December 10, 2018
The importance of the novella: Lady Susan by Jane Austen
by Michael Seidlinger
Perhaps one of the things Melville House is known for is celebrating a specific renegade art form: the novella. Here on our MobyLives blog, we’re diving into a post series in which we’ll discuss and highlight novellas from our catalogue. In this second installment, we’re taking a closer look at Lady Susan by Jane Austen.
(And, if you’re already well acquainted with our novellas, we suggest reading Death and Other Holidays next!)
Lady Susan by Jane Austen
Originally Published: Claimed to have been written between 1793-1794; first published in 1871 in Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen
Melville House Publication Date: March 2011
Page Count: 96
Jane Austen’s Lady Susan is a strange and important early work from one of literature’s masters. Before getting into details about the story, it’s worth noting that the author never sought out publication of this particular story. The reasons remain unknown. Austen was a teenager when she wrote the novella, using an epistolary structure that was popular during the time. The finished manuscript remained unpublished during her lifetime. It also happens to be her first completed book.
The story is all about the one and only Lady Susan Vernon, who is every bit as charming and charismatic as you could imagine, all the while being recently widowed. Lady Susan Vernon visits her in-laws, Charles and Catherine Vernon, at their residence in Churchill. If it involves in-laws you bet someone isn’t looking forward to the encounter. Catherine Vernon is upset that Lady Susan didn’t give them enough notice and holds a grudge because Lady Susan tried to stop the marriage of Charles and Catherine from occurring, plus Catherine remains skeptical and judging of Lady Susan and her various conquests.
The drama plays itself out across a propulsive sequence of letters and correspondence. Lady Susan is a beautifully melodramatic novella, one that acts as an anchor for the rest of our Art of the Novella series. In Lady Susan, readers get to see a young Jane Austen experimenting with form and drama in a manner that might not have been possible if it were under different literary constraints.
THE FIRST TWO LETTERS
I. LADY SUSAN VERNON TO MR. VERNON
My dear brother,
I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted, of spending some weeks with you at Churchill, and, therefore, if quite convenient to you and Mrs. Vernon to receive me at present, I shall hope within a few days to be introduced to a sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with. My kind friends here are most affectionately urgent with me to prolong my stay, but their hospitable and cheerful dispositions lead them too much into society for my present situation and state of mind; and I impatiently look forward to the hour when I shall be admitted into Your delightful retirement.
I long to be made known to your dear little children, in whose hearts I shall be very eager to secure an interest. I shall soon have occasion for all my fortitude, as I am on the point of separation from my own daughter. The long illness of her dear father prevented my paying her that attention which duty and affection equally dictated, and I have but too much reason to fear that the governess to whose care I consigned her was unequal to the charge. I have therefore resolved on placing her at one of the best private schools in town, where I shall have an opportunity of leaving her myself, in my way to you. I am determined, you see, not to be denied admittance at Churchill. It would indeed give me most painful sensations to know that it were not in your power to receive me.
Your most obliged and affectionate sister,
II. LADY SUSAN VERNON TO MRS. JOHNSON
You were mistaken, my dear Alicia, in supposing me fixed at this place for the rest of the winter. It grieves me to say how greatly you were mistaken, for I have seldom spent three months more agreeably than those which have just flown away. At present, nothing goes smoothly. The females of the family are united against me. You foretold how it would be when I first came to Langford; and Manwaring is so uncommonly pleasing that I was not without apprehensions myself. I remember saying to myself as I drove to the house, “I like this man; pray Heaven no harm come of it!” But I was determined to be discreet, to bear in mind my being only four months a widow, and to be as quiet as possible—and I have been so, my dear creature; I have admitted no one’s attentions but Manwaring’s. I have avoided all general flirtation whatever; I have distinguished no creature besides, of all the numbers resorting hither, except Sir James Martin, on whom I bestowed a little notice in order to detach him from Miss Manwaring. But, if the world could know my motive THERE, they would honour me. I have been called an unkind mother, but it was the sacred impulse of maternal affection, it was the advantage of my daughter that led me on; and if that daughter were not the greatest simpleton on earth, I might have been rewarded for my exertions as I ought—Sir James did make proposals to me for Frederica—but Frederica, who was born to be the torment of my life, chose to set herself so violently against the match that I thought it better to lay aside the scheme for the present. I have more than once repented that I did not marry him myself, and were he but one degree less contemptibly weak I certainly should, but I must own myself rather romantic in that respect, and that riches only will not satisfy me. The event of all this is very provoking. Sir James is gone, Maria highly incensed, and Mrs. Manwaring insupportably jealous; so jealous, in short, and so enraged against me, that in the fury of her temper I should not be surprised at her appealing to her guardian if she had the liberty of addressing him—but there your husband stands my friend, and the kindest, most amiable action of his life was his throwing her off forever on her marriage. Keep up his resentment, therefore, I charge you. We are now in a sad state; no house was ever more altered; the whole family are at war, and Manwaring scarcely dares speak to me. It is time for me to be gone; I have therefore determined on leaving them, and shall spend I hope, a comfortable day with you in town within this week. If I am as little in favour with Mr. Johnson as ever, you must come to me at No.10, Wigmore St.—but I hope this may not be the case, for as Mr. Johnson, with all his faults, is a man to whom that great word “Respectable” is always given, and I am known to be so intimate with his wife, his slighting me has an awkward look. I take town in my way to that insupportable spot, a country village, for I am really going to Churchill. Forgive me, my dear friend, it is my last resource. Were there another place in England open to me, I would prefer it. Charles Vernon is my aversion, and I am afraid of his wife. At Churchill, however, I must remain till I have something better in view. My young lady accompanies me to town, where I shall deposit her under the care of Miss Summers in Wigmore Street, till she becomes a little more reasonable. She will made good connections there, as the girls are all of the best families. The price is immense, and much beyond what I can ever attempt to pay.
Adieu, I will send you a line, as soon as I arrive in town.
Michael Seidlinger is the Library and Academic Marketing Manager at Melville House.