This novel describes the attempts of Lady Susan to survive in society and manoeuvre herself through life, using people quite mercilessly including her own daughter, while trying to appear to stay within the bounds of what is acceptable in society.
I was very much impressed with this story, and it stays in my mind chiefly for how different it is from Austen’s usual work as it is quite dark with the main character being manipulative and with no redeeming features and who doesn’t turn to good at the end of the story. The story is interesting as I feel it shows how the situation was for women in this time; with marriage being their only option for security, and them being dependent completely on men. However, although Lady Susan obviously recognises she needs men in order to succeed in life, she doesn’t worship them or act submissively to them; she manipulates and uses them to achieve her own ends – there is no romantic rose-tinted view from Lady Susan. She also realises that she needs to conceal and disguise her actions and feelings as this is not the recognised way for a lady to behave and she is at risk of society frowning on her and ostracising her if she is seen for what she truly is, and she uses her intelligence and cleverness to achieve this by the way she explains her actions and situations to others; a few people see through these explanations and correctly identify Lady Susan’s true character, but they are in the minority and not strong enough to convince others and to win against Lady Susan. She is a fascinating character; very complex and very intelligent, and totally unlike how a lady of that time is supposed to be (but in reality is how they needed to be).
The story is told in a series of letters from various different people; some letters by Lady Susan (where the reader learns her true nature and intentions), some from the gentlemen she has successfully duped and who sing her praises and defend her to others, and some from the women who see through her and suspect her motives. To use the form of letters is very clever, as the reader gains the personal perspective from writing in the first person but instead of just one perspective there are several. The letter-writing format also displays extremely effectively just how language was utilised in that time; how beautiful the phrasing is but also how manipulative it can be, as a writer’s true meaning and intention is there but can be almost hidden within the very formal tone and words used (for example, when Lady Susan is writing to ask if she can stay with her brother-in-law it is not a simple few lines to make this request but instead several paragraphs full of quite flowery language and compliments, all concealing the fact that she is basically begging to come and stay because she has offended the people she has been previously staying with and has been ordered to leave immediately).
Lady Susan is not a nice character and she willingly hurts people (including her own daughter) in order to achieve her own ends; however she is such a fascinating person because this is not the kind of character that I would expect Jane Austen to write about, and I find my previous idea of Jane Austen being altered a little. I love her novels with their gentle sarcasm and hint of teasing at the foolishness of the people around her, but I find myself wishing she had also written some more in this style with its more overt criticism of society and how women survive within it.