“Of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! … too old to be agreeable, too young to die.” [Jane Austen, Lady Susan]
Jane Austen is best known for writing six great love stories: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. These novels are among the greatest in the English language, and how English they are! Set in its countryside, great houses, and fashionable cities, they are stylish and sophisticated classic novels, their protagonists often demure and morally upright. The action mostly takes place in drawing rooms or gardens and, while the novels can be pacy, there is no real violence or agitation contained within their pages. Indeed, Jane Austen’s novels were considered calming and therapeutic enough to be prescribed to convalescing soldiers during the world wars.
However, a lesser-known epistolary novel (a novel in letter form), called Lady Susan, is quite different in style and tone. It is so different in fact, that had you not known it was written by Jane Austen, even an Austenite might not realise it was Austen at all. It is decidedly racy, dealing predominantly with themes such as sexual desire, infidelity, and promiscuousness. The titular character is completely immoral, her only aim in life is finding a young (and rich) man to seduce and use for her own ends. She treats her daughter as a money-making venture and tries to get her to marry a young (and rich) man she does not love. The twists and turns of its plot mirror the twists and turns of Lady Susan’s decidedly tenuous, lustful, and mercenary connections. It is a funny, thrilling, and shocking tale even for a 21st century readership.
Austen’s other works also evidence her ability to be funny, and to mock the hypocrisies and the flaws of the society in which she lived. Foolish and loveless marriages are continually satirised in her novels and the unhappy characters who make such marriages often, in her major novels, get their just deserts. Reading Lady Susan will reveal to you whether the protagonist of this largely forgotten work gets what she deserves, but despite the fact that this little novel in letters is also, in the way of her other works, a comedy of manners, it is certainly more forthright in its consideration of sin, sex and desire. In Lady Susan, Austen seems to have created a highly enjoyable and somewhat dark psychological study of a lady of dubious character. It is a worth a read and would only take as long it takes Lady Susan’s head to turn.