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Another Mistress of Deceit? Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and Sarah Harriet Burney’s Geraldine Fauconberg

IN 1977 DAVID JACKEL PUBLISHED A PERSCEPTIVE article on Maria Edgeworth’s Leonora (1806), pointing out the resemblances between the seductress depicted in this epistolary novel and Jane Austen’s Lady Susan:  “The two novels would appear to be parallel representations of a type-figure, with Lady Susan offering a useful example of Jane Austen’s ability to adapt and refine conventional materials and attitudes in one of her earliest surviving attempts at serious fiction” (287).  Jackel refers to Jay Arnold Levine’s work on the tradition of the “Merry Widow,” a popular figure in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature, signified by her independence, vivacity, elegance, flirtatiousness, and scorn for country manners (Levine 25-26).  Jackel describes the Merry Widow in terms of a set of characteristics applicable to both Lady Susan and Leonora:  both novels record the arrival of a beautiful, polished, and hypocritical aristocrat who seeks refuge in the country to re-establish her reputation and is greeted rather coldly; the values of the town and the countryside are opposed; both women use their talents skillfully; and finally, neither woman has a “natural” personality (i.e., their charms are rather the result of art) (280). Though attracted to the idea that Austen was influenced by Edgeworth’s novel, Jackel discards the possibility, following B. C. Southam’s argument that Lady Susan was written by 1794 (45).

Not all critics, however, agree with that dating.  In their introduction to the Cambridge Edition of Austen’s later manuscripts, Jane Todd and Linda Bree explain that Marilyn Butler terms Lady Susan one of the “Chawton novels,” allowing 1810-1812 as a possible period of composition (xlix; see also Butler). For Janine Barchas, who tries to solve the contest over the dates of composition of Lady Susan by making use of names and historical events, the Vernon branch of England’s Wentworth family and various Vernon family scandals during Austen’s lifetime are behind the novel’s plot, supporting Butler’s thesis of 1810-1812 (48-49).  Butler suggests that Austen borrowed for Lady Susan from two Edgeworth novels, Leonora (1806) and Manoeuvring (1809) (Todd and Bree xlix; see also Butler). 


Sarah Harriet Burney,
by John Hoppner.

Perhaps consideration of connections between Lady Susan and the work of Jane Austen’s contemporaries should not be restricted to Edgeworth.  Rather than disallowing the debt to Edgeworth, I would like to follow Butler’s line and add the possible influence of Sarah Harriet Burney’s Geraldine Fauconberg (1808) on Austen, which the latter might have read at the time it was published.  Sarah Harriet Burney (1772-1844), the half-sister of the much acclaimed Frances Burney (1752-1840), was the author of five works:  Clarentine (1796), Geraldine Fauconberg (1808), Traits of Nature (1812), Tales of Fancy (1816-1820), and The Romance of Private Life (1839).  Sarah Harriet Burney’s works have recently experienced a revival, thanks to Lorna Clark’s edition of her letters as well as articles approaching her life and her fiction by Clark, Hilary Newman, and Maryam Trabelski.  We know that Sarah Harriet Burney’s publisher Henry Colburn punctually sent her copies of Austen’s works, “perhaps sensing a kindred spirit” (Clark, Letters lxi).  Burney also admired Austen and considered her “the pride of English female writers” and “the most useful author, whether male or female, now existing” (Letters 179).  Austen’s opinion of Sarah Harriet Burney’s work, however, was not so positive, and she criticized the heroine and the plot of Clarentine, though on a third reading:  “It is full of unnatural conduct & forced difficulties, without striking merit of any kind” (8 February 1807; qtd. in Waldron 84). 

I will concentrate on one figure contained in Sarah Harriet Burney’s second production, Geraldine Fauconberg (1808), taking into account a number of common features of her anti-heroine and Austen’s Lady Susan:  the relationship to women’s education and the portrait of motherhood; the commentary on sentimental fiction in both texts; the characters’ interactions with men and with other women; and finally, the ways these characters diverge from the conventional definition of the Merry Widow.  These features are pertinent in an analysis of woman’s fiction at the turn from the eighteenth century into the nineteenth, and they will help us to explore the singularity of each character. 

