PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.27, NO.1 (Winter 2006)
Justice in Epistolary Matters:
 Revised Rights and Deconstructed Duties in Austen's  Lady Susan

BETSY Winakur Tontiplaphol

Betsy Winakur Tontiplaphol (email: is Assistant Professor of English at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, where she teaches courses in nineteenth-century British literature.  She has published and/or spoken about Gray, Keats, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Barrett Browning, and she is currently at work on a book-length manuscript treating British Romantic poetry and its Victorian legacies.


           Jane Austen’s Lady Susan has been called a plotter, a flirt, and a villain, but none of these designations effectively accounts for the peculiarities—her linguistic industriousness, distaste for motherhood, and chameleon-like adaptability, to name but a few—that render her characterization so memorable.  Laura Fairchild Brodie describes Lady Susan as a figure devoid of psychological depth; when measured against the “the psychological complexity of Anne Elliot,” Brodie argues, Susan represents “the stereotype of the Merry Widow” (700).  Beatrice Anderson, in contrast, reads Austen’s anti-heroine as nothing but psychology.  Lady Susan, Anderson maintains, is a psychopath, a diagnosis that she supports with evidence of “superficial charm, adequate intelligence, absence of anxiety, insincerity, lack of remorse or shame, antisocial behavior, and poor judgment” (195).  What is Lady Susan?  A stock character, a case study, or something else entirely?  As Hugh McKellar contends, her story “fits into the Austen canon no more neatly than Aesop’s bat fit in with the birds or with the beasts” (205), but such an observation, however fair, does little to resolve the myriad conflicts that face the reader struggling to decipher Susan’s—or, for that matter, Austen’s—motives and objectives.


            It is strangely easy to overlook the fact that Lady Susan is, at a fundamental level, a trial novel, trial not only in the sense of “attempt” but trial also in the significant judicial sense.  The book is one of Austen’s early attempts at epistolary fiction; perhaps more important, however, is the fact that Lady Susan has at its center a woman on trial, a figure whose motives and actions are presented to and scrutinized by a jury composed of characters, readers, and ultimately a narrator.  Susan’s stated goal to have Reginald “doubt the justice of” his sister’s opinion (257) and Mrs. Vernon’s complaint that Susan has “persuaded [Reginald] not merely to forget, but to justify her conduct” (259) are only two of many instances in which the legal-contractual language of justice surfaces in Austen’s rhetoric.


Indeed, careful attention to Lady Susan’s writing and behavior reveals her to be less a criminal than a would-be legislator.  Her abiding interest in her own rights and duties—and her obsession with manipulating the assumptions and language that define and distribute them—locates her within a theoretical tradition that ranges from John Locke to Mary Wollstonecraft and beyond.  Lady Susan’s letters function as a sort of treatise on entitlement and responsibility, but their power to prescribe and curtail the behavior of others also constitutes them as new “laws” in themselves.  To recognize as much is to reconsider Austen’s literary-historical status.  In The Romantic Ideology, Jerome McGann influentially asserts that “[n]ot every artistic production in the Romantic period is a Romantic one. . . . [I]ndeed,” he argues, “the greatest artists in any period often depart from their age’s dominant ideological commitments, as the example of Austen so dramatically illustrates” (19).  McGann also observes, however, that “[t]he aim of the Romantic poem . . . is to rediscover the ground of stability” in an uncertain socio-historical context (73), and since Lady Susan’s legislative language functions to preserve the agency of a woman both socially and financially unmoored, to consider the legal quality of Susan’s epistles is to reevaluate Austen’s Romanticism, to reconsider her faith in word-made reality.


