is the earliest surviving novel by Jane Austen
. It is written in letter form
, and is the story of the scheming
of the beautiful, amiable, and thoroughly wicked
Lady Susan Vernon to woo, sleep with, or marry the men it was most convenient to do so with, and to enforce her iron will on her poor daughter Frederica
, as to who she
The date of composition is unknown, but probably it was around 1795, when Jane was twenty, and had exercised herself in increasingly brilliant juvenilia. From the time she was eighteen or twenty she started writing full adult novels. As far as we know she wrote four novels in this early period. The others were Marianne and Elinor, First Impressions, and Susan (a completely different work). At this time she favoured the eighteenth-century epistolary style, where the parties are conveniently separated by such distances that they can tell the whole story in their overlapping letters. None of the other three novels survives in its early form, because in Jane Austen's mature period they were thoroughly reworked into three of her late novels. Only Lady Susan remains to show us how she tackled the style as an adult. It was published by Jane Austen's nephew in 1871, along with some of her other minor works and letters, in his memoir of his aunt.
The manuscript can be dated from the paper to around 1805, when she had begun to take up her early work and revise it, make fair copies, and in the case of Susan (later Northanger Abbey) send it to a publisher. But nothing much came of this middle period. So we have a revised Lady Susan that falls between two stools: the now obsolescent convention of letters, and the greater sexual freedom of the previous century, combined with the more mature Jane Austen's serious thinking about how to do novels. She converted her other early works, but the sheer wickedness and licentiousness of Lady Susan perhaps proved impossible to translate into the more pious nineteenth century.
She is an extremely charming widow who has been having dalliances with two men in the one household, trying to set up the less amusing of the two as husband material for her 16-year-old Frederica, and when the repercussions of this finally blow up too much to be amusing, she flees to her brother-in-law's house. The main correspondence showing both sides of the situation is, on the one hand, between Lady Susan and her good friend Mrs Johnson, equally devoid of any morality but selfishness, and on the other her sister-in-law Mrs Vernon to her mother Lady De Courcy.
The interesting thing is that Lady Susan's side is told with a great deal more wit and panache than Mrs Vernon's. From the beginning Mrs Vernon is a little doubtful, but pretty sure that Lady Susan is a thoroughly vile, wicked creature, but even she falls to a certain extent under her charms. Everyone else is easy prey. Mrs Vernon's brother Reginald De Courcy comes prepared to scoff, having heard all about Lady Susan's notorious exploits, but becomes her devoted admirer. Poor naive Frederica falls for Reginald, and the furious Lady Susan has to exercise all her wiles to prevent Reginald seeing the truth. She is quite shameless; and disturbingly appealing.
The mature, moral Jane Austen would have had great difficulty shifting the focus in this story, keeping Lady Susan as charming and interesting as she was, while not seeming to cheerfully condone it. So we have a stepping-stone: a picture of how she worked in her earlier years, not converted into one of the late great novels.
In the last section she gives up the pretence of letter format and devotes a chapter with gentle mockery to why it could no longer be kept up, and spells out some of the eventual resolutions. Lady Susan has to settle for a lesser match, and the path seems to be cleared for Reginald and Frederica.