Lady Susan

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Lady Susan
Author Jane Austen
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Epistolary novel
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)

Lady Susan is a short epistolary novel by Jane Austen, possibly written in 1794 but not published until 1871.


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 by their female protagonists to men who are 16 years older). 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.

Main characters[edit]

  • Lady Susan Vernon

The main character is aged about 35 or 36 years old. She is the daughter of an Earl.[1] She is a widow of just a few months, who is known to flagrantly manipulate and seduce single and married men alike. As she has been left in a financially precarious state due to the death of her first husband, she uses flirtation and seduction to gain her objectives and maintain a semblance of her former opulent lifestyle. As a widow and a mother, her main goals are to quickly marry off her daughter Frederica (of whom she is contemptuous, regarding her as stupid and stubborn) to a wealthy 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 cold towards her daughter, for whom she feels little or no affection: she calls her "a stupid girl" who "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.[2] 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. Lady Susan's plan is that Frederica should marry a particular insipid young man who has little but wealth to recommend him. In the end, he marries Lady Susan herself. Oppressed by her mother, Frederica is very shy and it is only over time that the reader can perceive that rather than being stupid and stubborn, she is a sweet, sensible girl whose kind nature continually is at odds with Lady Susan's venal selfishness. Only sixteen, she tries to run away from a boarding school when her mother writes to tell her daughter about the marriage plan; the headmistress refuses to accept her back. Lady Susan believes that the motive for this refusal may be financial (hinting at Lady Susan's straitened financial circumstances, necessitating relying on the charity of 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 romantic interest in Reginald De Courcy, and it is implied at the end of the novel that she will marry him.

  • Catherine Vernon

Sister-in-law to Lady Susan, Mrs. Vernon quickly sees through Lady Susan's charade and tries 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 had expended much effort in a failed attempt to prevent the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. 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. An amenable man who allows her to stay at his home.

  • Reginald De Courcy

Brother of Mrs. Vernon. Lady Susan has targeted the wealthy and highly eligible Reginald as her newest conquest and future husband; he temporarily realises something of her true character when Frederica writes him a letter, begging him to persuade her mother not to force her to marry Sir James. But Lady Susan quickly manages to manipulate him into blindness once again; and it is only later, when he finds direct proof of her glaring lack of principles, that he fully realizes Lady Susan's nature. 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.[3]

  • Alicia Johnson

The intimate friend to whom Lady Susan confides all her true scheming. Mrs. Johnson has an immoral mindset similar to that of her friend. Stuck in a marriage with a sensible man whom she does not love, and whom Lady Susan derisively describes as "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[edit]

As of 2009, Lady Susan was being adapted by British writer Lucy Prebble for Celador Films and BBC4.[4]

A screenplay 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.

Whit Stillman's adaptation of Lady Susan, retitled Love & Friendship after Austen's juvenile work of that name, was included in the Sundance Film Festival in January 2016. The US release date was May 13, 2016. The film stars Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel and Stephen Fry.[5] It received strongly positive reviews.[6]

Stage and book adaptations[edit]

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.[7] 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.[8]

An adaptation by Christine U'Ren was performed by Bella Union Theatre Company at the Berkeley City Club in Berkeley, California, in July 2009.[9]

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.

A further adaptation of the text, in the form of a novelization by director Whit Stillman, was announced for publication to coincide with the general release of the film (under the same title) on May 13, 2016.[10] Alexandra Alter of The New York Times states in her 2016 interview article with Stillman, describing the novelization: "In the novel, Mr. Stillman takes the characters and plot from Austen's fictionalized letters and narrates the tale from the perspective of Lady Susan's nephew, who hopes to counter criticism of his maligned aunt. The 41 letters from Austen's Lady Susan are included in an appendix."[10] Stillman told Alter that he felt Lady Susan was not quite finished and thought the form of the book was "so flawed".[10] After realising that there was another story to be told, he convinced the publisher Little, Brown and Company to let him write the novel.[10]


  1. ^ Todd, Janet (15 July 2013). "1". Lady Susan Plays The Game. A&C Black. Retrieved 13 July 2016. "As an earls daughter, Lady Susan.... 
  2. ^
  3. ^ Austen, Jane (2006). Jane Austen: Complete and Unabridged. New York: Barnes and Noble Publishing Inc. ISBN 9780760774014. 
  4. ^ Rod Hall Agency:Retrieved 10 January 2009
  5. ^ Bethea, Kim. "IMDb Love and Friendship". IMDb. Retrieved 8 April 2016. 
  6. ^ Robey, Tim (May 26, 2016). "Love & Friendship shows just how funny Jane Austen can be - review". The Telegraph. Retrieved June 14, 2016. 
  7. ^ "Ohio Wesleyan University Department of Theatre & Dance Past Productions page". Retrieved 31 May 2009. 
  8. ^ "Inis Theatre website". Retrieved 31 May 2009. 
  9. ^ "Bella Union website". Retrieved 31 May 2009. 
  10. ^ a b c d Alter, Alexandra (May 2, 2016). "Whit Stillman Discusses Austen's Sense and His Sensibility". The New York Times. Retrieved May 4, 2016. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Austen, Jane; Ed. Peter Washington (1996). Sanditon and Other Stories. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 

External links[edit]