Years before she poked fun at Edward Ferrars’s and Edmund Bertram’s changing affections, Jane Austen invented Reginald De Courcy, who is “talked, flattered & finessed into an affection” for Lady Susan’s daughter, Frederica (Later Manuscripts 77). Like Harriet Smith in Emma and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park, Reginald is able to be in love with several people within the span of one year. “[A]bjuring all future attachments,” Reginald is a clichéd disappointed lover, but he also becomes one of the objects of Austen’s satire, not only because of the incommensurateness of his hyperbolic reaction to his fortunate loss but also because he is consoled within the year by a new attachment (77). Reginald can on a first reading seem a flat character, whose actual voice is only heard in three of the forty letters in the epistolary novella. Austen challenges the reader, however, to see Reginald’s complexity, or rather to construct a Reginald from the various perspectives of the women for whom he is an object of affectionate concern or mercenary interest. Moreover, because the conclusion promises a marriage based on affection, though a taught affection, Austen clearly has some investment in the character. Because Austen will regularly return in every one of the later novels to Reginald’s character type—a young person who forms a second attachment after thinking it impossible—it is worth examining how Austen constructs his character to give him the traits that make him sympathetic and deserving of a happy ending while also mocking and satirizing his idea of his heart’s own stability.
In the completed novels Austen tends to make the protagonists’ love interests more substantial than in Lady Susan, though they always rank second or third or even lower in their allotment of narrative space and dialogue. In this novella, the unflattering portrait of Reginald is partly the result of her allowing him less narrative space than she allots to his manipulators. Nonetheless, Austen repeats some characteristics of this early central male character in both central and secondary male and female characters. Reginald is a prototype of Marianne Dashwood and Edmund Bertram, who are self-deluded about the values of the objects of their infatuation. Reginald has in common with Harriet Smith being easily influenced by others into an affection that he cannot see is manufactured. He also resembles Edward Ferrars, who because of youth and inexperience, attaches himself to a deceitful hypocrite but later falls in love with a good woman of excellent understanding. Comparing Reginald to Austen’s later inconstant hearts allows us to see that in the juvenilia she already distinguishes among kinds of inconstancy and that she is also working on the reader’s powers of detection to establish Reginald as the hero of the novella (though not the protagonist), whose happy ending, in spite of his shifting affections, is not altogether undeserved.
The comedy of abjuring all future attachments: Lack of self-knowledge
Inconstancy forms the theme of much of Austen’s comedy in the juvenilia. It is interesting to her probably because it is the greatest threat to love and marriage, both of which are necessary to the narrative conclusions in her later works. But inconstancy is also interesting to her because it comically deflates and reveals the human “‘follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies’” that Elizabeth Bennet will tell Mr. Darcy divert her and that he christens “‘those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule’” (PP 62–63). She will even deflate the romantic musings of her later heroine, Anne Elliot, whose constant love is so moving to the reader. Famous for Anne and Captain Harville’s discussion of male and female constancy, does Persuasion not also include a soupçon of mirth in the narrator’s description of Anne after the concert in Bath, who, she suggests, might have felt differently about Mr. Elliot were there no Captain Wentworth?
How she might have felt, had there been no Captain Wentworth in the case, was not worth enquiry; for there was a Captain Wentworth; and be the conclusion of the present suspense good or bad, her affection would be his for ever. Their union, she believed, could not divide her more from other men, than their final separation.
Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy, could never have passed along the streets of Bath, than Anne was sporting with from Camden-place to Westgate-buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way. (P 208)
It seems that even Anne is not completely incapable of being consoled: it is, the author implies, human nature to seek consolation. Surely if Austen can tease Anne Elliot on the subject, her mockery of Reginald should not sink him forever in the reader’s eyes.
