Persuasions #9, 1987                                                                                                                                            Pages 88-98


Female Resources: Epistles, Plot, and Power



New Haven, Connecticut


I want to talk about Lady Susan in the context of epistolary novels written by women earlier in the eighteenth century – not novels you’ve ever heard of, probably, but those Austen herself might have read. But I’ll start with a glance at Northanger Abbey, where Henry Tilney explains to wide-eyed Catherine Morland the inadequacies of female letter writers: “it appears to me that the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars …. A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar.” Although she responds with some pique, Catherine has given Henry his opening by observing “doubtingly” herself, “I have sometimes thought … whether ladies do write so much better letters than gentlemen! That is – I should not think the superiority was always on our side.”1 At roughly the same time that she wrote Northanger Abbey, of course, Austen was probably also working on the novel later to be published as Lady Susan – a fiction composed of letters, mainly by women, demonstrating no deficiencies of subject, grammar, or energy.

“Now however, we begin to mend; our party is enlarged by Mrs. Vernon’s brother, 
a handsome young Man, who promises me some amusement” (MW, 254).
Illustration by Doris Rosenquist for “Lady Susan.” 

The conventional view of Lady Susan has it that Austen wrote awkwardly in the epistolary style. (“It did not really suit her talents,” Margaret Drabble explains.2) Although Austen may have drafted early versions of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice in letters, her published work composed after Lady Susan never again employs the mode. Yet by playing with epistolary convention in Lady Susan, I want to argue, Austen located herself in a female tradition, demonstrating subversive possibilities of a form that in previous uses by English women had reinforced literary and social restrictions on female enterprise. Earlier novels in letter form hint resentment and depression about the female situation, but they implicitly accept that situation as necessary. Lady Susan realizes the possibility of a woman’s exercising agency – partly by the act of writing letters. The novel’s innovative force becomes apparent by comparison with preceding letter-fictions.

As Humpty Dumpty explains in Through the Looking-Glass, all use of language raises questions of mastery. Lady Susan quite understands. “Consideration & Esteem as surely follow command of Language,” she writes, “as Admiration waits on Beauty.”3 Lady Susan means that she’s a good talker, but the letter form emphasizes how she controls reality also by her written representations of it. Lady Susan’s vigorous antagonist, her brother-in-law’s wife Mrs. Vernon, suspects her opponent’s integrity precisely because of her linguistic deftness: “she talks vastly well, I am afraid of being ungenerous or I should say she talks too well to feel so very deeply” (Letter 15, MW, 267). The representation of Susan as a woman who gains power by avoiding the trap of conventional “feminine” emotion raises important questions about the relative value of mastery and of feeling.

Lady Susan speaks and writes perpetually about feeling but typically claims emotions quite different from those she experiences. The short letter that opens the novel epitomizes her mastery and her implicit mockery of orthodox feeling and expression, as she invites herself to her brother-in-law’s house and announces her hope there “to be introduced to a Sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with” and her impatience to be “admitted into your delightful retirement.” “I long to be made known to your dear little Children,” Lady Susan continues, “in whose hearts I shall be very eager to secure an interest” (MW, 243-44).

This letter supplies some facts: Lady Susan is determined to visit the Vernons; she will leave her daughter in London. It also contains misstatements, although the reader cannot yet know this. Lady Susan’s real reasons for departing from her previous retreat involve not the reluctance to engage in active social life that she asserts, but her excessive social activity: she has created a scandal, severely testing the “hospitable & chearful dispositions” she attributes to her friends, that makes her departure imperative. Despite her claims, she feels neither “Duty” nor “affection” toward her daughter, who impedes her social freedom. She wants to visit Churchill not from eagerness to meet Mrs. Vernon but because she has nowhere else to go.

Before learning these facts, the reader may intuit the letter’s falseness from its insistent emotional clichés. The repertoire of attitudes here invoked – wishes for attachment, need for solitude, longing for “delightful retirement,” love for a daughter, interest in the “dear little Children” of others – belongs to the stereotypical lady of sensibility. Lady Susan recklessly, mockingly, multiplies acceptable emotional postures. Mrs. Vernon suspects her falseness without knowing how to resist.

