The book starts off lively enough with a letter from Lady Susan, widowed 8 months, to her brother-in-law, inviting herself very graciously to his house because she feels she can no longer impose on the kindness of her friends, the Manwarings.
It is a nice, polite letter, and Lady Susan seems like such a lovely person until that is, you get to the next letter Lady Susan writes to her best friend, Mrs. Johnson.
Here we find the truth about Susan’s departure and understand that what Lady Susan says is never the complete truth. It is as Mrs. Johnson says late in the book, “Facts are such horrid things!”
This is a short book, but Lady Susan still has time to become engaged, cause a divorce, break off an engagement, and marry someone else. The whole story takes place in letters written by the various people involved.
Lady Susan is only 35, old by her time’s standards, but she still has her beauty and charm to make up for not having any money.
She is at the mercy of others and hates it. She schemes and charms and flirts and all the men fall in love with her, and all the women hate her for it. If she were a man, she would be a wealthy businesswoman with skills like hers.
But she is only allowed to operate in the domestic sphere, and she must have a living somehow.
She must either marry her sixteen-year-old daughter to a wealthy gentleman over whom she can have some control, or she must find a wealthy gentleman to marry her. Lady Susan reminded me a little of Becky Sharpe in Thackeray’s much later Vanity Fair.
Lady Susan is a finished book, but it doesn’t feel finished. The first letter starts in the middle of things, which does provide a bit of mystery over whether Lady Susan’s reputation is as bad as everyone says it is, so it’s not a bad place to start.
I just think it could have been better. And the letters end before the story is actually done. Austen wraps it all up with a straight narrative conclusion of several pages, which brings the excitement and liveliness provoked by the letters to a screeching halt.
It’s like she didn’t know what to do to finish it, so she made up an excuse for the narrative by saying the correspondence could not continue because the rest of the letters really weren’t that interesting.
I found Lady Susan entertaining, but nowhere near the caliber of Austen’s later, famous works. If you are not interested in Austen, the book is probably one to skip.
However, if you want to see how her skill developed, how she was playing around with character and structure and dialogue before she hit her stride, then Lady Susan is worth a read.