Yet inconstancy is not always funny; it is often the source of the greatest unhappiness Austen’s characters experience. Joyce Tarpley has shown that constancy is necessary in Austen’s scheme of the virtues. The theme of a battle between constancy and inconstancy was popular in music and poetry in Austen’s youth. Jeanice Brooks’s study of songs in Austen’s collection or that she is known to have played and sung before her writing of the later Chawton novels shows Austen’s familiarity with a popular and conventional tension between sentimentalism and pragmatic cynicism in both solo pieces and duets dramatizing these two points of view on love and constancy. In the juvenilia, Austen is already experimenting with this dissonance, which often forms the groundwork of her wildly comic plots (as in Frederic and Elfrida when Charlotte commits suicide because she has plighted her troth to two different men in the same day). Reginald, Lady Susan, and Sir James Martin all shift fidelities in the course of Lady Susan. The nature of their instability is, however, different. Lady Susan, for instance, is never in love at all, but she is involved in a seemingly adulterous relationship with Lord Manwaring during her official period of mourning for her husband; she toys with Reginald until she decides to become engaged to him; she then marries Sir James Martin, who has previously courted Frederica. Reginald’s resolution of “abjuring all future attachments” shows his desire to be constant, but his family, like Lady Susan, is able to change his mind. The culminating comic marriage is a result of connivance rather than a simple shift in affections from an unattainable to an attainable object.
Austen parodies the impermanence of romantic affections that seem to be indelible to the afflicted lover. The manipulators who want to finesse Reginald into marriage, whether Lady Susan or Reginald’s sister and mother, all look with a kind of indulgent humor on his conviction of his own stability. Austen participates in the ancient ascription of astutia, or cunning cleverness, to the women, who use their intelligence to entrap the man (Blamires).
In the early novella, the recovery from disappointed hopes seems to be a good thing for the character and for the resolution of the plot, as it is for Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. Austen does not seem to admire fidelity to a worthless choice. In Lady Susan, in fact, she seems to celebrate the escape of both Reginald and Frederica from Lady Susan’s grasp. For what would it mean for Reginald to keep Lady Susan? After all, she does not seem to be in love with him, or her late husband, or Sir James, and her attraction to Manwaring might be called something other than love. Attachments of the heart are not for her (as they will not be for the unsuspecting Emma Woodhouse many years later). I would argue that Austen’s flippancy in resolving the narrative in this strange manner in no way signals a pessimism about the future marriage. Surprisingly for modern audiences, the opposite is the case. Austen’s delight in her anarchic, amoral heroine is not approval, and her creation of a hero who is able to be “finessed” into an affection for another does not signal disapproval.
The later characters are indeed all more fully drawn, although Edward Ferrars spends a good deal of his novel offstage. Unlike Reginald, however, they are all animated by their sincere affection for the women whom they eventually marry. Austen grants Reginald De Courcy the additional attractions of a Mr. Darcy or Captain Wentworth in the form of wealth, and of Mr. Knightley in his property. The usual effect of money and property on the Austen hero’s alpha-male status, however, does not seem to secure for Reginald the affection of the novella’s readers. As a sentimental hero, Reginald De Courcy will never win hearts as Mr. Darcy has done, in spite of his wealth and status. Readers prefer the hero with the constant heart. Reginald’s inconstancy seems to be a risk to the hero’s status and reputation among her readers that Jane Austen is willing to take, and more than once, to boot.
The Ancilla, the Meretrix, and the Merry Widow
Reginald and Lady Susan both have roots in classical literature. Margaret Doody has called several of the characters in Jane Austen’s juvenilia “cool, accomplished takers,” who never feel pangs of guilt (114). Susan, the cunning woman, is a descendent of several character types recognizable to the early nineteenth-century audience that Austen first has in mind (her family) and probably also to the first readers after the novella’s initial publication in the late 1800s. One of these types is the character of the ancilla, or maid, in Roman comedy, a character type that Ann Raia says possesses
wit, vitality, and a certain tartness of speech which lead to lively exchanges with her mistress, the young lover, and the male slaves. . . . Although she is usually of incidental importance to the play and to the people about her, the maid is capable of entering the world of men and winning admiration for her feminine ways. She is aptly described by one male slave in the Cistellaria as “mala mers et callida” [bad and clever goods, or “a nasty piece of baggage”]. It is probable that the ancilla has a reputation for craft because Plautus so often portrays maids (eight of twelve) whose mistresses are prostitutes.
Raia also points out that the matrona is often a comic character who quarrels with her husband, the father of the family, describing her in terms that sound eerily like a description of the female characters in Lady Susan, especially in opposition to the puella figure:
Strong-willed and independent in a very dependent relationship, she is portrayed as an anti-type of the meretrix [sinner, or prostitute] with whom she actually shares many qualities. The third of the major female roles in comedy is that of the puella; as a character she is much less interesting dramatically than the matrona or the meretrix, but her . . . marriageability often furnishes the requisite “happy ending.”