            Although the first two letters of the novel must certainly be read as evidence of Susan’s capacity for deceit, it is, perhaps, even more important to understand them as testimony to her ability to rewrite.  As Mary Poovey explains, after Susan’s initial letter to Charles Vernon, “the reader, more privileged than Mr. Vernon, immediately receives another version of these ‘facts.’ . . . Already we see that Lady Susan uses her letters to manipulate reality—to create it, in fact” (174).  Lady Susan’s language is consistently characterized as transformative, not only by the villainess herself, who delights in watching the “the variations of [Reginald’s] Countenance” while she speaks (293), but also by those on whom she inflicts her discourse, for she possesses, in Mrs. Vernon’s words, “a happy command of Language, which is too often used I beleive to make Black appear White” (251).  A “Woman of high mental powers” (263), Lady Susan is acutely  aware of the ascendancy of language over “horrid” facts (303), and she banks—almost literally, given her financial predicament—on her words’ ability to recast and thereby to reconstitute the truth.  Ironically, by falsely stating her own motives and by slandering the truth-tellers, Susan convinces Reginald “how little the general report of any one ought to be credited, since no character however upright, can escape the malevolence of slander” (264).  To some degree, we live in language, and figures like Lady Susan, who “controls reality by her verbal representations of it” (Spacks 64), are utterly capable of manipulating the perceptions of the less enlightened.


            In addition to living in language, however, we live under it, the texts of our laws functioning as a shelter that both protects and constrains.  Though ostensibly mere words on paper, laws, like Lady Susan’s letters, are in fact a form of action, an impetus both proscriptive and catalytic.  In her recent treatment of Lady Susan, epistolarity, and sentimental convention, Susan Allen Ford describes Austen’s title character as a woman who wants not only “to control [her] image” but also “to clear a space for unfettered action,” and although Ford credits letters with the subversive power to “[blur] the divide between private and public,” she elides the fact that language, in certain circumstances, actually constitutes a kind of action in itself.  Lady Susan is not ignorant of her letters’ force.  One epistle, “intended to keep [Reginald] longer in the Country,” ultimately “hasten[s] him to Town” (301-02); in another instance, Susan declares herself “to have been perfectly right in attributing [Frederica’s behavior] to my own letter.  The purport of it frightened her so thoroughly that . . . , without considering that she could not escape from my authority by running away . . . , she resolved on getting out of the house” (273).  As Deborah Kaplan contends, the women of Lady Susan, particularly Mrs. Vernon and Susan herself, use letters to “[create] themselves as effective agents.  They assume authority by representing themselves with it in their letters. . . . Such commanding declarations are not only the means to power through marriage; they are power” (166).  Patricia Meyer Spacks concurs, observing that since Susan’s “verbal activity, oral and written, constantly remakes her history,” her “letters provide for her a form of force rather than of passivity” (74). 


Lady Susan’s letters, however, are more than merely analogous to written law, for Susan’s persistent emphasis on the rights and duties possessed by herself and others actually locates her letters within a law-writing tradition.  Frederica feels threatened not so much by her mother as mother but by her mother as a law-making authority, and she describes her fears to Reginald in the language of legal interpretation: “I am afraid my applying to you will appear no better than equivocation, & as if I attended only to the letter & not the spirit of Mama’s commands” (279, emphasis added).  Barbara Horwitz has noted that Lady Susan’s language resembles both John Locke’s and Austen’s own, since Susan’s epistolary voice, like Locke’s rhetorical voice and Austen’s narrative voice, is frequently aphoristic: “I have never yet found that the advice of a Sister could prevent a young Man’s being in love if he chose it” (258; Horwitz 84).  However, the knowing authority of the typical aphorism, which informally articulates a so-called “universal law,” pales in comparison to the formal power of Locke’s legal-contractual language, in which the terms right and duty play key complementary roles.


            Horwitz’s interest in Locke stems from her observation that Lady Susan, “when she is addressing those ‘respectable people’ who are her adversaries . . . speaks their own language, which was strongly influenced by the educational theories of John Locke” (84).  Although he inspired eighteenth-century conduct book writers, Locke theorized about far more than education, and his treatises on the nature and responsibilities of civil government were, perhaps, more of an influence on Austen than lately recognized.  Locke’s second Treatise of Government, in fact, presents the key responsibilities of civil authorities in a chapter entitled “Of Paternal Power,” whose rhetoric Lady Susan, had she been better educated, could be quoting in her letters.  Because they are incapable of understanding the law and its effects, Locke writes, “lunatics and idiots are never set free from the government of their parents” (125), and Susan’s unrelenting commentary on Frederica’s stupidity—“She is a stupid girl, & has nothing to recommend her” (252)—echoes that sentiment.  Frederica, Susan insists, is incapable of understanding the laws that govern “Love matters” and, as a result, can only be protected by her mother’s machinations: “I never saw a girl of her age, bid fairer to be the sport of Mankind.  Her feelings are tolerably lively, & she is so charmingly artless in their display, as to afford the most reasonable hope of her being ridiculed & despised by every Man who sees her” (274).  