I dwell on this first letter because it epitomizes Austen’s daring in imagining her central character. In the 1790s, when Austen presumably wrote the book, the woman of sensibility, although sometimes criticized, was a virtually sacred stock figure. As a female letter writer in a novel published in 1789 puts it, “Poor Clara! she had always a tender and susceptible heart, which seldom fails of subjecting its possessor to many a severe pang: yet, who would wish to be destitute of sensibility?”4 Austen answers that question. Lady Susan sees sensibility as weakness, manipulates its vocabulary, and avoids its substance. She feels contemptuous toward her daughter, who indulges in feeling rather than exercises control. For Lady Susan herself, artifices of emotion supply instruments for domination. Real feeling must be denied, suppressed, disguised.

Yet real feeling – though hardly the kind associated with “sensibility” – rings through Susan’s letters, especially those written to her confidante, Mrs. Johnson, which vividly convey aggressiveness and will to power. Lady Susan’s second letter, to Mrs. Johnson, reveals what remained hidden in the first. Now, when she uses a phrase like “the sacred impulse of maternal affection,” she dramatizes her rage: “if [my] Daughter were not the greatest simpleton on Earth, I might have been rewarded for my Exertions as I ought” (MW, 245). She urges Mrs. Johnson to keep up her husband’s resentment against Mrs. Manwaring, declares that her brother-in-law “Charles Vernon is my aversion” (246), acknowledges that she will never pay the bill at her daughter’s new school. “There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit,” she writes in a later letter (Letter 7, MW, 254). Her accounts of her relations with Reginald, Mrs. Vernon’s brother, formulate their exchanges as a struggle for mastery. Toward the novel’s end, she suggests that she understands all relationships as contests of power. “I am tired of submitting my will to the Caprices of others,” she writes, declaring her determination to triumph (Letter 39, MW, 308).

Her pose of bravado, preserved with her closest friend, denies some emotional realities to reveal others. At this point in the narrative, most of Susan’s plans have failed; instead of acknowledging defeat, she rapidly shifts ground. Her correspondent’s persona resembles hers: when Mrs. Johnson explains that they can no longer write each other, her letter announcing the loss of Susan’s one important alliance concludes, off-handedly, “I dare say you did all for the best, & there is no defying Destiny” (Letter 38, MW, 307). These women have established new conventions for themselves, rules that govern their correspondence as other rules control Lady Susan’s decorous overtures in her initial letter to the Vernons. Their self-protective personae allow no expression of tenderness, grief, regret, melancholy: sensibility.

Austen calls attention to the necessary artifice of letters, their participation in established decorums that make conduits for impermissible feeling. Mrs. Vernon’s aggressive impulses find respectable expression in her desire for the good of her family and ultimately in her wish to help Frederica (thus foiling Lady Susan); Lady Susan’s aggression constantly seeks acceptable forms. By writing, these women mobilize their forces, internal and external: they provide rhetorics of self-justification, make plans of action, record and interpret events in ways that help them decide what to do next. Writing becomes a form of agency. Even as facts close in on Lady Susan (“Facts are such horrid things!” Mrs. Johnson rightly observes: Letter 32, MW, 303), she insists that her control of language will make all right: “Do not torment yourself with fears on my account. Depend upon it, I can make my own story good with Reginald” (Letter 33, MW, 303).

She is wrong. No longer can she deceive Reginald; no longer can she even manipulate her daughter. With few financial resources, few friends, no family of her own, an alienated set of inlaws, she has no obvious recourse. From the beginning of the narrative her social situation has been precarious – and not altogether as a result of her wickedness. Her verbal aplomb disguises the bleakness of social and personal actuality for a woman destitute of profitable alliance. By sheer style she plays with reality. This aspect of her letter writing differentiates her not only from self-righteous Mrs. Vernon but from other epistolary “heroines" before and after her. Indeed, her 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.” Here’s an example of her rhetorical self-assertion:

At present my Thoughts are fluctuating between various schemes. I have many things to compass, I must punish Frederica, & pretty severely too, for her application to Reginald; I must punish him for receiving it so favourably, & for the rest of his conduct. I must torment my Sister-in-law for the insolent triumph of her Look & Manner since Sir James has been dismissed … & I must make myself amends for the humiliations to which I have stooped within these few days. To effect all this I have various plans (Letter 25, MW, 293-94).