Geraldine Fauconberg deals with an orphan who spends the summer with her beloved cousins, the Lesmores, in Highgrove Park.  Geraldine’s uncle, Frederick Archer, would approve the girl’s marriage to the Lesmores’ heir, Ferdinand.  However, the young couple never communicate their feelings to one another, and Ferdinand—who has the “cold, phlegmatic virtues, of a half-animated philosopher” (2:201), according to Geraldine’s confidante, Miss Julia Lessmore—is obsessed with the widow Mrs. Neville.  This sentimental woman of fashion enters the stage in Geraldine Fauconberg as the belle of Brighton; Ferdinand appears as one of her assiduous courtiers.  In spite of being appreciative of Geraldine’s purity, benevolence, and charming conversation; Ferdinand confesses his doubts to his good friend, the Reverend Archibald Neweden, and is cold and hesitant about forming a serious attachment to the heroine, whose hand is sought by Colonel Courtville and Lichtmere.  Ferdinand’s sisters try to form a match between Ferdinand and Geraldine, but the heroine is disturbed to find that Ferdinand is engaged in an epistolary exchange with the widow Mrs. Neville, who is pursuing an affair with Sir Henry Tresilian, a married man.  Ferdinand temporarily disappears from the narrative; on his return, he reveals to Geraldine that they have been engaged since childhood.  After Mrs. Neville herself has been informed about the nature of their relationship, Ferdinand is accepted as Geraldine’s husband. 

Lady Susan’s malicious personality has long drawn feminist readings.  Mary Poovey places Lady Susan in the context of the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley since Austen’s seductress insists on the destructive power of individual desire at the same time that she points to the way in which the contradictions of social manners may distort the constructive energies women do possess (208).  Margaret Drabble calls the protagonist “an isolated, an alarming creation, from another fictional universe” (xiv).  For Terry Castle, Lady Susan is “a survivor, a woman who refuses to be a passive victim. . . . Austen half-identifies with her heroine’s incorrigible will to power, her gaiety, her erotic rebelliousness, her triumphant contempt for all the ‘romantic nonsense’ that keeps other women subservient” (xxvii-xxviii).  Paula Buck regards Austen’s heroine as a victim of longstanding preconceptions that autonomous action by women is threatening (209-10). 

The dangerous relationship between the Merry Widow and a younger female in which the widow encourages a distasteful liaison between her ward and another man is one of the features highlighted by Levine (27).  Female influence on education is thwarted in both Geraldine Fauconberg and Lady Susan.  In Geraldine Fauconberg, Mrs. Neville’s influence on Sir Henry’s little niece, Emma, is discouraged by Julia, Geraldine’s confidante:  “[she] will infuse into her mind ideas never entertained before of her own consequence; bring her forward in society; set her an example of unsteadiness, both in temper and pursuits; and, very probably, restore her to her natural friends not half so amiable as she found her” (2:122). 

In Lady Susan, Austen presents the potentially corrupting influence of the widow on the young girl in an ironic departure from the traditional image of benevolent motherhood; she also complicates that pattern by introducing the daughter as a potential corrupter of the family.  Aware that Lady Susan has spent many successive springs in town, while her daughter has been left to the care of servants, Catherine is afraid that Frederica might contaminate other children:  “‘a girl of sixteen who has received so wretched an education would not be a very desirable companion here’” (7).  However, the girl’s disposition and abilities are very good and Catherine is really sorry for her:  “‘She must not be sacrificed to Policy or Ambition, she must not be even left to suffer from the dread of it’” (41).  Throughout, Lady Susan regards Frederica with detachment and, though claiming to be acting in her best interests, hypocritically justifies her neglect.  She defines Frederica as defective or even corrupted:  “‘During her poor Father’s life she was a spoilt child; the severity which it has since been necessary for me to shew, has entirely alienated her affection;—neither has she any of that Brilliancy of Intellect, that Genius, or vigour of Mind which will force itself forward’” (51-52).  Even her encouragement of what Levine calls “a distasteful liaison” between Frederica and Sir James is motivated by the ironic claims to benevolent motherhood. 