Her society’s unwritten laws of love are not, however, the only ones with which Susan’s letters are in dialogue; she heartily embraces (though perhaps misinterprets) Locke’s observation in “Of Paternal Power” that “law, in its true notion, is not so much the limitation, as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest” (123).  We are acquainted with Susan’s assertions of agency almost immediately, her determination looming large in each of the novel’s first two letters: “I am determined you see, not to be denied admittance at Churchill” (244); “But I was determined to be discreet, to bear in mind my being only four months a widow . . .” (244).  Read in the context of Lockean political theory, the undeviating desire for self-determination that pervades Lady Susan’s written correspondence takes on an oddly republican facet, particularly given Susan’s penchant for waxing polemical about the entitlements and responsibilities attached to her social position as mother, widow, woman, and aristocrat: “But if the World could know my motive there, they would honour me.  I have been called an unkind Mother, but it was . . . the advantage of my Daughter that led me on; and if that Daughter were not the greatest simpleton on Earth, I might have been rewarded for my Exertions as I ought” (245).  By the radical 1790s, Ford observes, epistolary expressions of republican sentiment were, perhaps surprisingly, increasingly common.  Citing Mary Favret’s treatment of Romantic epistolarity, she notes that “[f]or reformist and pro-revolutionary groups,” the so-called “open letter,” a potent cocktail of sentiment and reason, came to be synonymous with democracy, polyphony, and representative government.


            We might also wonder, however, whether Mary Wollstonecraft, a non-fictional re-drafter of civil and social codes, influenced Austen’s construction of Lady Susan’s Lockean-cum-Romantic, politicized discourse.  In her introduction to one of the few contemporary editions of Austen’s work that includes the text of Lady Susan, Terry Castle writes,


We have no direct evidence that Austen had read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman—no references in surviving letters, no explicit comments in any of her novels.  Yet to judge by Austen’s powerful meditation on the problem of female enlightenment in Northanger Abbey, it is almost impossible to believe that Wollstonecraft’s impassioned feminist treatise, first published . . . in 1792, was unknown to her.  (xviii)


Calling for “a revolution in female manners” (113), Wollstonecraft’s Vindication articulates, with Lockean emphasis on concepts like nature and reason, a female right to liberty: “[W]hen man, governed by reasonable laws, enjoys his natural freedom, let him despise woman if she do not share it with him” (112).  Poovey explains that Rousseau is the social contract philosopher “Wollstonecraft attacks most systematically . . . [since] Rousseau’s ‘discovery’ of the ‘natural law’ governing women, she charges, is simply a creation of his own repressed desire.”  Wollstonecraft, Poovey asserts, comes “very close to perceiving how a set of beliefs can be generated from or adopted because of local needs and psychological imperatives” (71), and this realization allows her to pinpoint desire as the element at the heart of man-made laws, social and civil.  “If women do not always rest content within this masculine fantasy of power and self-indulgence,” Poovey writes, paraphrasing Wollstonecraft, “their violations are at best indirect and surreptitious.  Cunning is the resort of the powerless who would not lose the illusion of power, and tyranny over her helpless servants and children serves to vent an oppressed woman’s wrath” (74).


