Walk into my parlour

Jane Austen Lady Susan
(in Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon
Oxford World’s Classics 2008)

Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
… Oh no, no,” said the little Fly, “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”

My July 2013 review of Austen’s Lady Susan, reposted just as a film adaptation arrives in cinemas (though now rebranded with a completely different Austen title as Love & Friendship — written when she was in her early teens)


Are tweets a modern equivalent of Lady Susan‘s letters?

@calmgrove 5 Jul
Lady Susan Vernon seems a nice woman: very family oriented, recently widowed, keen to have daughter well educated. What’s not to like? Hmm?

@calmgrove 5 Jul
Ah. Lady Susan presents different face when writing to friend Mrs Alicia Johnson: outrageous flirt, cruel mother, muckstirrer. Worrabitch!

@calmgrove 6 Jul
Lady Susan’s sister-in-law, Catherine Vernon, thinks her own husband gullible and Lady Susan manipulative. Who’s the unreliable narrator?

@calmgrove 6 Jul
Catherine V’s brother Reginald hears reports that Lady Susan is an ‘accomplished Coquette’ and ‘distinguished Flirt’. You just fear for him.

@calmgrove 6 Jul
Lady Susan foists herself on her brother- and sister-in-law for Christmas. No love lost between the two women but they play the game.

@calmgrove 6 Jul
Letter 7 very revealing. Lady S thinks daughter Frederica stupid, with ‘nothing to redeem her’, but must be married off to vapid Sir James.

@calmgrove 6 Jul
What tangled webs she weaves! Lady S now intent on ensnaring poor Reginald de Courcy. Indulged as a child, she’s now a spoilt sociopath.

@calmgrove 7 Jul
Reginald’s sister and parents very concerned about man-eating gold-digging Lady S, but fly in spider’s web does not control his own destiny.

@calmgrove 7 Jul
OMG Lady S’s daughter’s got wind of plans to marry her off to young fogey Sir James and has run away from school! Caught. And now expelled.

@calmgrove 7 Jul
So, now Frederica’s at her uncle and aunt’s house with her mother. Turns out she’s pretty, not stupid, but shy. And ogling Reginald. Oops.

@calmgrove 7 Jul
Consternation! Ardent Sir James has followed Frederica. The young girl turns for help to Reginald, object of her ma’s regard. Cue uproar!

@calmgrove 7 Jul
Halfway through tweeting review of Austen’s Lady Susan, recalling Jane writing this was only a year or so older than 16-year-old Frederica.

@calmgrove 8 Jul
Lady S’s machinations could blow up in her face but she deftly averts disaster: Reginald’s assuaged, Catherine managed, Sir James sent home.

@calmgrove 8 Jul
The merry widow’s ‘gay and triumphant’ again, plans her wedding to Reginald and Frederica’s to Sir James. But Frederica *sad face* still.

@calmgrove 8 Jul
Self-congratulating Lady S resolves to punish all who defy her, Frederica, Reginald and Catherine; plans return to London for capital fun.

@calmgrove 8 Jul
Frederica left behind with aunt and uncle while Lady S intends shenanigans in Town with wife-cheater Manwaring and/or Reginald de Courcy…

@calmgrove 9 Jul
After a few weeks in the country playing games with people’s lives and feelings Lady S removes to London, where affairs start to unravel.

@calmgrove 9 Jul
As in the best farces the action comes thick and fast: Lady S, persona non grata with some and over-familiar with others, hears bad news.

@calmgrove 9 Jul
Reginald hears of Lady S’s affair with a married man and dumps her; friend Alicia is forbidden contact with her. Can anything else go wrong?

A portrait believed to be Jane at 13 (1789)
A portrait believed to be Jane at 13 (1789)

We don’t know what title Jane Austen would have intended to give this novel if it had been published in her lifetime; but when it eventually appeared more than half-a-century after her death it was called Lady Susan after the character who sits at the centre of a web of intrigue, tweaking the threads of everyone she comes into contact with. I find it extraordinary that Austen, who probably began this in 1793 when only eighteen, was able to so convincingly portray such an attractive but utterly ruthless widow in her mid-thirties. This she achieved despite being not much older than Frederica, the unhappy daughter of Lady S.

Whilst we abhor the crimes of the selfish protagonist of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley we are fascinated by his close shaves and perhaps secretly thrilled by his successes. It helps that many of his dupes are painted as rather less than likeable and that Ripley’s desires are largely aesthetic. Lady Susan’s dupes, although they are bland and usually weak, are however largely innocent, and her desires for wealth, status and the thrill of the chase can seem merely venal in comparison. We want her to fail in her machinations because, despite her famous beauty, youth and quick tongue, she has no redeeming features that we can really empathise with.

As it stands the novel has rather an abrupt ending. It may be that Austen, having concocted forty-one letters purporting to be from some half-dozen correspondents, found that she had fallen out of love with her coquette and simply stopped the tale. Or that she was unsure how to take the tale further. It’s surmised that in 1805 she did a fair copy of her teenage novel and added the perfunctory conclusion that her posthumous readers find less than satisfying, with indications that loose strands may or may not be tied up. It’s interesting that the authorial voice intrudes here, as it certainly does at the very end both Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey: it’s as though she can’t resist adding her ironic asides, all the while with a twinkle in her eye.

Pretty much everybody, having done their homework, describes this as an epistolary novel, adding that the fashion for such novels was nearing its end in the late 1700s. Even Stevenson, setting his Treasure Island in the 18th century, included correspondence from Squire Trelawney to flesh out Jim Hawkins’ narrative in order to give a period flavour to his adventure story. As a technique for displaying characters’ motivations and thoughts, authentic voices and dissembling utterances, friendships and formalities it can often be more effective than the all-knowing third-person narrative. Can texts, tweets and social network messages ever match the colourful verbosity of longhand missives? Their impact is very different, of course, though we mustn’t imagine that because they lacked instant messaging the Regency period wasn’t capable of several posts a day, with replies often within daylight hours.

What is crystal clear is that Austen’s wit, trenchant commentary, plot handling and surgical dissection of manners were all fully formed before she was twenty. Though critics agree that it’s not in the same league as her mature works it’s still a matter of wonder that Austen was setting so high a standard of excellence in novel-writing. And Lady Susan, while not exactly a Black Widow spider, is still for me one of the great comedic creations; it’s all the more remarkable that, where a lesser talent would ensure that natural justice was done and Lady Susan had her come-uppance, this young writer chose to make her monster survive to ensnare more victims.


8 thoughts on “Walk into my parlour

  1. I love this. And you are right about Austen. To be so insightful and knowledgeable about those around her at such a young age is amazing. I was not this bright by 20. I’m probably still not as I near 40.

    1. And it’s tempting to give in when you’re the wrong side of 60!
      But being able to appreciate Austen’s social commentary is pretty good for me, especially when I see online reviews of her that just basically go “Meh”.

  2. I don’t know how I missed the original posting of this. I’ve been toying with a blog post of Shakespeare inspired e-mail subject lines, but this seems more timely. May steal your idea 🙂

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