However harshly we condemn her “various plans,” it’s hard not to admire her resilience.

To read earlier epistolary novels by women makes you realize how brilliantly Austen transformed her predecessors’ preoccupations. Every major formal and thematic issue raised by Lady Susan appears frequently in earlier female fictions, but in a different key. Particularly interesting are the concerns central to Austen’s novel: problems of female power and of feeling, possibilities for women of writing as action. Although the earlier works, now almost entirely forgotten, contain no such aggressive female characters as Lady Susan, their plots suggest women’s resentful internalization of social norms.

Eighteenth-century epistolary novels by women often assert the impossibility of saying what one means – or feels. “I am provoked at this natural incapacity of conveying my sentiments to you; words are but a cloak, or rather a clog, to our ideas,” one fictional letter writer complains.5 Characters within novels apologize for the badness of their own writing styles in comparison with the grace of others’ writing.6 Writers faced with the task of narrating intense experience often tell us their stories can’t be told. My favourite example comes from a work called Female Stability. “The particulars of the former [scene] I cannot describe,” a woman character writes, “but the latter, not being so very interesting, I will endeavour at.”7 If these novelists do not altogether confine themselves to the uninteresing, they certainly avoid conspicuous forms of emotional drama: proposal scenes, for instance. One exemplary young woman character announces her “distaste” for “romantic” novelistic accounts of proposals, explaining that she will “therefore only observe, that Mr. Dormer made the offer of his person and fortune in a manly, sensible, and delicate manner; and concluded with requesting my permission to make application to my father” (Timbury, 1:156-57). Mr. Dormer sounds rather like Emma, who of course says just what she ought, as a lady always does.

But fictional correspondents who draw back from scenes of intense emotion worry about confining themselves to trivia. “I am seriously considering,” one young woman writes another, “whether or not I can find anything to amuse you, which I have not repeated to you five hundred times.”8 She then summarizes the daily events of her life, none of them justifying a written record. What can one write letters about? The female novelist has the same problem: daily life, the life she knows, lacks substance and interest as matter for public communication.

Two solutions emerge. Private letters may acquire interest by reporting sensational episodes, usually from other people’s experience. One novelistic letter writer expresses explicitly her hope that the story she tells will “be a means of dispelling for awhile, the ennui of [another woman’s] very solitary life.”9 Stories fight boredom. Within the nominally “realistic” context of letters, novelists therefore allow themselves to construct lurid romance sequences.

Other writers solve the problem of subject simply by assigning high value to feeling itself, however slight its causes. Letters, in all these works, provide outlets for emotion. In Felicia to Charlotte, an early novel largely devoid of developed happenings, Felicia announces at the outset that she plans “to discover all the secret folds of my heart, and to unbosom myself to you without the least reserve.”10 The promise of emotional revelation is self-justifying.

Both uses of letters – as repositories for story, as registers of feeling – bear directly on issues of plot; the artifice that creates stories out of happenings. Epistolary novels reinforce feeling as female vocation by substituting notations of emotion for other kinds of happening and by making feeling the cause for all effects in the outer as well as the inner world. Feeling constitutes power rather than weakness, these works maintain. Emotional capacity testifies to female goodness. Here is a male character’s description of his beloved: “As her mind has been adorned, not warped, by education, it is just what her appearance promises: artless, gentle, timid, soft, sincere, compassionate; awake to all the finer impressions of tenderness, and melting with pity for every human woe.”11 Artless, gentle, timid, soft, sincere, compassionate, melting: the perfect woman. (It must be added that male letter writers imagined by woman authors in their own idealized image also melt at others’ woes.)

