Tuesday, 5 August 2014

'Lady Susan' and the Feminist Jane Austen

It's August and this eight month of the year is reserved for the amazing Jane Austen. #AusteninAugust is a reading event hosted by Jenna over at Lost Generation Reader this year. Hop by my Master Post to see what I will be reading this month. Lady Susan is an epistolary novel by Jane Austen which I have already read before. My review is here.
Beautiful, flirtatious, and recently widowed, Lady Susan Vernon seeks an advantageous second marriage for herself, while attempting to push her daughter into a dismal match. A magnificently crafted novel of Regency manners and mores that will delight Austen enthusiasts with its wit and elegant expression.
Lady Susan is an amazing example of a novel in which the epistolary form really works. Another example of good use of the form is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. What unites both of these novels is that the form meets the content. In Lady Susan we have a woman spinning webs and catching people in them, creating drama just for the excitement. The reason letters are perfect for this is because letters are personal in a way that prose isn't. An author delves into their characters' minds and motivates the letters from there. Lady Susan has an agenda that is clear in every single letter she writes, similarly Mrs. Vernon has clear ideas about what she wants, just not quite as maliciously to Lady Susan. The letters also allow Jane Austen to get her message across. What Lady Susan shows is how much people depend on talking to each other about each other in order to have something to do. I read somewhere once that Jane Austen perfectly captures the emptiness and boredom that was pervasive in the higher and middle classes and that she ironically critizes this by filling this emptiness with anticipation for balls, gossip after the balls, marriage plotting and reputation breaking. Lady Susan is only about this emptiness which the eponymous main character fills by playing with others. What Lady Susan herself doesn't seem to realize that she is as much a plaything for others, that they regard her for their own pleasure, to have something to write about.

An important aspect of the novel is that it is all about women. Austen is often accused of being just a romance writer, her books filled with cliches and handsome men and desirable young women. People who have actually read her books know that there is a lot more to Austen's writing. Not a single chapter goes by in which Austen does not criticize the society she lives in and how people behave in it. She focuses a lot of that attention on women and their inter-relations and it is precisely about this that I want to make a point in relation to feminism. In my eyes, feminism strives for equality between men and women, in all things, and I think Jane Austen does exactly that in her novels.

In Lady Susan we have a fascinating main character, a woman regarded as 'the most accomplished coquette in England' who only strives after her own happiness. The reason that this character is crucially important is that Austen allows for a female character to be utterly despicable while also charmingly attractive. Usually this role is laid aside for men, see Mr. Wickham in Pride & Prejudice. He is a charmer but has a character that is rotten to the core, taking advantage of young women for his own gain. Austen allows these characteristics to exist in both men and women, rather than uplifting women as paragons of virtue and men as corrupt by nature. Reginald de Courcy is a character very similar to Elizabeth Bennet. Both have their prejudices set and then completely overturned, only that in Reginald's case he is deceived and has to change his mind again. 

What I'm trying to get at is that Austen writes all of her characters as human, may they be male or female. Mrs. Vernon, one of the kindest characters in Lady Susan, is still a gossiping woman with very strong prejudices against a woman she knows nothing off. Similarly, Lady Susan isn't alone in her ways but has friends with similar, say, interests. Not a single character in this novel is "perfect" or, necessarily, deserving of praise. Austen does not believe that women are just pure and good, and when they are in the case of Pride & Prejudice's Jane, then it's usually to a fault. If you want to read male and female characters that have good and bad qualities, can backstab and can be loyal then you need to read Jane Austen!

And to finish of this kind of review, kind of discussion, here's one of my favourite quotes from the book:

'There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one's superiority'.

Lady Susan is one hell of a character. I originally rated this novella 5 Universes and I stick by that. It is a short read but a highly enjoyable one.

So, what do you think? Would you say Jane Austen is feminist? 

4 comments:

  1. I do have JA's short stories and unfinished novella's by my bed just in case I can fit them in around my S&S plans.

    I recall enjoying Lady Susan first time around, but I know that the reread brings out so much more...I will return if I get time to read it :-)

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  2. Great review! I'm also a big fan of the epistolary form when it's done well (Frankenstein is definitely an excellent example, as is Les Liaisons dangereuses, by Laclos). I read Lady Susan a few years ago and your review has made me want to revisit it - I'm ashamed to say that I can barely remember what happens!

    As for your last question, I'm sure it's one that has kept a lot of scholars up late at night. My personal opinion would be no, more because the concept of 'feminist' didn't really exist in Austen's time. I think, though, that she could potentially be called a 'proto-feminist'; though she doesn't engage directly with issues such as education, which were important for Mary Wollstonecraft (often dubbed the 'first feminist', but again it's a bit more complicated), Austen refuses to stereotype her female characters, and make them into either helpless victims or 'fallen women', which was the fashion at the time. As you pointed out, her female characters are realistic, and both her male and female characters can fall prey to selfishness, pettiness, and even cruelty; she certainly doesn't seem to privilege one sex over than the other. Her novels insist that women are human beings, not merely sexual objects of symbols of purity. I think it's probably one of the reasons her stories are still relatable today.

    (Sorry for rambling on so much - but it's a very thought-provoking question. :)

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  3. Yes, Austen writes women as full human beings -- within the constraints of their time. She's not feminist in the sense of explicitly trying to break out of those constraints, but just the idea that a woman could have a mind and a soul of her own was not that prevalent in her day. Great question!

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  4. Thanks for the review! I really enjoyed this book as well and thought Lady Susan was a very interesting character. I agree with others comments that I don't think Austen was intentionally trying to be a feminist, but she had strong views on the role women had in society and wanted to express those ideas in her writing.

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