Recommendation: If you like Austen or period pieces
Where to read: In your drawing room, with a cup of tea
Read with: Lady Grey
In brief: I mean, it is brief. It is also Austen. If you like those two things, this would be well worth adding to your bookshelf.
We all know the classic Austen canon – Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility as the mainstays, and Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Mansfield Park for the more dedicated. There is also the unfinished Sanditon and The Watsons and another novelette from her youth, written when she was about 18 and not published during her lifetime.
Written in letter (epistolary) form, Lady Susan recounts the sudden arrival of the titular Lady Susan Vernon at the country home of her in-laws, Mr and Mrs Charles and Catherine Vernon, a couple of months after the death of her husband. She comes fleeing the estate of her “friends” the Manwarings where, it is implied, she succeeded in seducing the husband and redirecting the attentions of the younger sister’s suitor towards herself (in the form of a flirtation) and then towards a potential engagement with her daughter. Said daughter has been abandoned in Town at an expensive boarding school for rich, aristocratic girls in the hope she will be so utterly miserable she will agree to the marriage. Lady Susan has, of course, neither the means nor the inclination to actually pay the school fees.
When Mrs Vernon’s brother, Reginald joins the party, Lady Susan decides to fuck with everyone by convincing him of her good character and personal charms. This charm offensive escalates first to a close intimacy and then to **scandal** an engagement. The matter is ultimately resolved to almost everyone’s satisfaction when Lady Susan goes to town to meet up with her lover, Mr Manwaring. Both her fiancé and his wife follow, and the fiancé finally discovers the undeniable truth of her character. Not the slightest bit abashed, Lady Susan marries the hapless young man she had intended for her daughter and the daughter is given into the Vernon’s custody where, it is implied, she will eventually marry Mrs Vernon’s brother.
This is clearly an early work but key elements of Austen’s style are already in evidence, most notably what can only be described as her gift for observational comedy. Her character archetypes are also beginning to emerge – the superficially charming but immoral cad who poses a threat to the virtue of the slightly sheltered hero or heroine (the brother/Lady Susan, Marianne/Willoughby, Liz/Wickham, Fanny/Crawford etc), the teenage girl who just needs some proper attention to flourish, the mother determined to marry off her daughters as advantageously as possible, the amiable but somewhat bumbling man of the house, etc etc.
I will say, however, that it is a very good thing Austen moved past the epistolary format. It does the job of conveying the plot and characters of the various characters perfectly well but part of Austen’s gift is dialogue and the sly narrative voice, neither of which is fully conveyed in letter form.