Lady Susan’s cleverness is often celebrated in recent criticism, but it is important to remember that to Austen’s early audience (especially her classicist father and classically educated brothers), her funniness and her questionable character would have been a familiar combination. Like the charming but irreverent Willoughby, she is a person with a propensity for infidelity whose loss is not worth the mourning.
Reginald, like many eighteenth-century heroes and their prototypes in Plautus and other classical comedies, is fascinated by an older woman who is just such a cool, accomplished taker. In general, the merry widow stereotype does not maintain her hold on the fluctuating emotions of the young bachelor, and so he ends up with a younger, innocent spouse. As Jay Levine has shown, in Lady Susan, Jane Austen exploits the comic blocking character of the widow.1 Unlike Wycherley and Etherege, who also employed such characters, Austen is so motivated by a desire to exploit or explode conventions for her own purposes that she makes Lady Susan’s designs on Reginald the center of the plot rather than just a block to the central development. Reginald’s plan to resist the charms of the famous flirt, hilariously, fails almost immediately. The hero’s repeated failure to see through Susan’s self-fashioned persona is central to the comedy of the work as a whole and the main source of tension in the plot. In contrast, the romance of the younger couple is so underplayed as to be almost invisible.
The Love Heretic
The Love Heretic is a character descended from troubadour and romance prototypes, known to Austen at least through Shakespeare, who in Much Ado About Nothing, as one example, makes the hero of the comedy, Benedick, a love heretic. Benedick is sure that he will never fall in love and that he cannot be taken in by reports of a woman’s excellence (1.1). Beatrice, the heroine, is also a love heretic, famously declaring, “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me” (1.1.31–32).
Reginald is a classic example of this type, trespassing into the realms of Cupid with a ridiculous sense of his own imperviousness to attraction. When his father writes to him of his worries about Reginald’s attachment to Lady Susan, Reginald replies huffily, “‘[L]ow must sink my pretensions to common sense if I am suspected of matrimonial views in my behaviour to her.—Our difference of age must be an insuperable objection, & I entreat you my dear Sir to quiet your mind, & no longer harbour a suspicion which cannot be more injurious to your own peace, than to our Understandings’” (24–25).
Lady Susan, too, is a love heretic who will get caught in her own toils, eventually having to marry Sir James Martin. She declares to Mrs. Johnson,
“I like [Reginald] on the whole very well, he is clever & has a good deal to say, but he is sometimes impertinent & troublesome.—There is a sort of ridiculous delicacy about him which requires the fullest explanation of whatever he may have heard to my disadvantage, & is never satisfied till he thinks he has ascertained the beginning & end of everything.—
“This is one sort of Love, but I confess it does not particularly recommend itself to me.—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; & look with a degree of Contempt on the inquisitive & doubting Fancies of that Heart which seems always debating on the reasonableness of its Emotions. Manwaring is indeed beyond compare superior to Reginald—superior in everything but the power of being with me.—Poor fellow! he is quite distracted by Jealousy, which I am not sorry for, as I know no better support of Love.” (30)
Susan has no idea what love is.
Lady Susan occupies most of the narrative space of the novella, and she also has almost all the funny, smart lines. Jay Levine has already explained why the latter fact, at least, is not a ratification of the author’s approval. Nonetheless, in foregrounding a traditionally secondary character—the predatory widow—through Lady Susan’s dominance of the correspondence, Austen consigns our perceptions of Reginald De Courcy—a traditionally central sentimental hero—to the words and judgments of others. That tactic seems to be a major problem in the novella. At the same time, however, Austen elevates him to the position of hero because he is the man whom Susan Vernon wishes to conquer.
An important feature in our estimates of the characters in Austen’s novels is how much she allows them to speak for themselves or how much she shows of their internal meditations. Does Reginald have interiority? Perhaps more importantly, does Austen grant him sufficient narrative space for us to label him a hero? James Wood argued that Emma is a heroine who interprets and discovers salutary truths, a new kind of heroine. Emma is central to her novel in part because so much of the action is perceived through her eyes; her voice even dominates much of the colored narrative. Reginald’s voice, however, does not occupy sufficient space in the letters either to allow him to be our main source of information about himself or to strike us as having the kind of interiority Austen’s later heroines (and some of her heroes) will have. The correspondence in Lady Susan is carried on almost exclusively by the women in the story and, even more interestingly, by the older women rather than the younger generation (see Kaplan).
