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This epistolary novel, an early complete work that the author never submitted for publication, describes the schemes of the main character—the widowed Lady Susan—as she seeks a new husband for herself, and one for her daughter. Although the theme, together with the focus on character study and moral issues, is close to Austen's published work (Sense and Sensibility was also originally written in the epistolary form), its outlook is very different, and the heroine has few parallels in 19th-century literature. Lady Susan is a selfish, unscrupulous and scheming woman, highly attractive to men, who tries to trap the best possible husband while maintaining a relationship with a married man. She subverts all the standards of the romantic novel: she has an active role, she is not only beautiful but intelligent and witty, and her suitors are significantly younger than she is (in contrast with Sense and Sensibility and Emma, which feature marriages of men who are sixteen years older than their wives). Although the ending includes a traditional reward for morality, Lady Susan herself is treated more leniently than the adulteress in Mansfield Park, who is severely punished.
- Lady Susan Vernon
The main character, at around 30 to 40 years old, she is a widow of just a few months, who is known to flagrantly manipulate and seduce single and married men alike. She uses flirtation and seduction to gain her way through life. As a widow and a mother, her main goals are to quickly marry off her daughter Frederica (whom she despises and regards as stupid and stubborn) to a rich enough man, and to marry an even better match herself. Mrs. Vernon describes her as "...really excessively pretty. I have seldom seen so lovely a woman as Lady Susan. She is delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes; and from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older. I was certainly not disposed to admire her...but I cannot help feeling that she possesses an uncommon union of symmetry, brilliancy and grace." Lady Susan is extremely cold towards her daughter, for whom she feels little or no affection: she calls her "a stupid girl, and has nothing to recommend her." It is possible that Jane Austen drew on the character of the mother of her neighbour, a beautiful Mrs. Craven, who had actually treated her daughters quite cruelly, locking them up, beating and starving them, till they ran away from home or married beneath their class to escape  There is an ironic contrast between the beautiful but determinedly chaste Susannah of the Old Testament and Lady Susan.
- Frederica Vernon
Daughter of Lady Susan, Frederica is intended to a man who in the end marries Lady Susan. Oppressed by her mother, she is very shy and we don't initially perceive that she is a sweet, sensible girl. She tries to run away from a boarding school for an unknown reason but the headmistress refuses to accept her back. Lady Susan believes her motives may be financial (implying that Lady Susan may be poor now relying on friends and family). Frederica is not as beautiful as her mother, but has a mild, delicate prettiness which, together with her evident ability to feel gratitude, attracts the Vernons. Frederica develops a love interest in Reginald De Courcy, and it is implied at the end that she will marry him.
- Catherine Vernon
Sister-in-law to Lady Susan, Mrs. Vernon clearly sees through Lady Susan's charade and tries her hardest to save Frederica from an unwanted match, and is vexed to see her brother Reginald becoming blinder and blinder to Lady Susan's faults. Lady Susan, who tried her utmost to prevent the marriage of Mrs. Vernon and Mr. Vernon, easily perceives how much Mrs. Vernon dislikes her, but allows that she is "well bred," and has an air of "a woman of fashion." She feels far more affection and concern for Frederica than Lady Susan does, and often laments Lady Susan's great neglect of her daughter.
- Charles Vernon
Brother-in-law to Lady Susan, he allows her to stay at his home.
- Reginald De Courcy
Brother of Mrs. Vernon. Reginald is to be Lady Susan's newest conquest; he temporarily realises her true intentions when Frederica confronts him with a letter, but his sense is again soothed to sleep by charming Lady Susan; and it is only until he finds direct proof of her glaring lack of principles that he opens his eyes to her real character. He is handsome, kind, warm, and open, but rather gullible. Mrs. Vernon writes in one of her letters, "Oh! Reginald, how is your judgement enslaved!"
- Lady De Courcy
Confidante and mother of Mrs. Vernon. Lady De Courcy trusts her daughter's judgement and is concerned that Reginald not be taken in by Lady Susan.
- Alicia Johnson
The intimate friend to whom Lady Susan confides all her true scheming. Mrs. Johnson has an immoral mindset similar to her friend's. Stuck in a marriage with a sensible man whom she does not love, and on whom Lady Susan derisively heaps the epithet of being "just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the gout – too old to be agreeable, and too young to die", her chief delights are in hearing of and making suggestions for Lady Susan's manipulative plans.
Film and television adaptations
A screenplay of Lady Susan was created by Jim Sherry. Excerpts are available here. Two staged readings of his screenplay were performed in 2012 at TheaterLab and the Triangle Theater—both in New York City.
Stage and book adaptations
A stage adaptation by Bonnie Milne Gardner, PhD, the George and Louise Peters University Professor of the Dept. of Theatre & Dance at Ohio Wesleyan University, was performed at OWU during their theatre department's 1998–1999 season. The script is for five women and three men, with minimal staging requirements, and a performance lasts about 90 minutes.
A two-woman version of Lady Susan, adapted by Inis Theatre, played at the Dublin fringe festival in 2001-2.
An adaptation by Christine U'Ren was performed by Bella Union Theatre Company at the Berkeley City Club in Berkeley, CA, in July 2009.
"Lady Susan" (a novel), a 1980 complete re-write by Phyllis Ann Karr.
Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, a novel-length reconstruction of Lady Susan, was published by Crown Publishing in 2009. Written by mother-and-daughter co-authors Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway, the adaptation reinterprets the work to conform closely to Austen's more mature prose style.
- Austen, Jane; Ed. Peter Washington (1996). Sanditon and Other Stories. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Austen, Jane (2006). Jane Austen: Complete and Unabridged. New York: Barnes and Noble Publishing Inc. ISBN 9780760774014.
- Rod Hall Agency:Retrieved 10th January 2009
- "Ohio Wesleyan University Department of Theatre & Dance Past Productions page". Retrieved 31 May 2009.
- "Inis Theatre website". Retrieved 31 May 2009.
- "Bella Union website". Retrieved 31 May 2009.
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