The characters in these books feel rather than do. Lady Susan’s fictional predecessors write letters to communicate facts or feelings but usually not to make anything happen. Yet they exercise their own kind of force. Fictional correspondences suggest how feeling can substitute for action to generate its own kind of plot. One woman character writes another, “To any one but my Lucy, the enclosed narrative would afford little entertainment; it is not a series of events, but a continued conflict of the mind, and is a history of passions, not of persons” (Griffith, 2:160). Most eighteenth-century epistolary novels by women indeed record passion rather than character. Woman novelists claim competence as their women characters do: in summoning, accepting, creating emotion. Thus feeling is dong.

Consider this paradigmatic little story, contained in the opening letter of a novel called The Male Coquet: “Poor Lucy Seymour was an unhappy instance of the fatal effects of platonic love. From supposing that she felt nothing more than friendship for the agreeable Mr. Selby, her heart was irretrievably lost before she was sensible of her danger: and, to complete this misfortune, the destroyer of her peace was on the point of marriage with her most intimate friend. The last time I heard any thing of her, she was supposed to be in a deep decline” (Timbury, 1:12).

The novel’s reader, too, hears nothing of Lucy Seymour beyond her decline. Lucy is endowed with no individual character; the figures who write the novel’s letters reveal little more specificity; the asserted passion, recorded in a kind of shorthand, seems as unpersuasive as the character. Telling rather than showing, this tiny story (like the novel it inhabits, like many other novels) violates a fundamental principle of writing we teach to freshmen. For two centuries critics have accordingly explained the curious emptiness of such narrative as the product of authorial ineptitude. Yet episodes of this sort, in all their bareness, supply fables of the female condition.

Although these novels contain elements of “the traditional narrative of resolution,” in which events gradually work themselves out – as in Pride and Prejudice, for example – they also exemplify what Seymour Chatman calls “the modern plot of revelation,” in which “a state of affairs is revealed.”12 Different happenings reveal remarkably similar “states of affairs”: men betray women, women go into declines, varied events reiterate the same assumed yet painful realities. The female condition involves deprivation and offers cause for despair. The emotional notation of countless flatly rendered episodes underlines that despair.

The novelistic “history of passions” covers a limited emotional range. Love accounts for many consequences good and bad. Its force reduces strong men to emotional dependence and elevates women to heroic status. It justifies anger (always rendered as the product of sexual jealousy) and grief. It creates women’s fates.

Yet it’s not always so simple to tell how we’re supposed to feel about love. What are we to make, for example, of this male rhapsody (the male in question imagined by a woman) on love’s power? “[W]hen inspired by a worthy object, [love] leads to every thing that is great and noble: warmed by the desire of being approved by her, there is nothing I would not attempt. I will to-day write to my father for his consent, and embark immediately for the army” (Brooke, 69). The lover, however, neither writes to his father nor embarks for the army: he only talks about his exalted feelings. What should we make of a plot in which, after page upon page of vapid outpourings about love, a bride discovers that her doting husband has fathered an illegitimate child by a woman who crept into his bed one night? He never bothered to mention this episode, nor does he appear to feel guilty about it, since he thought the woman only a chambermaid. When he rather perfunctorily asks his wife’s forgiveness, she points out that a woman in a comparable situation would never be pardoned; then she forgives him.13 What else can she do? What can we make, finally, of the fact that these plots generated by love record mainly disaster, often caused by male lust and self-indulgence?

All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone” (Austen, NA and P, 235). Anne Elliott, in Austen’s Persuasion, speaks these bleak words. Her complexity of tone – ruefulness, self-congratulation, hints of resentment – sums up many women’s novels. Imagined letters in these texts stress misery and the need to endure it, and suggest pride as well as anger. One can only guess how much social criticism these structures of feeling imply.

