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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Lady Susan, Jane Austen, & Diana Parker for ever & ever: the strong, immortal female mind

In Janeites, Ellen Moody wrote this about Jane Austen's novella, Lady Susan
“My suggestion was it’s a radical inverted protest novel. Austen is getting away with protesting her own and other women’s situations through presenting a heroine all will detest. There were ways for women to express themselves “contra mundi”: I saw her as turning to a sub-genre or kind of book that allowed this. Epistolary narrative, and French amoral anti-heroines. She can express herself through such a heroine as a mask. This was an era when spinsters were harshly criticized and mocked in conduct books, sent up cruelly in novels. She was despised for not having sex, but as a woman with little money and no power she’d be worse ostracized and punished for admitting knowing about sex, much less trying to live a pleasurable life of sex on her own without a man controlling her. This is the type of woman we find in these novels, only they are often widows or domineer over husbands and lovers, or simply living independently (if they had wealth somehow).”

I agree with a lot of what you say, above, Ellen, but couch my position differently, and go further in some ways.

First, I see a very striking resemblance between Lady Susan and another Austen character who has not been mentioned yet in this discussion, but who should be --- Lucy Steele in S&S --- whose married name, as I first pointed out a decade ago, is LUCY FERRARS aka "Lucifer! Lady Susan, like Lucy, is a woman without scruples who gets her way by using her own superior psychological acumen to exert influence over others - and she particularly rises to the challenge when someone dares to stand in her path and attempt to thwart her.  She feels free to in effect “invade” a wealthy family, and wreak havoc in it, the way a skilled borderline personality can do (and some of you may be aware of Christine Shih’s claims that borderline personality was a key theme in Austen’s writing).

And I see Lucy doing exactly the same once she "invades" the Ferrars family -- in particular, in the way that I see Lucy as holding Edward on a string, and neutralizing sad clueless Elinor by making her her "confidante" , while she does her real work behind the scenes on Robert, setting up the mousetrap on the Ferrars family. And then, when the time is just right, her secret is "accidentally" revealed by her sister, and the trap is sprung on Mrs. Ferrars, who unwittingly does Lucy's bidding by disinheriting Edward, and making Robert her vested heir—whereupon Mrs. Ferrars has no way to squirm out of that trap. 

I think that part of what makes many readers lack sympathy for the victims of Lady Susan's guile is that she is a woman, who manages to turn what is ordinarily a kind of death sentence for women in that era --becoming a widow without money--into opportunity for herself --- sorta like a self-serving Robin Hood.

Second, I think we find a continuation of JA’s grudging admiration for an amoral rake like Lady Susan and her ability to subvert male authority at will, in JA’s famous and very candid comment to Martha Lloyd in her 1812:

"I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales's Letter. Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband -- but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself ``attached & affectionate' to a Man whom she must detest -- & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad -- I do not know what to do about it; but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. --"

In effect, Lady Susan is Princess Caroline on steroids --- and JA might have said about Lady Susan something like “if I must give up Lady Susan, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the patriarchal social system had not been totally rigged against women, and she could have attained personal fulfilment in an ethical way".

And finally, in case anyone thinks Jane Austen as she got older was no longer in tune with having a villainess as heroine of an Austen story, just remember what JA wrote in her next to last surviving letter to her old dear friend Anne Sharp, only months before JA's death (I quoted this same passage in my post yesterday about Diana Parker in Sanditon, who bears some resemblance to Lady Susan in her exertion of influence on several people at once, like one of those circus jugglers who  can keep ten dishes twirling at the same time at the top of ten sticks):

"Lady P. writing to you even from Paris for advice!-It is the Influence of Strength over Weakness indeed.-Galigai de Concini for ever & ever.-Adeiu.- “

"the influence of Strength over Weakness indeed"! That could very well be Lady Susan’s motto as well, right?  I am thinking now about what she writes to his bosom buddy Alicia Johnson about Reginald de Courcy that partakes of the same attitude:

“He is lively & seems clever, & when I have inspired him with greater respect for me than his sister's kind offices have implanted, he may be an agreable Flirt. There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predetermined to dislike, acknowledge one's superiority. I have disconcerted him already by my calm reserve; & it shall be my endeavour to humble the Pride of these self-important De Courcies still lower, to convince Mrs . Vernon that her sisterly cautions have been bestowed in vain, & to persuade Reginald that she has scandalously belied me. This project will serve at least to amuse me, &prevent my feeling so acutely this dreadful separation from You & all whom I love. Adeiu.
  Yours Ever S. Vernon.”
And Jane Austen herself, from the time she first picked up a quill pen as a teenaged author, to the day she died when she was too sick to even hold a pen, and  despite her being a woman with little money, managed to use the enormous strength of her mind to achieve true immortality, and give inspiration to countless women, over ten generations and counting, who've read her novels, and derived strength and inspiration to be strong despite gender-based obstacles still placed in their path.

To read my post after seeing Whit Stillman's spectacular film adaptation of Lady Susan entitled Love and Friendship in January, here it is:  

Cheers, ARNIE

 @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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