“It must be under cover to you.”: Austen and Epistolary Novels

51cn4fj4t-l-_sx325_bo1204203200_Lady Susan is one of the more complete pieces from Jane Austen’s juvenilia. With that being said, it still has an abrupt ending that one could only wish would have been more thoroughly finished. Even so, it’s not exactly uncharacteristic of Austen to wrap her novels up in nice pretty bows, which is what happens in Lady Susan though much more quickly. I believe the reason for this can be found in the form of the novel itself. It is an epistolary novel, and if you have ever read any, you will know that a story can only be carried so far through correspondence. To that end, she even writes, “This correspondence, by a meeting between some of the parties and a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post Office revenue, be continued longer.” (pg. 101). Simply put: she got tired of it. Who can blame her?

It stands to reason that at the age of 20, when Austen was writing this, she decided to dabble in the style of her predecessors. She discovered, to our benefit, that she preferred a more traditional approach to novels. However, I will say that the epistolary novel gives the author a chance to dive into more of the characters since he or she is not restricted to the narrator chosen from the start. This creates an interesting effect in Lady Susan because instead of one narrator, we get something like 6 or 7 narrators. Each has their own personality without an objective observer making comments. I suppose, however, the characters do make their own comments, some more self-aware than others.

If you’ve read any of Austen’s novel, you’ll know that her biggest shtick is social commentary, and of course her wonderful sardonic humor. For example, this is seen in her overt witticisms through Elizabeth Bennet and in a less so obvious manner when you look at her personal preferences that sneak their way into her novels (see: her dislike of Bath and how it translates into the plot for
Northanger Abbey.) With this novel, however, I’m not sure there is so much criticism as there is a range of characters acting their part and remarking on each other. Naturally, that means that each opinion is skewed by that person’s viewpoint, allowing the reader, in a way, to form her own.

This cannot be seen in any better way than with Lady Susan herself. She is often the subject of every letter, including her own. Her person is fair game, whether it be her beauty or her coquetry. Her most vocal opponent is her sister-in-law Mrs. Vernon, who could be interpreted as jealous of Lady Susan’s flirtatious sensibility and sexuality. Then you have Lady Susan. She is not at all averse to touting her capabilities, although couching it in the guise of charm and innocence. Even one of the more logical, rational, characters becomes enamored with her. She, to her delight, masks her true sentiments and gains an admirer. What I find amusing is that her duplicity is all over her letters. To her friend Mrs. Johnson, she speaks nothing but truth (or so you think, who really knows with her), but then she turns around and lies to everyone else. The reader knows she’s lying, but the characters have to make assumptions and determine her character through her own words and the whispers about her. In a way, you could say that there is still a filter like a traditional narrator would give, only this time, the filter is not for the reader; it’s for the other characters.

I would like to point out that with the snarky remarks of Lady Susan to Mrs. Johnson, we’re left to wonder if perhaps Austen’s true personality is just as cutting. Lady Susan appears to be a mixture of Elizabeth Bennet, Mary Crawford, and even some Emma Woodhouse. Elizabeth and Emma both have some of the outspoken elements of Lady Susan, although tampered with their male counterparts. They end up being “hushed,” toned down for the reader. As I read once, this might be because Austen is writing in between the 18th and 19th centuries. The 18th century was far more open about life’s affairs, while the 19th century was reserved. Because of this, Austen is stuck between two worlds—should she be refined or not? Should she openly or obliquely refer to an adulterer? It’s an interesting thought.

If you would like to see Austen at an early stage, a less subdued author, then read Lady Susan. After all, it is only about 60 pages. While I have barely touched on it, I hope it does inspire you to read more than just her novels. Her juvenilia is as worthy as they are in learning about her development as a writer. Lady Susan has also been made into a movie by Whit Stillman. Stay tuned for a review on that! I got to see it a couple of months ago, and must express my opinion.


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