This deficit in Reginald’s voice presents the reader with a more complex task than in the cases of the later heroes whom he resembles most, Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram. He cannot be an object of amorous interest to his relations who write about him or to him, and he is not one for Lady Susan, who sees him more as an enemy to be conquered than as someone to whom she is irresistibly attracted. This strategy is indeed a disadvantage as far as molding the reader’s attachment to the character is concerned.
One main theme of the novella is the way in which our sentiments can be controlled by others’ language about us. We are never able to ascertain from her own words the amount of interest Frederica has in Reginald, and the narrator does not intrude to make the reader watch her admiring or loving him as when Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price, or Anne Elliot watch and interact with Mr. Darcy, Edmund Bertram, or Frederick Wentworth. The heroine’s and other women’s perspective on these men is, in part, what ratifies their desirability in the reader’s eyes. It is up to Catherine Vernon, who is an acute observer if not always a clever strategist, to let us know through her letter to her mother that Frederica is smitten with Reginald:
“I am very glad to find that my description of Frederica Vernon has interested you, for I do beleive her truly deserving of our regard, & when I have communicated a notion which has recently struck me, your kind impressions in her favour will I am sure be heightened. I cannot help fancying that she is growing partial to my brother, I so very often see her eyes fixed on his face with a remarkable expression of pensive admiration!—He is certainly very handsome—& yet more—there is an openness in his manner that must be highly prepossessing, & I am sure she feels it so.—Thoughtful & pensive in general her countenance always brightens with a smile when Reginald says anything amusing; & let the subject be ever so serious that he may be conversing on, I am much mistaken if a syllable of his uttering, escape her.—” (34)
Aside from assuring us that Reginald is handsome, Catherine attests to the kind of openness of manner Austen seems to find very winning in such characters as Catherine Moreland and Emma.
In letter 24, Catherine tells her mother that she is observing Frederica and Reginald and sees no hope of Frederica’s affection being returned. In letter 25, Lady Susan confirms that Frederica has fallen in love with him: “‘Her idle Love for Reginald, too;—it is surely my duty to discourage such romantic nonsense.—All things considered therefore, it seems encumbent on me to take her to Town, & marry her immediately to Sir James’” (58). This framing of Frederica’s affection for Reginald, though brief, shapes the reader’s knowledge of the characters in several ways. We see that, for Susan, the most sensible thing one can do if one’s daughter is suffering the pangs of unrequited love is to marry her off to someone else whom she insists she does not want—though even James Fordyce, for example, in his letters to young women will advise them that their obligation to obey a parent ceases when urged to marry without affection (189).2 It does not seem to occur to Susan that Frederica would gain almost as much from a marriage to Reginald as she would from a marriage to Sir James; if Susan’s only goal is unromantic sense, it should be fine to make the substitution. Her dismissive lines constitute one proof that Susan does indeed see something of value in Reginald personally and wants him for herself. Allowing the reader to see that Lady Susan perceives her daughter as her rival and her daughter’s affections as dangerous to her own mission is a prime way in which Austen can ratify Reginald’s worth in the eyes of her protagonist. In this circuitous way, Austen also builds up Reginald’s “hero credentials”: he is admired and loved by the persecuted daughter, and he becomes an object of female rivalry.
Sincerity and self-knowledge
Reginald also receives a boost in his status as hero because of his ability to know himself and to recognize errors. That Reginald’s opinion of Frederica undergoes a dramatic change from his initial prejudiced view (reminding us of the shift in Mr. Knightley’s prejudiced view of Harriet Smith and also of Mr. Darcy’s dismissive initial evaluation of Elizabeth Bennet) proves that Austen thinks of him as a dynamic character who is able to re-evaluate and attempt to be more fair even when he is not being manipulated. Such growth at least satisfies E. M. Forster’s definition of a round character, but the requirement in general applies to heroes and heroines of any Bildungsroman (69–78). The seemingly flat character Reginald is able, after Frederica’s appeal to him, to reject the contemptuous opinion of her that he expressed in his first letter to his sister; he has become convinced of her good character and innocence. That conviction is one of the tensions that propel him toward the final breakup with her mother.