            Lady Susan is undeniably both cunning and tyrannical, characteristics which, in Wollstonecraft’s conception, mark her as a female pawn in a masculine world.  It is equally undeniable, however, that Susan harbors desires and fantasies uniquely her own—desires and fantasies distinctly at odds with those of the patriarchy—which become the foundation for the revised set of laws that she articulates in her letters.  That Lady Susan, older and widowed but strikingly beautiful, embodies in her very person a violated expectation—a broken “rule,” as it were—is no insignificant detail.  “What a Woman she must be!” writes Reginald, “engaging at the same time & in the same house the affections of two Men who were neither of them at liberty to bestow them—& all this, without the charm of Youth” (248).  Perhaps Susan’s daily success at invalidating the age-old correlation between youth and beauty fuels her already fiery sense of volition, for the “real feeling” that “rings through” her letters, Spacks recognizes, betrays an “aggressiveness and will to power” (65) that stem from a genuine desire for control and acknowledged superiority.  Just as patriarchal law is, in Wollstonecraft’s conception, motivated by male desire, Lady Susan’s revised version of the rules—and the rights and duties they confer—is motivated by her own “psychological imperatives.”  As she writes to Mrs. Johnson, “I am tired of submitting my will to the Caprices of others—of resigning my own Judgement in deference to those, to whom I owe no Duty, & for whom I feel no respect” (308).  Poovey credits Susan’s ability to fulfill her desires to a talent for generating “plausible, internally consistent, but wholly malleable fictions” (175), and one can’t help but wonder if a more essential definition of law has ever been penned.


               Roger Gard asserts that in Lady Susan, Austen produces “a single effect”: “It is Lady Susan who matters in Lady Susan, and very little, technically or morally, is allowed to hamper her” (307).  It is interesting, however, that the Susan-centeredness of the novel—and Susan herself—detracts little, if any, from the universal quality of the rights her Ladyship demands for herself.  Perhaps the most fundamental of these is the right to speak.  Eighteenth-century women were silenced not only by the political systems that denied them a venue for their voices but also by the conduct books that governed female behavior everywhere, from the drawing room to the dance floor.  The “conduct-book woman,” Alison Sulloway recounts, possessed “eyes meekly downcast, her voice normally silent while her face signified approval of one speaker or another.”  This model infuriated the proto-feminists of the day, “whether they believed that men’s domination over women was divinely ordained or not,” and Sulloway asserts that Austen was profoundly influenced by the “more enlightened archetypes” offered by the female thinkers who argued in favor of “women’s right to the dignity of articulate speech” (163).  From the earliest moments of her visit with the Vernons, Lady Susan, by all accounts, talks almost incessantly.  Mrs. Vernon reports to her mother that Reginald and Susan are “frequently engaged in long conversations together” (259), and her subsequent comment that Lady Susan “talks vastly well, . . . too well to feel so very deeply” (267) betrays her discomfort with Susan’s unfeminine glibness. 


Lady Susan, far from apologizing for her silver tongue, exults in her skill at storytelling: “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).  When Reginald speaks, we are told, he “is only repeating after her Ladyship” (272), and Mrs. Vernon, Susan insinuates, eschews her conversation in favor of Frederica’s because she “dearly loves to be first, & to have all the sense & all the wit of the Conversation to herself” (274).  Lady Susan, it is clear, is a formidable and unforgettable conversationalist, capable even of divesting Mrs. Vernon, the only character with any potential to rival the quality of her discourse, of “the power of speaking with any clearness” (277).  As her abrupt summoning of Reginald suggests—“I sent Wilson to say that I desired to speak with him before he went.  He came immediately” (292)—Susan feels entitled to speak when and to whom she chooses, and she persistently asserts her right to select and to control the topic of conversation.  Reginald, upon daring to stray from her Ladyship’s agenda for discussion, is chastised in Susan’s next letter: “[H]e had lately mentioned Frederica spontaneously & unnecessarily, & once had said something in praise of her person” (280).


            In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Austen writes that she has “now attained the true art of letter writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth” (3 January 1801).  A discussion of “articulate speech” in an Austen novel must not, then, overlook written verbalization, especially when that verbalization takes the form of the letter.  Lady Susan’s talent with—and, as a result, sense of entitlement to—the pen requires no documentation.  Susan’s letters, however, in addition to exercising her right to articulate, actually articulate the right itself.  Kaplan explains that the women in the text “manage to reverse the impact of the gender-marked genres of their society—the public and patriarchal novel and the private and primarily female discourse of letter writing” (168), and Susan uses her private correspondence to identify and justify her sense of entitlement to public speech.  “I was calm for some time, but the greatest degree of Forbearance may be overcome,” she writes to Mrs. Johnson, subsequent to her first disagreement with Reginald, “& I hope I was afterwards sufficiently keen” (282).  Upon imposing on Mrs. Vernon with a fictionalized account of her role in the Frederica-Sir James affair, Lady Susan boldly states that she “owed it to my own Character” to provide the “explanation” (290), and demands in a letter to Reginald similar approbation of her right to words: “Tell me that you submit to my Arguments, & do not reproach me for using such” (301). 


