would have saved him trouble if ever Lady Susan gets her hands on him again. However, one can also imagine that Frederica had something to do with it. This young girl could have learned a thing or two about her mother’s ways. Her innocence may have hidden a guile that unsuspecting Reginald would never have imagined until he settled with her, allowing her to cement a financially secure future with a family she already loved. In the film, Beckinsale’s character acknowledges this by saying “I’m glad I was able to attend to her education. My daughter is growing to be cunning and manipulative. I couldn’t be more pleased. A Vernon will never grow hungry,” showing that she has indeed taught her daughter quite well.


Quoted text from the The Project Gutenberg EBook of Lady Susan, by Jane Austen Release Date: July 27, 2008 Last Updated: November 15, 2012

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