Happening and feeling of course are closely related, in fiction as in life. The stories for which fictional letters claim attention differentiate these books from the eighteenth-century novels we have agreed to call major precisely by their emotional weight. Almost all important novels of eighteenth-century England have a comic structure. They end in marriage and in financial security. Along the road to final success, nothing terrible happens. Tom Jones appears to have gone to bed with his mother, but he hasn’t really; Matthew Bramble (in Humphry Clinker) almost drowns, but not quite; Tristram Shandy converts a squashed nose into comedy.

My epistolary novels aren’t like that. In Susannah Gunning’s Barford Abbey, for instance, the heroine’s guardian dies at the novel’s start. The protagonist endures smallpox and near-rape; her lover nearly dies from grief. More dramatically, Jane Marshall’s History of Alicia Montague subjects its heroine to desperate poverty as well as severe sexual threats and almost universal rejection, by family and friends. And most of these novels do not provide happy endings after their disasters. Agnes De-Courci, A Domestic Tale has a plot too intricate to summarize, including complicated tales of sexual deceit and manipulation and ending in narrowly averted incest, the madness and death of the heroine, and the suicide of her lover. In The Male Coquet, one of the two female protagonists marries, but the other dies, betrayed by a man. The History of Lady Julia Mandeville, a popular work, not only concludes in the deaths of Julia and her lover Harry; it implicitly attributes responsibility for those deaths to the system of patriarchy. Harry’s father, who praises the British constitution, the British royal family, and the happiness of “virtuous industry” (Brooke, 27), imitates the national order he admires by arranging his son’s life in every detail. His arrangements precipitate the catastrophe.

Both as “narratives of resolution” and as “plots of revelation,” epistolary novels by women insist on cause and effect: sometimes on remarkably simple conceptions of final cause – male lust, love, parental dominance. But intricate epistolary structures deliberately obscure the novels’ systems of causality. Plots centre on the dilemmas of young men and women forced into present misery by unknown happenings in the past. What they don’t know hurts them. The work of fictional correspondences is to unravel not such relatively benign secrets as the engagement of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, but bitter secrets of illegitimacy, jealousy, lust, and power. To discover the past emphasizes powerlessness in the present. As letters accumulate to make a story, they tell, typically, of the painful weight of personal history, the inescapability of the past.

In this group of novels, no love letters appear. Letters between women, between men, or between relatives evoke scant sense of intimacy. Story-telling and assertion of feeling replace the evocation of character and relationship that we normally expect in private letters fictional or literal. The use of letters itself thus helps to emphasize the sense of things gone wrong. Letters, those images of connection, here only dramatize connection’s impossibilities.

Should one connect the special aspects of these novels – their dark tone; intricate, malevolent plots; emphasis on the power of families and of the past; substitution of feeling for doing, employment of letters more for narrative than for evocation of relationship – should one connect such aspects with the gender of their authors? Perhaps there lies concealed in these texts a peculiarly female version of social criticism, veiled reaction to the impoverished lives, the limited power, to which most women were doomed. Male as well as female characters suffer in these novels; but the generating vision belongs to women. The darkness of that vision, the incursion of darkness even into so bland a plot as that of Felicia to Charlotte … possibly that darkness derives from female consciousness of female actualities. One can only speculate.

In the context of these novels, Lady Susan becomes the more remarkable for its openness. The plot of Austen’s novel derives not from revelations of the past but from a powerful woman’s operations within the time scheme defined by the letters that narrate events. Lady Susan occupies herself mainly in plotting. Although her plots do not work out as she intends, she yet generates her own narrative. Never does her determination to control events weaken. Her verbal activity, oral and written, constantly remakes her history; letters provide for her a means of force rather than of passivity. She refuses to accept the power of the past, refuses to acknowledge, except as verbal form, the sacred ties of motherhood. Aware of the conventionality of convention, as none of its previous fictional victims is, she can turn it to her own ends. For her, story is something you make rather than something that happens to you.