His opinion of his future wife at the outset of the novella comes, as does his opinion of Lady Susan, from others’ reports:
“I am glad to find that Miss Vernon does not come with her Mother to Churchill, as she has not even Manners to recommend her, & according to Mr. Smith’s account, is equally dull & proud. Where Pride & Stupidity unite there can be no dissimulation worthy notice, & Miss Vernon shall be consigned to unrelenting contempt; but by all that I can gather, Lady Susan possesses a degree of captivating Deceit which it must be pleasing to witness & detect.” (8–9)
Reginald enters the story as a satirist who wants to be a “deceit detective.” He prides himself on being observant—rather like Elizabeth Bennet—and expressly announces that Frederica will not interest him because she, pridefully stupid, will be incapable of the cunning and lies his skills will unmask.
The actual result of this challenge to his own detective skills is disastrous to our perception of him as an admirable and manly character: Reginald becomes a comic object because his emotions are in fact easily swayed. He is incapable of seeing through feminine wiles when they are exerted in his direction. This vulnerability makes him too gullible to be a hero, we think. He is laughable, whereas Mr. Darcy’s immunity to the flattering attentions of Caroline Bingley shows him to be worthy of respect. Self-love does not make Mr. Darcy anyone’s gull.
And yet, we also see that, in spite of Reginald’s protestations to the contrary, he is tenderhearted. He is gallant and sincere; these are characteristics he shares with Mr. Darcy, among others. Evoking this emotional reaction in Reginald is one of the things that not only pleases Lady Susan, giving her a sense of power, but also attracts her. Lady Susan tells Mrs. Johnson,
“Oh! how delightful it was, to watch the variations of his Countenance while I spoke, to see the struggle between returning Tenderness & the remains of Displeasure.—There is something agreable in feelings so easily worked on. Not that I envy him their possession, nor would for the world have such myself, but they are very convenient when one wishes to influence the passions of another. And yet this Reginald, whom a very few words from me softened at once into the utmost submission, & rendered more tractable, more attached, more devoted than ever, would have left me in the first angry swelling of his proud heart without deigning to seek an explanation!—” (57)
Susan does not like it when “this Reginald” is angry with her because the irascible emotion provides him with a defense against her influence. But she tells the reader something very important here as regards Reginald’s future with Frederica: he has a propensity to be tender and devoted. The reader judges these qualities to be good, not bad, although evaluating them positively for very different reasons than for their convenience to Lady Susan’s designs. She wants to punish him for his pride by dismissing him or “‘marrying & teizing him for ever’” but considers both courses of action “‘too violent’” (57). Her harshness contrasts with his softness in this contretemps, but Reginald’s aptitude to make peace rather than Lady Susan’s unappeased desire to punish appears the more amiable quality.
Malleability and firmness
Should men be intractable and implacable as Mr. Darcy announces himself to be near the beginning of Pride and Prejudice? Should they nurse resentment as Frederick Wentworth does for almost a decade? Should a man be firm in defying his older relations, as Mr. Knightley claims he would be (if he had them)? Or should he be pliable as we see Edmund Bertram is (excepting his resolution to be ordained) until he finds out the truth of Mary Crawford’s beliefs about the seriousness of adultery? As a youthful writer, Jane Austen is already experimenting with the kinds of faults a hero can be permitted to have in a novel before he finds himself disqualified for his role. She seems to want to avoid with the male characters, as well as with the females, the “pictures of perfection” that she will later claim make her “sick & wicked” (23–25 March 1817). Her narrative voice gambols in the conclusion of Lady Susan, enjoying her recklessness and defiance of sentimental convention and yet indulging the reader in a happy ending:
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—which, allowing leisure for the conquest of his attachment to her Mother, for his abjuring all future attachments, & detesting the Sex, might be reasonably looked for in the course of a Twelvemonth. Three Months might have done it in general, but Reginald's feelings were no less lasting than lively. (77)
Here we laugh at Reginald. His “lasting” and “lively” feelings make him a woman hater for slightly longer than most men in his situation.
