The last epistolary mid-length novel, Lady Susan, that
Jane Austen ever tried was never titled during the author’s lifetime and was
naturally never published, but was put aside as a fair copy.
In this paper I will examine Lady
Susan using the “last word” as a key concept.
Certain characteristics of Lady
Susan become clarified from the perspective of the “last word.” The
last word subtly shifts expression from lethargy and deception to confession,
transferring, or perhaps being expropriated, by Catherine Vernon, by
Lady Susan, and by author Jane Austen herself in turn.
Each partner of a scene dreams of having the last
word. To speak last, “to
conclude,” is to assign a destiny to everything that has been said, is to
master, to possess, to absolve, to bludgeon meaning, in the space of speech, the
one who comes last occupies a sovereign position . . . . (Barthes, Lover’s
The one who formally has the last word in the last of the forty-one
letters comprising Lady Susan is Mrs. Vernon. Not only do the protagonist, Lady Susan, and Mrs. Vernon have
a clearly antagonistic relationship as “affecter” and “inquirer,” their
relationship forms the very core of the work.
I would like first to look at the “last word” acquired by Mrs.
Vernon, centering on the rivalry between the two women.
Mrs. Vernon, who is the “inquirer,” appears in the story as someone
who already has a grasp (or at any rate, should
have a grasp) of the true nature of the “affecter,” Lady Susan.
Mrs. Vernon early on calls Lady Susan’s sincerity and image of perfect
motherhood a façade. Yet there is a problem in her so designating; the labeled
Susan who appears before us, that is, the “reality,” does not seem a façade.
Mrs. Vernon’s impatience with her own inability to see her rival Susan
for what she really is reveals itself inadvertently in Mrs. Vernon’s letters
to her trusted correspondent: her
mother. Words such as
“believe,” “sure,” and “declare,” which she uses in her letters,
make a strong beginning in her correspondence. Yet perhaps on account of her
resorting to them, they conversely expose an uncertainty in Mrs. Vernon’s
pronouncements. In other words, her
desire to reach the conclusion she spells out betrays Mrs. Vernon.
As Tzvetan Todorov points out, if language activity is something that
supplements the portions missing in the self, then surely the fact that such
activity can be keenly sensed in the letters here lays bare the fact that they
are lacking in reality (21).
Actually, Mrs. Vernon slips in the word “wonder” as if to weave the gaps
between the words that express her conviction.
The conviction she has just declared is gradually and steadily eroded by
vocabulary such as “impose,” “deceive,” “disguise,” “artifice,”
“pretension,” “dupe,” and “artful.”
In other words, what the reader initially encounters is, ironically,
Mrs. Vernon’s own inability to see Lady Susan clearly.
Yet this does not necessarily imply that Lady Vernon is by nature a
character lacking in discernment. Contradictory
as it might sound, I think we can even say that Mrs. Vernon’s not seeing is
actually indicative of the superiority of her acumen.
In reality, Mrs. Vernon is the one who can best discern the truth of the
group of other “innocents” like herself.
What makes her lack of perception conspicuous is that she more than any
of the other characters is straining so strenuously to see the truth.
For example, when the attempted flight of Frederica Vernon, Lady
Susan’s daughter, from her private school is detected, Lady Susan does
remarkably well at playing the part of the “mother,” and acts out an
exaggeratedly pathetic scene, but what the audience, Mrs. Vernon, sees is
something else entirely: “She has
been talking a great deal about it to me, she talks vastly well, I am afraid of
being ungenerous or I should say she talks too
well to feel so very deeply” (267).
It is Susan’s adherence to her own role, a proper mask—the
perfection of that mask—that causes a peeling off of the layer between
Susan’s mask and her own unadorned face.
What inhibits the scene is Mrs. Vernon’s intuition.
After all, Susan “talks too
well to feel so very deeply.”
While touching momentarily on Susan’s reality, however, Mrs. Vernon
has the ability to apprehend so easily and simultaneously as to be a chilling
character in her own right. I say
this because Mrs. Vernon’s conclusion that she “can see” Lady Susan for
what she is causes the unhappy result of her judging her husband, who is lacking
in concomitant ability, to be incompetent.
I will not look for Faults. She may
be Reginald’s Wife. Heaven forbid
it!—but why should I be quicker sighted than anybody else?