            Although expression is, in some contexts, a worthy end in itself, speech and writing are, for Lady Susan, little more than means to an end.  The sweet talk, for example, with which she besieges Reginald’s judgment is, in her own words, calculated to achieve “dominion”: “I never behaved less like a Coquette in the whole course of my Life, tho’ perhaps my desire of dominion was never more decided.  I have subdued him entirely by sentiment & serious conversation” (258).  Her root desire for control requires that she elegantly and effectively articulate her perceptions and her plans—and, by doing so, her power.  Spacks contends that Susan’s “tenuous claim to the title of heroine rests almost entirely on her style of self-presentation, by which she demands the attention of others within and outside the text” (67). 


To be heard, however, is not necessarily to be convincing.  In her Vindication, Wollstonecraft disgustedly describes the convention in polite society that “Women, commonly called Ladies, are not to be contradicted in company” (128), and she reminds in an oft-quoted letter that “[a]n author, especially a woman, should be cautious lest she too hastily swallows the crude praises which partial friend and polite acquaintance bestow thoughtlessly” (qtd. in Poovey 69).  Again and again, Lady Susan articulates not just a right to public attention—a right to “the dignity of articulate speech”—but a right to be vested with public authority.  Openly hostile toward any “parade of propriety” (274),  Lady Susan eschews the manners-motivated, feminine authority of the drawing room in favor of the kind of public authority vested only in men, and instead of fearing contradiction, she takes advantage of the opportunity it affords her to “prove” herself, however falsely.  As she writes to Mrs. Johnson early in her acquaintance with Reginald, “I have made him sensible of my power, & can now enjoy the pleasure of triumphing over a Mind prepared to dislike me, & prejudiced against all my past actions” (257).  According to Poovey, Austen witnessed during her lifetime a “crisis of authority” in her own society.  As a result of the gradual “dissemination of the values and behavior associated with capitalism . . . , the traditional authority of the gentry . . . was a subject under general debate” (180), and Lady Susan, titled but practically penniless, seems determined to write herself an entitlement to at least a little of that displaced power. 


            Irked by Reginald’s unceasing questions about the past—his desire for “the fullest explanation of whatever he may have heard to my disadvantage” (268)—Susan recognizes that her self-conferred right to narrative authority is at the heart of her attachment to Manwaring: “I infinitely prefer the tender & liberal spirit of Manwaring, which impressed with the deepest conviction of my merit, is satisfied that whatever I do must be right” (269).  Austen’s feminized characterization of the “tender and liberal” Manwaring connotes weakness, but the figures in the novel who question Susan’s authority meet with a worse rhetorical fate.  As a result of his willingness to question Lady Susan’s narrative, Reginald is, quite ironically, labeled naïvely credulous, in addition to being cast as a veritable criminal in Susan’s epistolary diatribes: “I am equally confounded at her Impudence & his Credulity.  How dared he beleive what she told him in my disfavour!  Ought he not to have felt assured that I must have unanswerable Motives for all that I had done!” (282). 


Questioning Susan is consistently cast either as an inconceivable feat of daring—“I should make a point of not bestowing my affection on a Man who had dared to think so meanly of me” (258)—or as simply inconceivable: “I cannot suppose that the old story of Mrs Manwaring’s jealousy can be revived again, or at least, be listened to again.  Come to me immediately, & explain what is at present absolutely incomprehensible” (304-05).  The letter texts, then, articulate Susan’s right to authority in their very refusal to recognize any other source of legitimate narrative.  As McKellar puts it, “If ownership and property rights obsess all the people you know, will you not likewise grasp, and cling to tenaciously, whatever your society allows you to hold?” (211).  Ownership of property is, for the present, out of the question for Lady Susan, but since authority is utterly within her reach, she violently claims entitlement to it.