Sentimental fiction is negatively portrayed in both works, but there is a remarkable difference:  aware of the role of sentimental fiction in women’s lives, Mrs. Neville attacks its uselessness while Lady Susan resorts to the language of sentiment to undervalue her daughter.  Mrs. Neville is obsessed with Mme. de Souza’s autobiographical novel Adèle de Senange, ou Lettres de Lord Sydenham (1798).  A popular work among émigrés and directly related to Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778), Adèle de Senange reflects contemporary trends, such as education for women, financial independence, and the relationship between love and marriage, all of them present in the fiction of the Merry Widow.  As well as condemning sentimental readings (“I have seen so many of you read the silliest, the most insipid tales, with as much gravity and attention as would have served to solve a problem” [1:150]), Mrs. Neville uses them as a pretext to criticize modern fiction: 

[Y]ou read of no Sir Charles Grandisons now:  the present ton among that class of imaginary persons, particularly in foreign publications, is rashness, selfishness, and a sort of mad irritability, for which any actually-existing creature would deserve to be shut up in a dark room, and fed upon bread and water.  (1:151-52). 

Lady Susan, as Susan Allen Ford has shown, is a manipulative reader of sentimental fiction, exploiting the power of the sentimental heroine and sentimental maternity.  She also, however, adopts a disdainful attitude towards Frederica’s sentimental rebellion when the girl falls in love and competes with her for Reginald’s admiration.  Lady Susan simply calls her daughter “‘a Chit, a Child, without Talent or Education, whom [Reginald] had been always taught to despise’” (44).

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In Geraldine Fauconberg and Lady Susan the relationships of the widows to the other characters is an index of both power and powerlessness.  These widows show a penetration superior to that of the male characters.  Mrs. Neville is critical of both her lovers.  She thinks that Ferdinand “looks with too much contempt upon weak, frivolous and ordinary characters” (2:178), and no matter how ardent her passion for Sir Henry Tresilian, Mrs. Neville can see through him:  “I detest your pernicious arguments, and I am armed against them.  I disdain the idea of being shaken by your ill-directed eloquence” (2:170).  Persuaded that he is copying his epistles from novels, Mrs. Neville criticizes how he speaks of his wife: 

She is exactly what she was when you voluntarily married her.  Her defects have neither multiplied, nor assumed a malignant dye; you ought to bear with them; you ought to look back to the time, when, though you professed not great attachment to her, you thought yourself fortunate in obtaining so splendid a prize; and, ridiculing the idea of an union contracted for love, you exultingly acknowledged yourself satisfied with the advantages derived from the attainment of wealth.  (2:173-74). 

In Burney’s corpus, no other character denounces so openly marriages based on money and the social evils that they bring about. 

While Lady Susan is conscious of the erotic game she is playing and sets its rules, the men in Austen’s novel are subject to self-deception.  Charles Vernon is easily imposed on (10).  According to Catherine, Reginald hears through the grapevine about Lady Susan’s demeanour at Langford:  “‘it was evident that he considered her as one entitled neither to Delicacy nor respect, & that he felt she would be delighted with the attentions of any Man inclined to flirt with her’” (16).  However, his attitude quickly shifts to praise as he decides that “‘she was altogether a wonderful Woman’” (16).  Reginald begins his relationship with Lady Susan as an experiment:  “‘Lady Susan possesses a degree of captivating Deceit which it must be pleasing to witness & detect’” (9).  He soon decides, however, that she is governed “‘only by the most honourable & amiable intentions’” (26), supporting the anti-heroine heroine until “‘The spell is removed’” and he discovers her true intentions through Mrs. Manwaring (68). 