Mr. Vernon declares that he never saw deeper distress than hers, on the
receipt of the Letter—& is his Judgement inferior to mine? (267)
The disquiet caused by feeling she might be overlooking something, the
uncomfortable knowledge that by surpassing her husband in perspicacity she might
be seeing through reality—either case places Mrs. Vernon in a dilemma between
two unhappy choices. The true form
of Susan that can be glimpsed through Mrs. Vernon vanishes during her periods of
vacillation since, according to social convention, wives, for example, were not
supposed to be superior to their husbands.
Susan’s crisis, caused by intoxication with her own eloquent self, is
safely resolved not by Susan, but through Mrs. Vernon’s own apprehension (or
because of her surrender on her own accord to public opinion).
As a result, Mrs. Vernon is able to avoid the stamp of being a wife with
a “foolish, undiscerning husband.” The
price that Mrs. Vernon pays is that she must abandon the opportunity of seeing
first hand Susan’s true nature.
The advantage Susan has in this conflict with Mrs. Vernon is obvious.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the reality of Susan, the
“affecter,” is actually bolstered through none other than the existence of
the “inquirer,” Mrs. Vernon. The
existence of Mrs. Vernon, or to put it more accurately, the desire of Mrs.
Vernon to inquire, induces Susan’s response of affective behavior, while at
the same time, Susan’s reaction is in a sense aimed precisely at the value
system of Mrs. Vernon, who is the embodiment of public opinion.
In that sense, by constantly betraying Mrs. Vernon, Susan’s deceit
paradoxically is delineated definitively by Mrs. Vernon.
For her part, Susan is the “pretender” in antithesis to Mrs.
Vernon’s role of “detector,” and transcends her adversary in level of
perception. It is only natural that
those who are knowledgeable are superior to those who are not. This makes Susan the subjugator.
It is not surprising that of the two sides—inquirer and affecter—it
is the person who stands in the role of conqueror or subjugator who is bestowed
with a penetrating, sharpened cognizance.
Roland Barthes’s question, “what if knowledge (connaissance)
itself were delicious?” (Pleasure of the
Text 23) aptly depicts the pleasure Susan obtains from cognizance itself and
the gratification of using that cognizance to beguile and deceive.
In the aforementioned instance where Susan’s daughter Frederica tries
to run away from school, for example, Susan feels she must display artlessly to
her trusted friend Alicia Johnson her ability to fabricate, her talent at
eloquence, her ability to control her own speech as weapons to avoid a crisis
and a setback in her plans.
trust I shall be able to make my story as good as her’s [sic.].
If I am vain of anything, it is of my eloquence.
Consideration & Esteem as surely follow command of Language, as
Admiration waits on Beauty. (268)
This invention of the tale she prides herself in is, to put it another
way, certainly a verbalization of her “affecting.” When we examine this behavior of Susan, we are reminded of
another incarnation of vice that blooms as an abortive flower in the ground of
another set of letters: the
Marquise de Merteuil, the creation of Austen’s contemporary, Choderlos de
Laclos. Laclos’s femme fatale
reveals the truth that when human behavior is not founded on authenticity people
lose their good judgment (185). Susan
similarly is instinctively able to ferret out people’s preference for, or even
faith in, verisimilitude, and has a kind of genius for seriously taking
advantage of this human tendency. It
is this disparity in ability that puts Susan in a far superior position to Mrs.
Vernon even after Susan is separated from Reginald de Courcy:
Letter has surprised me beyond measure. Can
it be true that they [Lady Susan and Reginald] are really separated—& for
ever? I should be overjoyed if I
dared depend on it, but after all that I have seen , how can one be secure? .
. . we had a most unexpected & unwelcome visit from Lady Susan,
looking all chearfulness [sic.] &
good humour, & seeming more as if she were to marry him .
. . than as if parted from him for ever. (309)
Mrs. Vernon, who receives a letter from her mother, is the person to
acquire the latest information about, and indeed, is the last to see, Susan.
She is also the one who writes the last of the forty-one letters, making
her formally the final author of the epistles.
Nevertheless, this character, who has received double and even treble
advantages, ends up divulging her anxieties (“how can one be secure?”), and
in so concluding the correspondence shows she is simply a provider of these
uncertain “last words,” giving the reader no guarantees whatsoever.