But Austen gives with one hand and takes away with the other: she assures us that Reginald has more lasting feelings than most; however, the sad truth seems to be that a few months at the outside are all that is necessary for most men to find consolation elsewhere. “Fixed,” “family,” “flattered,” “finessed,” “affection for”: Austen expertly lines up her alliterated words to suggest the way families deal with their wayward young people. The fricative “f” in this rhetorical flourish is a sound that poets often use to convey scorn and disdain. But doesn’t Reginald’s susceptibility to these machinations prove that he is, in fact, not stubbornly vindictive or spiteful? Frederick Wentworth outlasts him, but wouldn’t Frederick have been happier if he had surrendered to his curiosity to know what had happened to Anne, to his actual desire to sound out her intentions again, a year or two after their separation?
Austen does not always seem to bestow a benediction on self-will or stubborn refusal to be consoled for a romantic loss. She does not even seem to think the most spontaneous affection is the best. “‘[Y]ou would have chosen for him better than he has chosen for himself,’” Mr. Knightley tells Emma of her plan to unite Mr. Elton with Harriet Smith (E 358). These words offering Emma a rare compliment upend the potential castigation of a matchmaking Emma that so many read the novel as having as its main aim. Mr. Knightley now understands that “‘Elton will not do’” (70) not because Harriet is unworthy of him but because he is unworthy of Harriet, and Elton’s choice of a spouse destines him to an alliance that will shape him morally in his future. Without Mrs. Elton Mr. Elton is an insincere social climber, but with her he acts with cruelty and meanness. Emma would have chosen better. Austen more than implies that the apparent amity that exists between Mr. and Mrs. Elton is not a good but an evil—an evil to which Mr. Elton is attracted, perhaps not fully consciously.
Reginald De Courcy has two options and chooses ill for himself. It is up to others to choose for him if he is to be rescued. The narrator seems to think that landing in this situation is not a bad thing but a funny thing. In fact, Reginald makes himself ridiculous with his preposterous claims to a “lasting and lively” love with the devious Lady Susan when he will marry the daughter less than twelve months later. It is ludicrous that he inveighs against the female sex when he will be content to settle down with a member thereof so expeditiously. The narrator of Lady Susan is as derisive about the “plans and decisions of mortals” as the narrator of Mansfield Park will be. Human security about the state of one’s own emotions is one of the main targets of Austen’s satire. But such self-assurance is merely a folly, not a vice.
Though Reginald is foolish, and temporarily disgusted with women in general because of one woman in particular, no one in the novella thinks he deserves everlasting punishment, or even that he is unusually bad. They are, rather, happy in their knowledge that he is a manageable young man who will recover. Letter 40, from Lady De Courcy to Catherine, overtly declares her intention to manipulate her son:
“Reginald is returned, not to ask our consent to his marrying Lady Susan, but to tell us that they are parted forever! . . . [H]e is so very low, that I have not the heart to ask questions; but I hope we shall soon know all.—This is the most joyful hour he has ever given us, since the day of his birth.3 . . . [P]ray bring all my Grand Children, & your dear Neice is included, of course; I long to see her.—It has been a sad heavy winter hitherto, without Reginald, & seeing nobody from Churchill. I never found the season so dreary before, but this happy meeting will make us young again.—Frederica runs much in my thoughts, & when Reginald has recovered his usual good spirits, (as I trust he soon will) we will try to rob him of his heart once more, & I am full of hopes of seeing their hands joined at no great distance.” (73)
When assailed, will Reginald’s persevering devotion to Lady Susan crumble? Yes. But aside from this potentially damning detail, we see other positive qualities his mother values in Reginald: “his usual good spirits,” whose absence have made the past season a “sad heavy winter” for his parents.
Infinite malleability is not a good quality, and in the later novels the less easily swayed characters of Fitzwilliam Darcy and George Knightley, and perhaps Henry Tilney, will stand out among Austen’s heroes as men whose future constancy may be presumed. Frederick Wentworth, Edward Ferrars, and Edmund Bertram have demerits, but all seem inclined to faithfulness once settled, and Frederick has the bonus virtue of re-orienting his heart to his old love once he realizes she is a greater prize than the younger women flinging themselves at him. The assurance of male constancy is, for Austen, a paramount quality in her happy endings for her heroines. Among these heroes, however, Austen singles out only George Knightley as having—Reginald-like—the quality of alleviating tedium and sorrow by his presence. She makes Reginald a complex character through these tactics of indicting his weakness and yet assuring us of his general liveliness and virtuous tendencies. She accomplishes this narrative feat by a kind of subterfuge in plain sight. Although he is too easily won over by charm, he is also a good-natured companion. Although he is inclined to be cheerful, he has a temper roused by indignation at injustice and falsehood. One could say that for Austen, a certain amount of prickliness or charmlessness, as will be the case with Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley, is a better indicator of a man’s choosiness than is facile charm, the allure of a Willoughby or a Wickham. Reginald is far more easily deceived, however, than are the heroes of Pride and Prejudice and Emma.
