Lady Susan: A Re-Evaluation of Jane Austen's Epistolary Novel

Article excerpt

LADY SUSAN IS ONE of the few surviving literary manuscripts of Jane Austen. Written about 1794 (with the addition of a conclusion c. 1805-09), its physical value as an artefact is secure; yet after more than two centuries its literary value remains in question. It is still, without a doubt, the black sheep in the family of Austen's writing. For many of the early Janeites, it was just far too Augustan; for many of the canon makers of a later age, its formal properties were too outmoded for serious consideration. And even today, after theory has rescued the letter-form from oblivion, after Cultural Studies have undermined notions of canonicity, and in the wake of much critical revision, we nevertheless insist on classing the work as "minor": we can laugh along with the high spirits of the adolescent scribbler or stand in awed admiration of the genius that she became, but her epistolary novel of the mid-1790s never quite seems to fit comfortably anywhere. This essay will seek to redress the balance in favour of Lady Susan, first through a discussion of the physical properties of the manuscript, its history and status in Austen's oeuvre, and then through a discussion of her stylistic use of the epistolary form. It is too easy to assume that Austen's decision to revert to the epistolary after the experiment of Catharine was a reversion to a less demanding way of writing ("a cautious retreat" is how A. Walton Litz characterises Lady Susan in relation to Catharine, in his preface to the facsimile edition of Jane Austen's "Lady Susan" [1989]). On the contrary, Austen's care in her fair copy manuscript and the particular use she makes of the letter form in Lady Susan suggest that this often under-appreciated work synthesised the vigor and directness of the juvenilia and heightened the young Austen's understanding of the letter's value as a vital narrative element in her maturing fiction.

Few of Austen's fictional manuscripts survive. Apart from her pieces in the three transcript volumes of juvenilia (Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third, written between 1787 and 1793) and the short play "Sir Charles Grandison" (c. 1793-1800), (1) Lady Susan is the only extant complete work of fiction in manuscript. The drafts of both The Watsons (1803-04) and Sanditon (1817) are unfinished; and all that remains are a fair copy of Plan of a Novel (c. 1815) and two cancelled concluding chapters of Persuasion (1816). Thus, the manuscript of Lady Susan is a literary object to be treasured. But it is also more than this: it is a finished work whose fair copy status demands that it be taken seriously, despite what is seen as an abrupt and hasty ending. Clearly Austen's relatives and subsequent owners of the manuscript valued it, if only as a relic of her early creative life.

The manuscript of Lady Susan remained untitled and unpublished when its author died. A note surviving with the manuscript--"For Lady Knatchbull," almost certainly in Cassandra Austen's hand--indicates that Cassandra gave it to Jane Austen's favorite niece Fanny Knight (Lady Knatchbull). (2) In 1871, Lady Knatchbull allowed James Edward Austen-Leigh to publish it in the appendix to his second edition of A Memoir of Jane Austen, where it received its title for the first time, printed together with "The Mystery" from Volume the First. This was the first publication of any early Austen manuscripts. (3) The text of Lady Susan, however, was printed from an inaccurate copy because the original was missing. Following the death of Lady Knatchbull in 1882, the manuscript was found and inherited by her son Edward Knatchbull-Hugessen, first Baron Brabourne. On the sale of his library in 1893 Lady Susan passed through to a series of auctions. Some time before the manuscript was sold at Sotheby's on 17 December 1898, the pages (numbered 1 to 158) were trimmed, mounted and bound in a Riviere binding of full orange morocco with gilt decoration (Gilson 375). The appearance is of a lavish volume that was clearly treasured by the owner, possibly Lord Brabourne. …