Although Mrs. Vernon is formally the transcriber of the last of the
letters, these essentially “last words” slip past Mrs. Vernon, and are
passed into the hands of the protagonist Lady Susan herself, who writes a last
letter to Reginald. As Barthes
language combat . . . seeks to gain possession of this position; by the last
word, I will disorganize, “liquidate” the adversary, inflicting upon him a
(narcissistically) mortal wound, cornering him in silence, castrating him of all
speech. The scene passes with a view to this triumph: there is no question
whatever that each remark should contribute to the victory of a truth, gradually
constructing this truth, but only that the last
remark be the right one: it is the
last throw of the dice which counts . . . the victory goes to the player who
captures that little creature whose possession assures omnipotence: the last
word. (Lover’s Discourse 208)
So exactly what were Susan’s “last words” about?
Before we get into that I would like to examine the relationship between
Susan and Reginald. Naturally, what triggers Susan’s pseudo-love relationship
with Reginald is not real love but, as in the case with Mrs. Vernon, deceit.
We can once again have the reasoned interpreter, the Marquise de Merteuil,
speak for this inadequacy of language in Lady Susan’s behavior.
To invoke the theory of the Marquise de Merteiul (Laclos 313), the
relationship between Susan and Reginald might be as follows: it is enough if
love exists on one side. One side
enjoys the happiness of loving, the other that of pleasing, though to a less
intense degree than the side that loves. As
compensation for the inequality of the pleasure of the beloved, the beloved is
granted above all the privilege of enjoying deceiving her partner. In this
sense, Susan seems to be the perfect enactor of the Marquise de Merteuil’s
In the case of Austen’s femme fatale, however, there is a need
for a fine-tuning of this theory because in Susan’s case, deceit is not a
substitute, but has been elevated to the status of pleasure itself.
She gives first priority to the pleasure of deceit, and as a result, she
eventually becomes the object of love.
For Susan, who has this highly calculated accounting system of pleasure,
the verbal skills of “eloquence,” or “command of Language” of which she
is so proud are a means to create self mimesis more than self-expression.
Indeed, her language ability functions in the same way that squids use
their ink to obscure themselves (Barthes, Roland
The person who penetrates through Susan’s perennial smoke screen is
Reginald. Informed about the truth
from someone outside Susan’s sphere, he has already seen her true form, and
extracts from Susan her “last words.”
In response to Susan’s letter—a ploy to seduce him once again—the
battered Reginald flings at Susan the question, “Why would you write to me?”
Through his question he is able instantaneously to make Susan’s correspondence
ineffectual. Susan’s evil deeds
have already been proven; Reginald presses the point that he has seen through
the methods of deception. Now
Susan’s behavior of “affecting” is made literal and thrown back at her.
Even to this unmistakable rejection letter Susan feels she must respond.
If we compare her response to the confrontational letter of rejection the
Marquise de Merteuil sends to her former lover, the Viconte de Valmont, it is
practically verbose. The Marquise
de Merteuil receives a letter from Valmont urging reconciliation; the letter
demands to know if she is his lover or his enemy.
He exhorts her that “a word will suffice,” to which she responds
literally in a phrase: “Hé
bien! La guerre” (Very well! War) (358). Ruing even the stationery on which to
write back, she pens her answer on a blank space in the letter he has sent her.
By so doing she is able to register its connotation, namely, her insult,
and gain the victory of having “the last word.” Indeed, through her last words, the relationship the two had
so assiduously built up through their correspondence comes abruptly to an end
and she retains supremacy as the mistress of meaning.
On the other hand, in the correspondence that Susan continues even after
being rejected by Reginald we cannot expect to see the thrill that the Marquise
de Merteuil attains from her cruel “last words.” Susan’s correspondence is
perhaps inferior even to that of Frederica, whose artlessness Susan used to
criticize severely. Yet still Susan
feels she must write one last letter. By writing the last letter she enables herself to become the
character that appears after her adversary in this war of words with the aim of
becoming the victor by attaining the top position as determiner of the “last
word.” Is it possible for this
careless superfluousness to become the “last words” by which she “will
disorganize, ‘liquidate’ the adversary, inflicting upon him a
(narcissistically) mortal wound, cornering him in silence, castrating him of all
Naturally, the motivation behind Susan’s action is not attachment to
Reginald. If Susan has any
lingering fondness or passions, such feelings wouldn’t be toward Reginald, but
toward her own fabricating of tales. At
the same time, even if Susan does feel she has suffered a setback, it is not the
setback of losing Reginald. It is
because after her true character is exposed, her letter to Reginald, in which
she tries mimesis or “words,” once again fails to function properly.