The gullible Reginald is unable to extricate himself by his own powers of perception and judgment. On the other hand, he has enough self-awareness eventually to realize that this lack of self-sufficiency is his predicament. In Letter 36, where he declares to Susan his renunciation of her, Reginald ascribes his escape to the help of others, not to his own discernment:
“[I] am assured . . . That you have corresponded with [Manwaring] ever since your leaving Langford—not with his wife—but with him—& that he now visits you every day. Can you, dare you deny it?—And all this at the time when I was an encouraged, an accepted Lover!—From what have I not escaped!—I have only to be grateful.—Far from me be all complaint, & every sigh of regret. My own Folly had endangered me, my Preservation I owe to the kindness, the Integrity of another .” (69–70, italics mine)
Reginald, if not as good at detecting hypocrisy as he originally thought he was, is at least grateful. His admission here demonstrates a maturity well beyond the grasp of Austen’s fools, and it reads like the self-castigating illuminations of Austen’s later heroines, Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse.
Reginald ends his relationship with Lady Susan, ascribing both his falling in love and his awakening to outside forces.
“After such a discovery as this, you will scarcely affect farther wonder at my meaning in bidding you Adieu.—My Understanding is at length restored, & teaches me no less to abhor the Artifices which had subdued me, than to despise myself for the weakness, on which their strength was founded.—” (70)
Free consent and spontaneous affection inspired by real goodness were not part of his infatuation. He pursued a false good but ceased to know it was false. Remarkably, given his inclination to anger, Reginald does not directly insult Lady Susan but instead faults himself for the weakness the author has made him suffer. This manly acknowledgment of his own deficiency is another quality that elevates the otherwise lamentably weak De Courcy.
The narrative conclusion
As she does in the conclusion of her subsequent novels, in Lady Susan Austen detaches us from the protagonist by eliminating both her spoken and written words. But what is the narrator’s attitude toward Reginald? Reginald is still, as before, the passive victim of persuasion in the form of flattery and finessing. The affection thereby produced seems almost the same as his affection for Susan, a delusion manufactured by persuasion. Reginald’s love for Lady Susan vanishes not because of a spontaneous affection for Frederica, although he had already become her champion earlier in the action, but because he can be worked on, just as Susan had noted.
Austen has already confirmed that not all love is the result of flattery and finessing through the sincere affection Frederica has conceived for Reginald. But does the young Jane Austen think love is always evanescent? Is the later Mary Crawford ventriloquizing Austen herself when she chillingly predicts the inevitable subsidence of Henry’s passion for Fanny? “‘I know that a wife you loved would be the happiest of women and that even when you ceased to love, she would yet find in you the liberality and good–breeding of a gentleman,’” Mary declares to the incredulous Henry (MP 343). I do not think so; Austen tempers this cynical view showing that love is, ironically, more permanent than cynics suppose: both the Crawfords unhappily discover that real love, fixed on a good object, does not evaporate as rapidly as they imagine it will earlier in the novel. Edmund’s everlasting love for Mary endures only briefly because it is based on an illusion, as is Reginald’s. In Lady Susan, Austen imagines Reginald as that good object that Susan has lost and Frederica gained.
Reginald’s feelings are real, even if devoted to an imaginary object; they are also intense, but Austen expects her readers to agree with her that intensity does not equal longevity. Her one concession to the great strength of Reginald’s feelings is her playful suggestion that he will require a twelvemonth at the outside to recover from his renunciation of Susan and attach himself to Frederica. Of all the poseurs in Austen who acquire another’s affection through pretense only Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility has the equivalent honor of inspiring a prolonged devotion. Though Austen gives no dates, she shockingly indicates that Marianne marries Colonel Brandon before transferring her heart entirely to him. Critics run the gamut from believing this twist a supremely unjust and soul-crushing imposition of boring morality on the winningly emotional Marianne to Austen’s finishing touch on the real heroine of the novel, who gets the reward of the morally best and most moneyed single man. (Colonel Brandon’s changing reputation is largely owing to Alan Rickman’s performance in Ang Lee’s movie.)