            Duty, of course, is the feature concomitant to right in Locke’s articulation of civil society’s rules, but it is somehow not surprising that Susan claims for herself fewer duties than rights.  Locke describes social obligations as a transfer of power, arguing that the citizen “has given a right to the commonwealth to employ his force, for the execution of the judgments of the commonwealth, wherever he shall be called to it” (137).  Ceding power and accepting responsibility are, without a doubt, low on Susan’s list of preferred behaviors—“Do not think me unkind for such an exercise of my power, or accuse me of Instability, without first hearing my reasons” (299-300)—but she articulates from time to time a respect for the fruits of obligation, if not for obligations themselves.  Lady Susan understands her duty as a mother, for example, in terms of being “rewarded for my Exertions as I ought” (245), and she recognizes obligation as a useful means of compelling unpleasant but ultimately beneficial behavior: “I was so much indulged in my infant years that I was never obliged to attend to anything, & consequently am without those accomplishments which are now necessary to finish a pretty Woman” (253).  As her logic implies, the duty most interesting to Susan is one’s duty to oneself, which, in a contractual context, is synonymous with right.  In a typical moment of right-duty conflation, Lady Susan writes, “I beleive I owe it to my own Character, to complete the match between my daughter & Sir James” (294).


            At a critical juncture in the book, however, Susan emphatically pens a more encompassing law: “Those women are inexcusable who forget what is due to themselves & the opinion of the World” (269).  Poovey makes much of this statement, asserting that “[t]he principle that Lady Susan overlooks but that Jane Austen underscores is that, given the nature of female desire, these two ‘dues’ are incompatible” (175).  The truth, I would argue, is actually a little more complicated.  Lady Susan, though predominantly interested in herself, recognizes, like many Austen heroines, a need for community.  It is, after all, impossible to achieve “universal admiration” (256) without a universe, and, as Locke would argue, a commonwealth of any sort requires upkeep.  In order to fulfill her obligations to self, Susan must do her part to maintain a world in which talk is currency and where collective opinion has the power to determine social standing. 


From Lady Susan’s perspective, then, what is due to “the opinion of the World” is not so much compliance with its expectations as recognition of and respect for its constitutive power.  Susan embraces—in name, at least—the duty to punish those who threaten the foundation of the commonwealth by repudiating the importance of narrative.  Locke identifies “the power of making laws” and “the power to punish any injury” (137) as belonging to the commonwealth as a whole, but Lady Susan is as willing to help punish as she is willing to help legislate.  Her natural hot-headedness tempts her to implement punishments both cruel and unusual—“I could have poisoned him” (280), she writes of Sir James in a fury—but, in general, the punishments she conceives are ostensibly fitting and, at times, even rehabilitative.  Of Reginald she writes that she is “doubtful whether I ought not to punish him, by dismissing him at once after this our reconciliation, or by marrying & teizing him for ever.  But these measures are each too violent to be adopted without some deliberation” (293).


Her sense of obligation toward Reginald’s training, however, pales in comparison to her conception of her duty to Frederica.  Kaplan recognizes that Frederica lacks social understanding: “If Frederica is to become an effective member of this social world, so the text suggests, she must learn to write letters to other women.  Rather than imitating the histories of novel heroines, she must compose her own history in conjunction with the female friends to whom she would write” (168).  Susan, too, is acutely aware of her daughter’s inability to verbalize effectively.  “During her poor Father’s life she was a spoilt child,” she complains to Mrs. Vernon, observing that “the severity which it has since been necessary for me to shew, has entirely alienated her affection” (288).  In order to punish and to train Frederica, Lady Susan curtails her liberty and lays down rules for her discourse.  Susan, as McKellar puts it, “shares . . . the confidence, not entirely misplaced, of Lady Catherine and Emma that they can arrange other people’s lives better than the recipients of their attention could do for themselves” (213).