This real setback (if it is a setback) is consigned into oblivion at any
rate through the most sarcastic “last words” that Susan is able to muster.
Let’s look at her “last words”:
am satisfied—& will trouble you no more when these few Lines are
dismissed. The Engagement which you
were eager to form a fortnight ago, is no longer compatible with your veiws [sic.],
& I rejoice to find that the prudent advice of your Parents has not been
given in vain. Your restoration to
Peace will, I doubt not, speedily follow this act of filial Obedience, & I
flatter myself with the hope of surviving my share in this disappointment.
Susan’s “last words” constitute above all revenge toward Reginald,
who has taken the initiative of cutting himself off from her.
By forcibly dispensing with her adversary with the word “prudent,”
she nearly achieves her intention of contriving to return Reginald to his
parents. Through Susan’s unique
definition of the word, the separation of men and women who are supposed to have
fully independent characters is subtly eluded to, and twisted.
That is, through vigorously forcing on Reginald, her former lover, the
definition of “a son who practices the obligation of filial piety,” she is
accusing him scathingly of indecisiveness and immaturity.
This definition is beyond a doubt forced. Yet in this case, the contrivance is not necessarily a
synonym of “sophistry” or being “off the mark.”
In actuality, Susan’s prophesy, filled with ill intentions, comes true.
Reginald loyally follows the hopes and motives of the people around him, and in
particular, of Mrs. Vernon. This is
because Reginald agrees with fitting without resistance into the matrix of
social conventions. We sense not
the slightest desire in Reginald concerning his impending marriage with
Frederica. In fact, he conveys no
more feeling than he would have if he were changing “partners in a
quadrille” (Warner 15).
The definition that Susan forcibly imprints on Reginald (while at the
same time unable to erase the appearance of superfluousness) actually has some
reality, allowing the reader ability to “see language” (Barthes, Roland
Barthes 161) to make one more discovery: Susan’s share in the bargain.
Through separation from Susan, Reginald will gain the compensation of acquiring
the attribute of having filial piety. Through
Susan’s announcement in a discreet yet unmistakable fashion at the end of her
letter, the reader learns that she too is secretly expecting her fair share.
This “share” is represented by two words that sound like a bluff on
Susan’s part: “satisfied” and
“rejoice.” These two words,
which are ostensibly congratulatory, reveal Susan’s feelings toward Reginald,
and gain authenticity by being faithfully repeated through Susan’s revelation
of her innermost feelings to her confidante, Mrs. Johnson.
At the same time, these words intrinsically hold elements that are
capable of expressing a self-reversal because the “true meaning” of the
words has changed.
As for the word “satisfied,” Susan does seem more at ease and more
satisfied than ever before. The
moment the correspondent becomes an accomplice the word “rejoice,” which
functions as an insinuating sarcasm toward Reginald’s “filial piety,”
takes on a completely new meaning in regard to Susan’s feelings toward the
detested Mr. Johnson, or the contemptible Reginald, whom she rejoices at never
having to see again. In other
words, the “rejoice” that Susan flings at Reginald is simply scathing irony
toward Reginald, but when the word comes back to Susan, it becomes a word that
speaks the truth in an inside-out fashion.
From the viewpoint of Susan’s emotions, there is no deceit in the word
as she has written it to Reginald because she literally does “rejoice.”
Of course, Susan’s love is unrelated to anything sensual.
Nevertheless, if there were something sensual in it, it would not be in
love for Reginald, but for the process of fabricating tales, or for that which
instigates such behavior.
We should ask ourselves: What
exactly is a fabricated tale? What
does it mean to deceive oneself? It
is certainly true that Susan emits ink like a squid in order to obscure herself.
But this ink is also inherently Susan’s.
This might sound contradictory but at the same time that Susan uses the
ink to create a deceptive self, she also uses it to form her ego. The ink she emits is in a strange way even an indication of
Even if we cannot make the extreme argument that the entity of Lady
Susan is merely an effect of language (Barthes, Roland Barthes 79), we also cannot deny that her existence is
something amplified infinitely through the “story” she weaves.
Her act of storytelling is at the same time that of fabricating tales.