In both novels the disparity between reality and appearances is better perceived by women than by men.  In Geraldine Fauconberg, that perception can even facilitate alliance.  Despite loving Ferdinand, Mrs. Neville does not reject Geraldine and turns out to be quite helpful:  “sorrow, more than either jealousy or envy, was distinguishable in her countenance whilst expressing her conviction of his attachment to another” (2:167).  What is more, in a letter to Ferdinand, she reproaches him:  “Are you aware of the wound you have given to my tranquillity?  Had that mysterious exclamation which still vibrates in my ear—had it the full and solemn meaning I have so unaccountably affixed to it?—Speak openly, I conjure you!” (2:278).  To resolve the misunderstandings between the lovers, Geraldine’s confidante Julia urges one letter from Ferdinand stating that there is not an affair between Mrs. Neville and himself “to represent to him the danger of leaving upon our mind at his approaching departure, such disadvantageous impressions, and to entreat him, if possible, to make a public and explicit declaration of the origin and motives of a correspondence so suspicious” (3:12-13). 

In contrast, the relationship between Lady Susan and Catherine can be defined in terms of sororophobia.  Although Lady Susan might at first deceive other women, Catherine sees her as “‘inexcusably artful & ungenerous’” (7).  At the beginning, Catherine explains to her mother that it seems difficult to find a fault in Lady Susan, who tries to make her sister-in-law believe that she is actuated by “‘gentle & unpretending’” (19) designs as she exhibits anxiety on Frederica’s arrival at Churchill.  But Catherine is not convinced:  “‘This pathetic representation lasted the whole evening, & so ostentatious & artful a display has entirely convinced me that she did in fact feel nothing’” (31-32).

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Both Burney and Austen bring new dimension to the figure of the Merry Widow.  There are some qualities in Mrs. Neville that set her apart from the Merry Window’s superficiality and ease.  Mrs. Neville has some integrity and adopts unconventional attitudes, revealing her as a slippery self far from the devil she is not (N-eville). 

The careless disdain which she [Mrs. Neville] avows of the opinion and censures of the world, is so daring; her conduct testifies so determined a disposition to please herself, indifferent to the qu’en dira-t’-on? that her principles are questioned by the scrupulous, and her acquaintance is avoided by the timid.  Yet I firmly believe her to be of irreproachable purity; her heart appears compassionate and benevolent; her temper; though warm, is placable and easy, and the eccentricities of her character, though dangerous, have hitherto been harmless, and such only as to heighten the charms of her conversation.  (1:39-40) 

Mrs. Neville has two bad points:  “Her faculties are quick, but her judgement is defective; she has a retentive memory, and a considerable degree of cultivation, but no steadiness in her pursuits, or depth in her attainments” (1: 39).  Like Lady Susan, Mrs. Neville does not feel comfortable in the countryside and she despises those around her: 

[T]his spot deadens all fancy.  I can think of nothing but the monotonous green plain, and the yawning flirt who was sentenced to linger out upon it so many precious years of her existence. . . . The continual repetition here exhibited, in lockets, broaches, fans, and medallions, of the weather-beaten faces of those gallant conquerors in whose honour this brilliant fête is intended, makes me apprehensive I shall have them glaring before my eyes, at all hours of the day, for a month to come!  (1:122-23) 

Mrs. Neville seems indifferent to what is happening around her and later she subversively denounces the rich:  “Wealth! I despise it, when disgraced by pride and ignorance!  Good dinners! what dinners could be such, that were poisoned by barefaced indolence, coarse exultation, and inhospitable pomposity” (1:178).  Mrs. Neville not only defies rules of conduct but also mocks male authority.  Far from being a passive spectator of reality, Mrs. Neville voices the need for a social revolution. 

