Sunday 13 August 2017

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Lady Susan is an epistolary novel written around 1794 when Austen was in her late teens (although it was not published until 1871).

Lady Susan, herself, is an amoral, self-serving coquette, but it's hard not to love her just a little bit. She has a happy knack of twisting the facts to suit herself and an even happier knack of believing her own bullshit. Lady Susan brings to mind the magnificently monstrous Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil from Les liaisons dangereuses (Pierre Choderlos de Laclos). Susan is less vengeful than Isabelle, although it doesn't mean she's any less conniving or duplicitous. Her motivation appears to be one of carefree fun and getting what she wants, rather than meanly and deliberately plotting another's fall from grace.

Les liaisons dangereuses
was first published in 1782 and translated into English two years later, it caused quite a scandal because of its erotic plot and nefarious protagonists. I assume that Austen, who had unfettered access to her neighbours library, would have come across this novel or at least heard about this book by the time she was 19.

Claire Tomalin in her biography of Jane Austen, says -
although Eliza may well have owned a copy of Les Liaisons, it is hard to believe she would have shown it to her unmarried cousin. Its cynicism was one thing; its outspoken sexual element quite another. But she could have talked about the book.

This is not meant to be a critical put down. Early Jane was known to parody or emulate writing styles and in this particular instance, it is easy to say, that imitation was indeed the sincerest form of flattery.

If you're an Austen fan you'll be charmed and delighted by Lady Susan. But like me, you may also wish that she had developed this story further as a mature writer. Perhaps we can take heart from Lady Susan's obvious influence in some of Austen's later characters - Lydia and Wickham, both artless, selfish, flirts in Pride and Prejudice, the self-serving rake Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park and the less than honest, manipulator, John Thorpe, in Northanger Abbey.

Confusingly, Kate Beckinsale starred in a movie last year called Love and Friendship (the title of another Austen short story) that was actually based on Lady Susan. It looks rather delicious, and now that I've (re)read the story, I can't wait to watch the movie.

Speaking of movies, we watched Clueless on the weekend for the first time in 20 yrs or so. I had forgotten how much fun it was. The modern day Elton had us in stitches! I had also forgotten that 'whatever' and 'my bad' dated from this time too.

Whilst researching some of the dates and facts surrounding the writing of Lady Susan, I came across, for the first time, the whole debate surrounding the authenticity of a certain painting claiming to be that of a teenaged Jane Austen.

Is this or isn't it Jane?
Called The Rice Portrait of Jane Austen by Ozias Humphry, the painting is supposedly one done of Jane when she was 13 or 14. The story goes that the painting was commissioned by Jane's great Uncle Francis during a family visit to The Red House at Sevenoaks, Kent in 1788. Various modern provenance tests have been done on the painting in recent years, with no definite answer being given, one way or the other.

Wouldn't it be exciting if the painting was proved to be real?

If you'd like to know more about the history and provenance of the painting click here.

Jane Austen as drawn by her sister Cassandra c. 1810

And a modern colour reproduction of the same.


  1. I haven't read Lady Susan for ages but I think it's in the new Juvenalia that my friend Karen sent me fairly recently. I love the reproductions of the portraits; thank you for sharing them!

  2. Such an interesting post with all that backstory!

  3. I've learned all kinds of things in this post! Like the fact that the famous portrait wasn't originally coloured. And I didn't know about the teenage portrait at all - she looks very sweet. I do hope it's her...

    1. I was interested to note that the modern coloured version has also changed the shape of Jane's face a little too. I wonder why they did that?

  4. Anonymous14/8/17

    Great post! I should re-read Lady Susan (it's been a long time). I'll definitely do that before I see Love & Friendship.

  5. Interesting poat. Seems I have one more book to read by Austen. She is always fascinating. I still have Mansfield Park to read though.
    Interesting about the portrait. I guess it. Ould be her, but have no idea.

  6. The film Love and Friendship is a lot of fun - Kate Beckinsale is amazing in it. I wish I could believe in the Rice portrait, but unfortunately it's too like the various photographs of the Brontes that have surfaced over the years. Ah well ...

    Great post :)

    1. Until this post I had never even heard of the Rice Portrait, so my knowledge so far is based on the family webpage showing their proof of provenance plus a couple of newspaper articles that discussed it without declaring for it one way or the other.


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