Marianne’s case is more complicated than Reginald’s. Willoughby shares with Henry Crawford the distinction of being the most complex of Austen’s charming villains and does indeed love Marianne as far as he is capable of loving. There is good in Willoughby, though he is not what she believes him to be. But, the narrator tells us, “Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims” (429). Austen rewards the faithful, single-hearted lovers like Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price with their hearts’ desires, but no one would call it a punishment for Edward Ferrars to end up with Elinor instead of Lucy Steele, or for Elizabeth Bennet to end up with Mr. Darcy instead of Mr. Wickham or the only mildly interesting Colonel Fitzwilliam. Although Austen sees a value in the unchanging first love, which she will ratify in the last completed novel, she also does not think being an inconsolable spinster or widower is a happy fate. Better to have done with the illusion and marry the really virtuous person, even if he or she is less fascinating. Part of the sparkle came from the less virtuous character’s reflection of the conduct and principles of the heroine—Marianne or Fanny—or the hero—Reginald—and probably would have worn off anyway. What happens to love when the beloved object is revealed to be a sham? Austen indicates that emotion takes time to dissipate, and the sore spot remains. But she is not interested in having her characters pine after an unworthy and unattainable object. Edward Ferrars finds Elinor when he matures and realizes Lucy is ignorant and selfish, and Marianne finds Colonel Brandon.
Yet Austen will have Reginald, like Edmund Bertram, marry after discovering an affection for his future wife. Readers often scorn Edmund but pardon Marianne. Austen affectionately satirizes both in the final chapters of their novels, but it is Edmund, like Reginald, who loves the person he will marry.
Willoughby and Lady Susan both pretend to be virtuous to lure in their younger prey, who are sincere, even severe, about love and virtue. Susan has no time for “romantic nonsense.” Her real beloved, Manwaring, has a name that is a homonym for “mannering,” a word replete with connotations of acting, and she ends up married to the man she thought of as a punishment for Frederica: “‘But she shall be punished, she shall have [Sir James]’” (29). Reginald is spared such a marriage. Even if Austen deflates his romantic hyperbole, she attests to its sincerity. It is well for him that even strong affections can be directed to a more worthy object. Austen gives to him the last name De Courcy, which sounds like “de coeur,” from the heart, even if its more direct French etymology is “de cour,” from the court.4
“Abjuring all future attachments” is for Austen always a laughable act, for she knows the inconstancy of the human heart, even as a teenager, better than her characters do. The affectionate concern we see Reginald to be capable of in his brief interactions with the distressed Frederica, however, is the most positive character trait he shares with Austen’s later incarnation of the infatuated, moralistic, upright young man, Edmund Bertram: Reginald De Courcy has a heart.
1As Northrup Frye has named the type. See Levine.
2The seemingly surprising exception was, in fact, conventional and can be dated back to rabbinical commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures. These commentaries on the commandments had long made at least two exceptions to the rule of obedience: one, that since the law of God always takes precedence, no child could be compelled to obey a parental order to disobey God’s laws; and two, that a child could not be compelled to marry against his or her wishes. Fordyce also makes these two exceptions in his sermon on Good Works.
3It is impossible to resist the temptation of comparing Lady De Courcy’s joy at her son’s wretchedness with Fanny Price’s at Edmund’s in Mansfield Park. Already, Austen is interested in the fact that an event might affect two persons who love each other in very different ways and that what brings sorrow to one might bring joy to the other. Shakespeare’s Rosalind comments on this problem in marital relationships in As You Like It (4.1.153–56), but Austen might already have been fascinated by the fact of discordant emotions.
4Although De Courcy is originally derived from a place name, Austen could have had many reasons to associate it with heroism. She might be thinking of the legendary descent of the De Courcy family from Charlemagne, the presence of Richard De Courcy at the Battle of Hastings, which resulted in the settlement of that family member in her neighboring Somerset, the upper-class associations of Anglo-Norman descent, or even of the impressively heroic defiance of Richard I by Sir John De Courcy as an earl in Ireland.