In Geraldine Fauconberg, impatient and betrayed by her own imprudence, Mrs. Neville needs to control her existence, “to give evidence of [her] own firmness; and to experience the charm of being recalled from apathy and torpor, to the active exertion of [her] restless faculties” (2:292).  Ferdinand’s justification of Mrs. Neville’s conduct becomes a plea to consider her unfriended state: 

[A]llowance would then be made for the entire and unfortunate state of independence in which she is placed; a state, that exposes her to the risk of being guilty of so many inconsiderate acts, which other young women, at her age, living under a parent’s eye, scarcely have even the possibility of committing; and the most sanguine hopes would be entertained, that no deviations from propriety could be lasting, where the censures of the world, too hardly despised, perhaps, whilst conscious of not deserving them, would be regarded as intolerable, if justly incurred. (3:7) 

The tension between the desire for independence and the need to accept restrictions is unresolved since, unlike Lady Susan, Mrs. Neville remains a secondary character. 

Assuming that Ferdinand and Geraldine are to be married, Mrs. Nelville mentions Ferdinand’s brotherly interest in her affairs:  “The great wish of my heart, is to see you both happy; and its chief pride to is acknowledge, that through your interference, happiness has been almost restored to myself” (3:147-48).  Mrs. Neville produces a letter in which she admits never having a maternal guide or an enlightened friend other than Ferdinand: 

[T]he voice of truth never reached my ear, till its sound penetrated from thence to my soul, through the organs of Mr. Lesmore —that its very first whisper stopped me in my mad career—made of me the truest convert, and left me impressed with a diffidence so insurmountable, but, perhaps, so salutary, of my own strength, that I have surrendered the dangerous independence, once my boast, and committed the direction of my future conduct to the experience of one, whose ripened judgement, inflexible rectitude, yet lenient friendship, compel my esteem, secure my docility, and sooth my feelings.  (3:380) 

Burney’s novel reproduces the correspondence between Ferdinand and Mrs. Neville, who reacts unexpectedly by asking Ferdinand to be respectful with Geraldine:  “I feel assured you will be actuated by genuine principles of integrity, wholly distinct from every other consideration” (2:284). 

For Clark, Mrs. Neville is most pitiable in Geraldine Fauconberg.  She possesses every worldly advantage, but her dearth of connections is fatal to her happiness:  “rootless, restless and dissatisfied, she pursues a reckless career which proceeds from flirtation to the brink of loss of reputation” (“The Family” 72).  The isolation she faces in the neighborhood both epitomizes the personal void she feels and tells against her.  According to Julia, Mrs. Neville has neither relatives nor intimate friends, and she has established herself in a country which is new to her:  “How, and amongst what sort of people, must she have lived?  Can any human being be so wholly devoted to dissipation as to omit making some selection from amidst the surrounding crowd? forming some attachment towards the few amiable who may chance to mingle in the herd?” (2:40).

Austen adapts Burney’s widow by inserting her within the framework of the Vernon family and by stressing her erotic appeal.  Reginald initially considers Lady Susan a sort of sorceress of bewitching powers, who “‘aspires to the more delicious gratification of making a whole family miserable’” (8).  In fact, Lady Susan uses men to affirm herself, and she wants to challenge her in-laws:  “‘There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority.—I have disconcerted him already by my calm reserve; & it shall be my endeavour to humble the Pride of these self-important De Courcies still lower’” (14-15).  She is still resentful that the family estate passed to her brother Charles after his marriage to Catherine Vernon (17), and her goal is to test and dominate Reginald:  “‘I . . . can now enjoy the pleasure of triumphing over a Mind prepared to dislike me, & prejudiced against all my past actions. . . . I have subdued him entirely by sentiment & serious conversation, & made him I may venture to say at least half in Love in me, without the semblance of the most common-place flirtation’” (18-19). 