More than as a way to express the self that already exists, her
tale-telling is for deception. Yet
it is that telling that creates herself, forms herself, and which is an
indispensable tool in effectively expressing herself.
Through fabrication she is able to probe her myriad selves, or
conversely, to conceal herself in the recesses of the cocoon she has spun for
herself. While successfully accommodating public opinion, she spins
her tales to secure herself safely in her own sphere. If we make her constantly protected free will her axis, her
cognizance raised (or lowered) to the point of pleasure can even be syncretized
not only with the Marquise de Merteuil, that personification of evil, but also
(I’m aware I risk being misunderstood here) with Elinor Dashwood (Sense
and Sensibility), who is regarded as the embodiment of “sense” as “a
truth universally acknowledged.”[i]
Austen does not, however, keep company with Susan’s sensuality, that
is, with Susan’s attachment to completing her “story” to the end of the
work. The “last words” are
seized away from Lady Susan suddenly by none other than Jane Austen herself.
As Barthes says,
must go hand in hand with silence; to write is in a sense to become “still as
death,” to become someone to whom the
last word is denied; to write is to offer others, from the start, that last
word. For the meaning of a work (or of a text) cannot be created by the work
alone; the author never produces anything but presumptions of meaning, forms,
and it is the world which fills them. (Critical
Austen unilaterally declares an end to the language activity woven
closely into the interaction of the 41 letters in the midst of the
correspondence. There she inserts
her own “last words” as a “Conclusion.”
The network of the authors of the correspondence is suddenly unraveled,
dissolved. Absence, which is a
necessary condition to an exchange of correspondence, is annulled.
The characteristic of correspondence, which Todorov describes as an
“intermediate item” (33), is divided here into the two extremes of the
silence of no contact (that does not even cause a feeling of being eternally
apart or spiritually absent), and the language spoken in conversation through
This Correspondence, by a meeting between some of the Parties & a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post office Revenue, be continued longer. (311)
The author of the letters herself exposes, through a sudden awakening
(or pretense thereof) the existence of the “Post office,” the fact that what
looked until now to be a plausible correspondence construct, has turned out to
be just a fiction, or at the very least, a construct that could be dismantled by
the world at any time.
If on one hand suspension of the characters’ correspondence strikes a
financial blow to the post office, on the other, the author gains an economy of
words through the action. Now
neither Susan nor Mrs. Vernon is the author.
Austen inserts herself into the text in a way that suggests she would
like quickly to bring closure to the tale.
The pace of development of the story is now rapidly regained after having
been usurped in turns by the thrill imparted through the layering of
correspondence and the synchronization of human psyche interwoven into the
strata of information. In other
words, the Samuel Richardson-like flow, pregnant with the danger of sinking into
verbose quicksand and being arrested by the subtle folds undulating in the
depths of humanity as depicted in the epistolary format, is now suddenly
metamorphosed by the author in the first person so that it may flow in the
rapids toward the sea of resolution.
Austen’s impatience condenses the overall story.
In the Conclusion, which comprises less than one-twentieth of the entire
work, there are, for example, two weddings.
Yet perhaps we need dilution once more of such a concentrated dose.
The author, who appears to follow the convention of a marriage plot,
avoids using the characters to tell the story and begins to tell the tale solely
by herself. Even then, the author
tells the tale through “language that is somewhat ventriloquized” (Bakhtin
299). Let us analyze these two compressed stories and marriages.
First, we will treat of the marriage between Reginald and Frederica.
The wedding between these two young people, who have overcome the
conventional obstacle (usually, parental opposition) are stereotypical of
Northrop Frye’s “The Mythos of Spring” (225-34). Susan,
being Frederica’s mother, becomes an obstacle to the two people’s marriage
by aggressively pursuing Reginald herself.
Although she has a disadvantage in terms of age, she makes a fairly
unrelenting, typical “father-surrogate.”
Just like the formula that Frye remarks, as the conclusion draws near,
this father-surrogate “plunderer” is exposed as an unjust fraud when
she claims to possess the young man. (though, according to the formula
mentioned by Frye, a father-surrogate’s claim to possess “the girl”
must be shown up as somehow fraudulent. )
But do Austen’s two young lovers really shift from a society
controlled by customs, formal restraints, the expedience of the law, and
dominating aged people, to a society controlled through youth and substantial
freedom? This shift from opinion (pistis)
to proof (gnosis), or from Frye’s “illusion” to “reality,” takes, in
Austen’s case a truly ironic turn: “Frederica
was therefore fixed in the family of her Uncle & Aunt, till such time as
Reginald De Courcy could be talked, flattered & finessed into an affection
for her . . . ”(313).
