Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Lady Susan: Jane Austen's Machiavellian Moment

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Lady Susan: Jane Austen's Machiavellian Moment

Article excerpt

"Sooth, flatter, and alarm."

--William Gerard Hamilton, Parliamentary Logic (1808)

AS FEMALE PROTAGONISTS GO, VICTORIA DE LOREDANI OF CHARLOTTE Dacre's over-the-top gothic thriller Zofloya (1806) must be among the most outrageously reprehensible. Virtually no boundary is left uncrossed by her: kidnapping, torture, murder--nothing is off limits. So horrible, indeed, is "the horrible Victoria" that in the introduction to her recent Broadview edition of Dacre's novel Adriana Craciun remarks that "No heroine of Radcliffe or Austen could exult, as Victoria does in Zofloya, that 'there is certainly a pleasure ... in the infliction of prolonged torment.'" (1) None perhaps but Lady Susan, titular heroine of a remarkable little epistolary novella Jane Austen wrote probably sometime during the mid 1790s and then left unpublished. In a letter written to her friend Mrs. Alicia Johnson, Lady Susan has this to say about prospective husband Reginald De Courcy: "There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one's superiority." (2) To be sure, Lady Susan's actions never cross the line into criminality, though she wistfully hopes for the deaths (by natural causes) of two elderly male characters. (3) Yet she is an unsettling figure nonetheless, not only transgressing social mores but doing so with shocking aplomb. She has no shame! By the novel's end, even after all she has wrought, she can still greet her hostess at Churchill, Mrs. Vernon, "with such an easy and cheerful affection as made her almost turn from her with horror" (101).

Where does this moral equanimity originate? Does it proceed from amorality or from an immorality so refined as to resemble amorality in its utter insouciance? Dacre's Victoria de Loredani, after all, is a bit of a beast, more often than not unable to contain her bottomless rage and wreaking violence on all and sundry. If Lady Susan is a beast, she is a beast of another stripe. Her monstrousness derives in no small part from her very attractiveness--her social grace, her wit, even the disarming candor with which she confides her treacherous designs to her confidant (and enabler) Mrs. Johnson. This is the rub for all those encountering her, including the horrified and bemused Mrs. Vernon, her most formidable adversary. Needless to say, critical opinion has also fallen prey to Lady Susan's undeniable fascination even while attempting to contain the dissonant qualities of this fascination in sources, analogues, archetypes, even psychiatric profiles. (4) She is, in Marilyn Butler's words, "a cruising shark in her social goldfish pond." (5) Barbara Horwitz describes her as an "anti-heroine" and the work in which she appears an "anti-conduct book." (6) She is a psychopath or at least a sociopath, according to Beatrice Anderson, "Self-seeking, self- indulging, without a speck of compassion for others, and no hint of a conscience." (7)

All true perhaps, but what of the intrepid nature underlying all this? Readers tend to relate to Lady Susan on as many levels as there are characters in the narrative--which is to say, those characters to whom she writes letters or in whose letters she is described, for better or worse. Not only do we overhear stratagems being plotted and see these stratagems put into action, but we witness their ultimate failure and the exposure of their cunning agent. What may surprise us, however, is the equanimity with which Lady Susan accepts her undoing at the end. "I never was more at ease, or better satisfied with myself and everything about me, than at the present hour," she tells Mrs. Johnson (98). Here, surely, is an unmistakable nod to fortune and its contingent favors. The startling sense of triumphant self- satisfaction noted above expresses itself wholly in the context of a contingent here and now ("at the present hour"--my emphasis). Perhaps this is why, upon finally hearing the good news of her brother's breakup with Lady Susan, Mrs. …

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