            Although Lady Susan is undeniably nasty to her daughter and cruelly manipulative of others, her tendency to redraft the rules, Austen seems satirically to suggest, is not unrelated to her reputed wickedness.  “[I]nstances of great misconduct on her side,” Sir Reginald De Courcy writes in warning to his son, are “very generally known” (260).  Catherine Quick reminds that Jezebel, the prototypical wicked woman, is, like Lady Susan, “neither invisible nor silent in the Old Testament texts,” and she suggests that perhaps Jezebel’s “reputation derives from this fact” (45).  And, like Lady Susan, Jezebel, according to Quick’s account of her Biblical characterization, is a homeless figure—a “foreigner, . . . not-Israelite”—and a woman prone to use “plots and machinations to accomplish goals” (46).  However, Jezebel’s status as “a prophetess for a female-based religion at odds with the Judeo-Christian Father-God” (47) is arguably her most important trespass . . . and the source of her most significant parallel with Austen’s anti-heroine.  Like her eighteenth-century daughter, Jezebel revises patriarchal law through her behavior and her verbal legacy.  “The imposition of a female deity, suggested by Jezebel as a priestess, upon such a male-centered religion poses a serious threat to those who wish to suppress any sort of femininity associated with an all-powerful god,” Quick writes, “for if the feminine deity has power, it might be assumed that her counterparts on earth should share in earthly power” (47). 


            Jezebel is a subversive figure, and in the final analysis, Lady Susan is, too.  It seems a critical commonplace to characterize the novel’s non-epistolary conclusion as unsatisfying, hastily done, and, in Kaplan’s words, not “logically consistent” (169).  However, in light of Susan’s tendencies to rewrite the rules and tinker with the foundations of civil society, the humorous observation that opens the book’s ostensibly unedifying ending is peculiarly interesting:


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.  Very little assistance to the State could be derived from the Epistolary Intercourse of Mrs Vernon & her neice, for the former soon perceived by the stile of Frederica’s Letters, that they were written under her Mother’s inspection. . . .  (311)


Through the book’s final moments, Lady Susan’s behavior, as Austen presents it, undercuts the commonwealth’s authority.  Not even the post office will profit if Susan does not see fit for it to do so.  Lady Susan and Lady Susan alone will determine the content and quality of Lady Susan’s communication, and, if all goes as planned, her immediate society’s understanding of right and duty.  “She had nothing against her,” after all, “but her Husband, & her Conscience” (313).



Works Cited


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Austen, Jane.  Lady Susan.  Minor Works.  Ed. R.W. Chapman.  Oxford: OUP, 1965.  Vol. 6 of The Works of Jane Austen.

_____.  Selected Letters.  Ed. R.W. Chapman.  Oxford: OUP, 1985.

Brodie, Laura Fairchild.  “Society and the Superfluous Female: Jane Austen’s Treatment of Widowhood.”  Studies in English Literature 34 (1994): 697-719.

Castle, Terry.  Introduction.  Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon.  Ed. John Davie.  Oxford: OUP, 1990.

Ford, Susan Allen.  “‘No business with politics’: Writing the Sentimental Heroine in Desmond and Lady Susan.”  Persuasions On-Line 26.1 (2005).

Gard, Roger.  Lady Susan and the Single Effect.”  Essays in Criticism 39 (1989): 305-25.

Horwitz, Barbara J.  “Lady Susan: The Wicked Mother in Jane Austen’s Novels.”  Persuasions 9 (1987): 84-88.

Kaplan, Deborah.  “Female Friendship and Epistolary Form: Lady Susan and the Development of Jane Austen’s Fiction.”  Criticism 29 (1987): 163-78.

Locke, John.  Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration.  Ed. Ian Shapiro.  New Haven: Yale UP, 2003.

McGann, Jerome J.  The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation.  Chicago: UCP, 1983.

McKellar, Hugh.  Lady Susan: Sport or Cinderella?” Jane Austen’s Beginnings: The Juvenilia and Lady Susan.  Ed. J. David Grey.  Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989. 205-12.

Poovey, Mary.  The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer.  Chicago: UCP, 1984.

Quick, Catherine S.  “Jezebel’s Last Laugh: The Rhetoric of Wicked Women.”  Women and Language 16.1 (1993): 44-48. 

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