What an act of liberation, to imagine the bad mother not as inescapable nightmare but as centre of consciousness, responsible for herself, capable of being defeated! Bad mothers in earlier fiction are represented from the child’s point of view. Indeed, even almost two centuries after Lady Susan, few novelists have fully evoked a parent’s perspective. (In our imaginations, we all remain children.) Lady Susan exists as a sketched rather than a fully developed character. Fully developed, she might become intolerable – might arouse too much fear and guilt in novelist and reader alike. In Austen’s representation, her self-interested acts have no long-range devastating consequences. If she almost lures Reginald into marriage and almost destroys her daughter’s happiness and almost takes a man from his wife, she yet misses all these achievements, not by the arrangement of Providence but largely because of the verbal effectiveness of women she has scorned. Reginald, the man Susan wants, believes a wronged wife’s story and abandons his temptress. Susan’s daughter, whom the reader probably thinks as negligible a creature as her mother believes her, wins Reginald’s heart through the intervention of his mother and his sister. Lady Susan must marry the rich fool she chose for her daughter.

A very rich fool, though. Like the conclusions of Austen’s later novels, this ending carries a sting in its tail. Its subtle poetic justice simultaneously rewards Lady Susan with the wealth and status her society values and punishes her by depriving her of the male wit and style she herself values. The huddled up form of the conclusion, with its retreat from the epistolary, parodies the ineptitudes of such earlier works as The History of Alicia Montague, which recurrently abandons the artifice of letters for the sake of narrative economy. But the narrator’s playfulness not only asserts a new kind of verbal mastery but extends to conventional assumptions about the relative power of parents and children: the cruel mother meets the fate she has ordained for her daughter. Lady Susan, of course, will know how to control Sir James as her daughter could not. This is not a “sad” ending even for the mother, though it carries overtones of bitterness about the social necessities that require Susan’s marriage.

Eighteenth-century epistolary novels by women are hard to come by now. The only example of the genre most people know is Fanny Burney’s Evelina – a work different from the others in virtually all respects, and far less disturbing than fictions that openly question the benignity of families and the possibility of carefree marriage. Their troubling message of despair and their demonstration of female ineffectuality may have ensured the disappearance of other epistolary works; perhaps Evelina survives because it appears more innocent. However disturbing the female epistolary tradition, though, however angry and despairing its fictional arrangements, its novels reinforced the status quo by assuming it. Declaring in their reliance on epistolary form their concern only with “private” matters, women novelists apparently accepted the necessity of the system from which they suffered.

Jane Austen, in contrast, understanding letters as voice and as action, understanding conventions as capable of manipulation, imagining possibilities of female power within the sphere of the “private,” playing with reversals of fictional pattern that adumbrated conceivable social reversals, questioning even the value of sincerity and its power, envisioning a female character capable of play and of mastery through play – Jane Austen even in her adolescent novel experiments with quiet modes of undermining.



1 Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Vol. 5 of The Novels of Jane Austen. 3rd ed. Ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982). p. 27.

2 Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon, ed. with intro. by Margaret Drabble (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), p. 9.

3 Jane Austen, Minor Works. Vol. 6 of The Works of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), Letter 16, p. 268.

4 Jane Timbury, The Male Coquet, 2 vols. (London, 1789), 1:152.

5 [Elizabeth] Griffith, The Story of Lady Juliana Harley, 2 vols. (London, 1776), 1:2.

6 See, for example, [Susannah Gunning], Barford Abbey, a Novel: in a Series of Letters, 2 vols. (London, 1768), 1:61.

7 [Charlotte] Palmer, Female Stability: Or, The History of Miss Belville. In a Series of Letters. 5 vols. (London, 1780), 4:28.

8 [Jane Marshall], The History of Alicia Montague, 2 vols. (London, 1767), 1:115-16.

9 [Agnes Maria] Benett, Agnes De-Courci, A Domestic Tale, 4 vols. (Bath, 1789), 2:49.

10 Mary Collyer, Felicia to Charlotte, 2 vols. in one (New York: Garland, 1974), l:2. First pub. 1744, 1749.

11 [Frances Brooke], The History of Lady Julia Mandeville, vol. 10 of The British Novelists (London, 1810), p. 3.

12 Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), p. 48.

13 The novel is Mary Collyer’s Felicia to Charlotte.

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