PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.24, NO.1 (Winter 2003)

 
 
Lady Susan: A Game of Capturing the Last Word from Lady Susan to Jane Austen and Then ...
  MICHIKO SOYA

Michiko Soya  (email: ckapp003@sutv.zaq.ne.jp) is Professor of English Literature at Kobe Kaisei (Stella Maris) College, Japan.  Her major publications include Jane Austen: Austen and Conspirators in Language and Weaving Fiction:  British Female Writers Radcliffe, Austen and C. Brontë, as well as Japanese translation and research of Jane Austen: Lady Susan

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 Discourse 207-08)  

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.

But 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. 

I 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:

Your 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 points out:

every 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 theory.

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 Barthes 112).

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 speech”?

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”:

I 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.  (306)

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 her self-expression. 

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,

Writing 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 Essays xi)

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 direct meeting.

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 Manwaring’s costumes:

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 expectation.

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 unknown.

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. 

WORKS CITED 

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. 

           . A Lover’s Discourse Fragments. Trans. Richard Howard. New York:  The Noonday Press, 1989. 

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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).

 

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