When the concepts of justice against wickedness, and the influence and
victory of the new world over the old fall into Austen’s hands and become a
scaffold for execution, their quantity suddenly shrivels and they become
terribly insipid. Faced with the conclusion of what “should
be”—retribution, and reward and punishment—Austen unravels the position
and easily evades the evidence to which she should give much attention. Frederica escapes from one surrogate father—Susan—only
to be caught in another (the existing system).
In other words, she simply is caught up in the stratagems of Mrs. Vernon.
Rather than focus on the fate of the “invertebrates” Reginald and
Frederica (Mudrick 138), we should really mention that of the protagonist:
Susan. The author’s lukewarm
treatment of the fate of Susan is conspicuous.
That ambiguous attitude is actually even a challenge to the reader.
While Austen rouses herself to speak once of Susan’s happiness or
unhappiness (or while she pretends to do so), in the end she sidesteps the
problem and ends up substituting her sympathies for the now profligate Miss
Whether Lady Susan was,
or was not happy in her second Choice—I do not see how it can ever be
ascertained—for who would take her assurance of it, on either side of the
question? . . . For myself, I confess that I
can pity only Miss Manwaring, who coming to Town & putting herself to an
expence in Cloathes [sic.], which
impoverished her for two years, on purpose to secure him, was defrauded of her
due by a Woman ten years older than herself. (313)
When Austen in the end confesses empathy with Miss Manwaring, she really
divulges what is probably too much of her own personal opinion.
However that may be, the author’s personal emotions themselves
initially create a firm framework. Strictly
speaking, the reader doesn’t notice this framework simply because Austen
unexpectedly brings up “Miss Manwaring.” Rather, her mentioning the topic
clearly takes the wind out of a narrator’s sail and disappoints the reader’s
By paralleling the trivial with what is much more important, or to put
it more concretely, by comparing Miss Manwaring’s clothing (in which the
reader is likely uninterested) with Susan’s unexplored future, the clarity of
the trivial becomes unilaterally emphasized.
Even if this disparity is not as explicit and severe a one as that in the
opening paragraph of Pride and Prejudice,
the reader is forced to accept an evasion, and an unmistakable gap is created
between what the reader expects and what the author gives.
What the reader is drawn to is, surprisingly, or perhaps we should say is
a natural result of, what Austen has not discussed.
While Austen shows sympathy verbally for Miss Manwaring to the reader,
actually she causes the reader to question what she says about her.
As a result, the reader’s attention overlooks the author’s use of
ventriloquism, and focuses instead on her manner of feigned ignorance.
The author deliberately makes herself appear as a person of tunnel
vision in her manner, as demonstrated by her bringing forth vulgar common sense
for ostentatious show. Austen is
almost lying. There is another
sentence (“Satz” [Weinrich 40]) hidden away in the author’s mind. The only reason this Satz doesn’t degenerate completely
into falsehood is because the author is simultaneously using what Harald
Weinrich calls the “Ironie signal” (61).
The italicized I, this
personal, irresponsible “I,” is the “Ironie signal” that Austen is
covertly (or openly toward some) using.
Securing the “Conclusion,” that special prerogative of the author,
Austen suddenly slips out of the role of author as she openly prepares the
environment for “the last words.” She
intentionally slides into what should be expressed as the “self,” a self
that is minimized, or rather is remarkably attenuated.
Just before Austen’s “last words” crystallize and harden into some
definite meaning, or put another way, at just the moment Austen attempts to
grasp at an answer to her question, she cleverly sidesteps the issue and the
meaning is left hanging in midair. If
writing is, as Barthes has conceptualized, in a sense synonymous with becoming
as reticent as the dead, and if the writer herself agrees with the person who
has been denied the “last words,” then Austen’s own such action becomes
the actualization of the act of “writing.”
To be more exact, Austen here is not becoming the person denied “the
last words.” Certainly Austen is
the one who announces the “last words” as the author, yet that action is
sidestepped and suspended by the author herself.
