Epistolary Form And Feminism In Lady Susan

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It is arguable that Jane Austen’s very decision to put pen to paper and write Lady Susan was a feminist act. Writing in an epoch prior to the foundations of a female literary canon being established, Austen not only utilised the epistolary form to give her female characters voice and agency, but framed the novel around a central female character who unapologetically contravenes patriarchal social expectations. Lady Susan is a middle-aged and widowed mother and yet eminently desired and overtly sexual; a member of the upper echelons of rigid British society, yet uniquely witty, outspoken and vulgar. Lady Susan’s subversion of societal conventions, and Austen’s manipulation of the epistolary form, can be seen most distinctly in letter two, from ‘You were mistaken my Dear Alicia’ to ‘I will send you a line, as soon as I arrive in town.’

Austen utilises the epistolary form in Lady Susan to articulate the otherwise concealed consciousnesses of her female characters, and to exhibit relationships, friendly or otherwise, between women. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf muses that she cannot ‘remember any case in the course of [her] reading where two women are represented as friends…. Almost without exception they are shown in their relationship to men’. In Lady Susan, Austen defies this literary convention, using the epistolary form to expose the discourse between the novel’s female characters, excluding male opinion from the narrative in the process. This is particularly evident in letter two, written by Lady Susan to Mrs Johnson, and its distinct tonal alteration from letter one, from Lady Susan to Mr Vernon. Where letter one uses formal, laudatory language, and adheres to social expectations of women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries - ’I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation…’ -, letter two is crude and scattered with double entendre and innuendo, revealing Lady Susan’s true character and intentions to her close female confidant - ‘Charles Vernon is my aversion, and i am afraid of his wife’. This tonal disparity in Lady Susan’s voice is not only an example of Austen’s irony, but is also a clear example of how the epistolary form is used to access the otherwise hidden consciousness of women, and to exhibit the inner workings of relationships between women, independent of men.

The female skew of Austen’s narrative structure is particularly remarkable given the era in which she was writing, when very little precedent had been set in terms of a female literary tradition. In 1852, G.H Lewes remarked that ‘To write as men is the aim and besetting sin of women; to write as a woman is the real task they have to perform.’, and this Austen arguably succeeds in doing with ‘Lady Susan’, using letters to intimately portray what Woolf calls the ‘curious silent unrepresented life’ of women, which was otherwise unrecorded in the literary canon up to that point. Woolf goes on to remark that ‘A woman might write letters while she was sitting by her father’s sick bed. She could write them by the fire while the men talked without disturbing them.’, and that Austen’s work had ‘no tragedy and no heroism’. Here, Woolf alludes to how Austen was able to portray the everyday, domestic lives of women in a language familiar to them, devising a ‘perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use’.

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Austen further deviates from patriarchal conventions of literature in her portrayal of Lady Susan as a mother. Ann Oakley remarks that ‘the “good woman” is the mother, domesticated and non-sexual: the bad woman is the non-mother, desired because she is sexual.’ Although she has a daughter, Austen presents Lady Susan as a ‘non-mother’, prioritising sexual manipulation and her own whims over the wellbeing and happiness of her daughter. Lady Susan’s utter lack of maternal instinct is typefied in letter two, with Austen, through the voice of Lady Susan, describing Frederica as ‘the greatest simpleton on earth’. This hyperbolic insult is indicative not only of Lady Susan’s self-superiority, wit and boldness, but also serves to exemplify her unwillingness to be defined by motherhood. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan argues that under patriarchy, maternity is seen as the defining characteristic of women, ‘that women can know fulfilment only at the moment of giving birth to a child…. There is no other way for a woman to dream of creation or of the future. There is no other way she can even dream about herself, except as her children’s mother, her husband’s wife.’ The domestic, dependent position Friedan describes is one Lady Susan is shown to shirk throughout the novel, writing to Mrs Johnson of her plans to ‘deposit [Frederica] under the care of Miss Summers’, although ‘the price is immense, and much beyond what [she] can ever attempt to pay’. Through this distinct lack of maternal instinct, though cruel and unfair, Austen portrays Lady Susan as a woman whose life is not defined by her familial or domestic duties and, as Genevieve Brassard asserts, ‘applauds’ her ‘pursuit of freedom and rewards her maternal indifference.’

However, one should hesitate before venerating Lady Susan as a feminist figure; though she prioritises her own independence and agency in what Brassard calls a ‘heroine’s rebellion.’, her schemes to marry Frederica off to Sir James - which she ironically describes as ‘the sacred impulse of maternal affection’- arguably make her a culpable agent of the patriarchy herself in her adherence to societal perceptions of the importance of the so called ‘marriage-market’

Throughout Lady Susan, Austen presents men as being vulnerable to the manipulations of women, often through sexuality, and chiefly by Lady Susan herself. Brassard remarks that ‘Lady Susan is wholly calculating in her pursuit of men’, using them as ‘playthings and objects on which to test the limits of her power.’ Letter two demonstrates this exploitation of female sexuality, with Lady Susan describing to Mrs Johnson how she ‘bestowed a little notice’ upon Sir James ‘in order to detach him from Miss Manwaring, in an attempt to force him into a marriage with Frederica. The coolness and laxity with which Lady Susan describes her flirtation with Sir James is symptomatic of her general nature; she is perpetually aware of the effect her beauty and sexuality have on men, and uses this to her advantage without remorse. A sense of male vulnerability pervades the novel further due to Austen’s omission of any male system of communication; the reader is privy only to the correspondence of women, and thus men are presented as unconscious subjects of a domestic female domain. This is particularly evident in letter two in Lady Susan’s description of how her time at Langford has ended - ‘The females of the family are united against me.’. Although it is the men of the household who have been the victims of her whims and flirtations, Lady Susan is ultimately shunned by the women in a wholly female realm. Brassard asserts that ‘“Men’s will” cannot control or contain Lady Susan’s desire to play against the rules.’

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Epistolary Form And Feminism In Lady Susan. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 17, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/epistolary-form-and-feminism-in-lady-susan/
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