Such a forceful challenge to traditional courtship and social practices is never articulated by Burney’s femme fatale.  Lady Susan’s selfishness goes beyond Mrs. Neville’s studied coquetry.  Lady Susan aims to control her image and offer the world a plausible explanation of Reginald’s leaving Churchill:  “‘It would have been trifling with my reputation, to allow of his departing with such an impression in my disfavour;—in this light, condescension was necessary’” (56).  Behind her actions there is some clever planning, as she reveals when she tells Alicia she will not immediately marry Reginald:  “‘I am not at present in want of money, & might perhaps till the old Gentleman's death, be very little benefited by the match’” (18).  In order to accomplish her schemes, Lady Susan must compass several things in London, “‘always the fairest field of action, however [her] views may be directed’” (58).  Later on she calculates whether it is profitable to marry at that time:  “‘a state of dependance on the caprice of Sir Reginald, will not suit the freedom of my spirit;—and if I resolve to wait for that event, I shall have excuse enough at present, in having been scarcely ten months a Widow’” (63). 

On the other hand, Lady Susan presents herself as a victim much more than does Mrs. Neville, whose behavior is more ethical. In Lady Susan Reginald justifies the anti-heroine’s character and thinks that “‘whatever might have been her errors, they were to be imputed to her neglected Education & early Marriage, & that she was altogether a wonderful Woman’” (16).  The heroine describes herself as a victim of “‘the illnature of the world’” (69), and she explains to Reginald that she feels guilty for having divided a son from his parents.  Putting an end to their relationship was, she argues, an “‘act of filial Obedience’” (70). 

Burney’s character resorts not to the family but to her friends to establish herself and try to achieve happiness.  Fleeing temptation, Mrs. Neville seeks shelter at the home of a new friend, Lady Alicia Faulkland, who will help her to “blot out some of [the] errors from the memory of those who know them, and save [her] from ever again incurring the dreadful hazard of having [her] name coupled with disgrace and infamy!” (3:381).  At the close of Burney’s novel, Julia reports Mrs. Neville’s Austenish fate:  the gossips of the neighborhood prognosticate a match between Mrs. Neville and Lady Alicia Faulkland’s second son (3:391). 

On the whole, Lady Susan fares better than Mrs. Neville, finally marrying Sir James, while the narrator leaves open the question of whether she will be happy:  “The World must judge from Probability.—She had nothing against her, but her Husband & her Conscience” (77).  Frederica’s mother is given a taste of her own medicine through Austen’s final masterstroke of black humor. 

Both Austen’s and Burney’s anti-heroines are subjected to harsh criticism.  As Jay Arnold Levine explains, Austen brings the stereotype to perfection by softening burlesque features and endowing the story with greater verisimilitude (33).  Burney has the merit of reshaping two traits of the eighteenth-century Merry Widow:  her pathetic and her villainous nature.  Less ambitious and less self-confident than Austen’s protagonist, Mrs. Neville turns out to be less worldly and more worried about the consequences of her actions on other people’s lives, subject to a debilitating tendency to loneliness that renders her weaker than Lady Susan.  Burney’s novel also pre-dates the Austen novel’s spectacular image of self-deception at the end, though Mrs. Neville’s pen is not the one that closes the narrative.  (Burney will turn her eyes to the solitary woman again, years later, in “Country Neighbours or the Secret,” in Tales of Fancy, with Anne Stavordale, the spinster aunt who comes to the fore in the narrative and ultimately helps the protagonist couple.)

By placing the temptress in a peripheral position in Geraldine Fauconberg, Burney was able to refashion the character of the Merry Widow and use it to denounce woman’s marginalization.  If Mrs. Neville exemplifies the yearning for female freedom and passion, Austen’s achievement must be read as pointing directly to Burney’s less popular character.  Mrs. Neville and Lady Susan stand as fierce indictments of a society that keeps women in a subjugated position in patriarchal culture, an idea that Austen had in mind when she wrote Lady Susan and that haunts the works of later women writers.


This research has been carried out within the Universidade da Coruña research group CLIN “Modern and Contemporary English Literature,” which is hereby gratefully acknowledged.

Works Cited
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