Austen’s half-hearted grasp causes the function of the last words, or
the control of meaning, to slip through her fingers and flow out. This may sound paradoxical, but Austen accomplishes the act
of writing conversely through intentionally letting the “last words” slip
through her hands. As Barthes says,
what the author produces is merely a plethora of presumptions of meaning, forms,
and it is the world that fulfills those presumptions.
The people who encounter Lady
Susan are those who scrutinize the “last words” spilled by Austen
through her fingers. They are each
and every individual reader.
From the creator, Jane Austen, has come Lady Susan, a work only interesting enough to its author for her to make a fair copy and put it aside, but not to title or publish it. Even the watermark date of 1805 that happened to be left on just two pages of the existing fair copy as clue to the creation of the work is open to question.
As represented by the opinion of Walton Litz, this work is perhaps an
experimental literary etude devised in the transition period before she began
engaging in writing her mature literary works (39-45).
Yet we cannot deny the credibility of the 1805 theory, as Marvin Mudrick
inconclusively yet, at the same time, felt he had to present as an intriguing
speculation (140). In other words, we cannot necessarily ignore the theory that
this is a work of her middle period, after the author, who had lost her father
and was compelled to leave Steventon—her home of many years—also lost all
chance of getting married.[ii]
In this sense, Lady Susan is (literally) a defenseless orphan whose very birth is
Yet this orphan begins to exude electrifying meaning during the process in which “the last words” are transferred and particularly, at the stage they are seized by Austen herself. This mid-length work, which the public was never meant to see and to which the author did not even give a title to distinguish it from any other work, still has the natural voice exemplified by the gap in the introduction of Pride and Prejudice, the type of distortion unique to the author as seen in the conclusion of Sense and Sensibility, and/or the manner that could be called her “evasiveness.” [iii] The work was obviously Austen’s “own darling child” whose signature imprint lies in her unique way of telling a story.
[i] The Marquise de Merteuil
and Elinor Dashwood are protagonists of completely different import but they
correspond remarkably in terms of the penetrating scrutiny of the seducers,
Valmont and Willoughby, respectively, or in other words, from the viewpoint
of their clearheaded understanding. Further,
the model of understanding used by these authors to portray these two
protagonists—even if the similarity in literary style is a
coincidence—is thought to be rather close in resemblance.
We have already looked at the similarities between Lady Susan and the
Marquise de Merteuil. If we use the Marquise de Merteuil as an intermediary, we
cannot necessarily label Lady Susan and Elinor Dashwood as different types.
[ii] The theory that Lady
Susan is a literary etude constitutes over half of all theories, from
those of R. W. Chapman to Margaret Drabble.
Scholars other than Mudrick in his speculation above, for example,
Mary Lascelles, speculate that only the “Conclusion” was written around
the year 1805.
See Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and Her Art 13-14.
At the very least it can’t be denied that Austen revised Lady
Susan into a fair copy during her middle period even if the work was
created at a much earlier date.
[iii] An “evasion” occurs
from the aspect of form when Marianne’s appeal for passion to Willoughby
throughout most of the novel suddenly shifts in just one chapter of the
conclusion to Colonel Brandon. Likewise,
Austen employs a similar treatment toward the fate of the protagonist of Lady
Susan. That is, she
provides a twist at the end of the work.
Austen, Jane. Minor Works: Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed.
Oxford: OUP, 1986.
Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhajlovich.
The Dialogic Imagination.
Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson et al. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990.
Barthes, Roland. Critical
Essays. Trans. Richard
Howard. Evanston: Northwestern
U P, 1972.
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Fragments. Trans. Richard Howard. New York:
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De Laclos, Choderlos. Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Trans. P.W.K. Stone. Harmondsworth:
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Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism.
New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1965.
Lascelles, Mary. Jane
Austen and Her Art. London: Oxford UP, 1979.
Walton. Jane Austen: A
Study of Her Artistic Development. London: Chatto and Windus, 1965.
Mudrick, Marvin. Jane Austen: Irony as Defense
and Discovery. Berkeley: U of California P, 1974.
Todorov, Tzvetan. Littérature
et signification. Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1967.
Warner, Sylvia. T. Jane
Austen. London: Longmans, 1961.
Weinrich, Harald. Linguistik der Lüge. Heidelberg: Lambert Shneider, 1974.
This paper is the English version of a paper published in Studies in English Literature vol. 68, no. 1 (The English Literary Society of Japan).