ClassicsOnline Home » AUSTEN, J.: Lady Susan (Unabridged)
Lady Susan was the first of Jane Austen’s novels to be completed. An epistolary novel in eighteenth-century style, it tells the story of the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon, intelligent but highly manipulative, who is intent on gaining financially secure relationships for both herself and her wayward but shy teenage daughter Frederica. Less known than Austen’s six great later novels, it demonstrates the wit and sharp observations of Jane Austen—and is shown at its best in audiobook form, with different actresses presenting real characters as they read their letters.
READ BY HARRIET WALTER, KIM
HICKS & CAROLE BOYD
WITH RUTH SILLERS, JONATHAN
KEEBLE, NIGEL ANTHONY & PATIENCE TOMLINSON
Even though Lady Susan is complete, and
indisputably by Jane Austen herself, it has never been accepted at the level of
the six great novels which were published during her lifetime, and which formed
In 1805 - the year of the
Battle of Trafalgar - Jane Austen herself made a 'fair copy' of the work which
she almost certainly wrote about ten years earlier. We can place the date
fairly accurately because the paper on which she wrote it has an 1805
watermark. She was engaged at the time on Sense and Sensibility (called at that time Elinor
and she may have looked rather wistfully back at Lady Susan for a number of reasons.
First of all, its form - the
letter novel - places it firmly in the 18th century. She liked the
form and was accustomed to it: she particularly admired Samuel Richardson and
Fanny Burney who both used the device extensively. And it was as a letter novel
that Jane Austen wrote the first draft of Sense and Sensibility, before ultimately
discarding the form for the third person narrator.
But although she copied out Lady
made no attempt, as far as we know, to get it published - even later on, when
presumably the author of Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Emma would have been able to do
so. It was not published until 1871, 54 years after her death.
The decision to publish was
taken by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh and was made against some family
It is difficult to see why
there was such reluctance to allow the work to be read by her huge following.
It may be a book that in form looks back rather than forward; it may lack the
subtleties of her six masterpieces, in the depth of characters, in the
exquisite social observations and the sense of growing tension. But this is
partly a fault of the limitations of the epistolary novel itself, which is
constraining as the author struggles to develop the plot through a credible
But there is no doubt that Lady
an innate charm. For a start, the character of Lady Susan is sharp, consistent,
and totally believable as she charms and manipulates those around her. Here is
an unquestionably attractive, intelligent 35-year-old widow; intent on making
sure that the right consorts will be ensnared both for herself and for her
18-year-old daughter Frederica. And, against the odds (she openly admits her
age is an impediment to catching a younger man, she aims high) she is confident
in her ability to succeed. But it is as much her energetic duplicity and
singular amorality which delights us as the melodrama in which she becomes
Even as the net around her
is drawn more closely, and she can see her target is slipping away, she
maintains a dignity that is more pragmatic and direct than arrogant. More than
anyone, she is aware that marriage and alliance is a battleground that needs to
be traversed, and that sometimes it is necessary to make tactical withdrawals.
At the same time, we can feel the concern - but expressed
in such gentlemanly terms - of the family of Mr. de Courcy to protect their
heir against the dangerous charms; and despite being attracted to the eponymous
heroine for her sheer audacity, we want the young couple to get together in the
It must be said that our
enjoyment of Lady Susan is enhanced because we read (or as here listen to it) through
the memory of six masterpieces. The sentences and sentiments of Anne Eliott and
Frederic Wentworth in
Persuasion or Elinor and Edward in Sense
ring in our ears almost as a musical background. Those great novels set the
tone for the appreciation of Lady Susan who, more typically, would have been a
character on the fringes of the plot, rather than the center. And without those
mature novels to set the tone, it is certain that Lady Susan would be a very minor
achievement in the Regency literary canon.
Yet that wise social smile, so lightly touched on the lips,
which is the principal expression of Jane Austen, is perceptible in this early
work. The language alone has an elegance and fleetness of foot that demands
publication. It deserves to be taken out of the scholar's portfolio and placed
in popular hands. Cast in the form of letters, it becomes a perfect candidate
for presentation on audiobook, enabling the characters to become instantly
flesh and blood.
And it deserves, without
doubt, the ultimate accolade of 21st century approbation - a film.
ABOUT THE READERS
HARRIET WALTER is best known
for her two BBC television roles as Charity in The Men's Room and as Amy in Unfinished
But she has an extensive and successful stage career winning many awards on the
way including Best Actress by the Sony Radio Awards and a Laurence Olivier
Award for Actress of the Year in a Revival for roles in Twelfth Night, Three
A Question of Geography. Her film credits include Villa des Roses, Onegin, The
Governess, Bedrooms and Hallways, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and Sense &
She also writes about the theater contributing to academic journals. Her first
book, Other People's Shoes, is also based on her theatrical life.
KIM HICKS trained as an
actor at the famous Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. She has worked in all areas
of the profession but as a 7th generation theatrical has maintained the family
Travelling Theatre tradition by touring her three acclaimed one woman shows
around the world: Jane Austen, Dorothy Parker and Victorian Shipboard Diaries
are her subjects. Kim's love of storytelling has now found another outlet
through the world of audiobooks.
CAROLE BOYD trained at the
Birmingham School of Speech and Drama where she won the principal national
prize for voice, the Carleton Hobbs Award and immediately joined the BBC Radio
Drama Company. Vocal versatility is her specialty, from her creation of the
notorious character of Lynda Snell in The Archers to Poetry Please and all the female
characters in Postman Pat. She has won two prestigious awards for her reading
of Roy's The God of Small Things and Huth's Landgirls. She has also written and
recorded her own audiobook, Lynda Snell's History of Ambridge.
RUTH SILLERS began her
career with the National Youth Theatre. Theater work includes productions for
the Royal National Theatre Studio and the Donmar Warehouse. She has performed
in several plays for BBC Radio Drama, including Noel Coward's Easy Virtue and Medical Detectives. She also reads regularly
for Radio 4 and BBC World Service.
JONATHAN KEEBLE's theater
credits include leading roles at Manchester's
Royal Exchange, Coventry,
Liverpool, Exeter, Lancaster and West Yorkshire Playhouse. Television includes People
Like Us, The Two Of Us and Deptford Grafitti. Jonathan has featured in over 250 radio
plays for the BBC and was a member of the Radio Drama Company.
NIGEL ANTHONY is one of
Britain's leading voice actors with wide experience of reading for audiobooks
and on radio. His extensive work for BBC Radio has won him two Best Actor
awards. He has also worked in television (Coronation Street, Slender,
and others) and in theater, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and with Alan
Ayckbourn at Scarborough.
PATIENCE TOMLINSON has
appeared extensively in theater and radio in the UK. She has worked for the
Royal National Theatre and the Young Vic, and was twice a member of the BBC
Radio Drama Company. She has made over 1,500 broadcasts, including stories,
books and radio plays as well as poetry.