Janet Todd is an internationally renowned scholar of early women writers. She has edited the complete works of England’s first professional woman writer, Aphra Behn, and the Enlightenment feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, as well as novels by Charlotte Smith, Mary Shelley and Eliza Fenwick and memoirs of the confidence trickster Mary Carleton. Here, she tells us her thoughts on writing, language, and the pressure of re-imagining Jane Austen:
Anne Elliot, virtuous heroine of Persuasion, was ‘almost too good’ for Jane Austen. ‘Pictures of perfection… make me sick and wicked,’ she remarked towards the end of her life. All Austen’s novel heroines are indeed ‘good’: two of them initially hazard improper or injudicious remarks—Elizabeth Bennet and Emma—but later they learn to repress such high spirits.
Now look at Jane Austen’s own letters. Recollect that most of them address her beloved Cassandra who, after Jane’s death, guarded her sister’s image by burning anything she deemed unsuitable—not so much for the public, since Jane was not yet famous enough to have her private correspondence of general interest, but for the younger members of the extended family now living in high Victorian rather than racy Regency times. Yet even the unburnt letters show a woman very different from the fictional heroines, a woman with a naughty propensity sometimes to laugh at the virtuous, the vulnerable or the just plain unfortunate—a wife with an uncomely husband experiencing a still birth or young girls lacking beauty and unable to compensate for it. This Jane Austen emerges very fully in a little work she wrote just as she was entering adulthood and long before she’d published any of her masterly novels: ‘Lady Susan’.
At the centre of this short novella in letters is a more beautiful, eloquent, conniving and manipulative society woman than Jane Austen created anywhere else. At the end the author tags on a sort of moral: ‘Whether Lady Susan was or was not happy in her second choice, I do not see how it can ever be ascertained…The world must judge from probabilities; she had nothing against her but her husband, and her conscience.’ Well yes. But Austen neither reformed nor destroyed her, as so many other novelists would have done. So I thought that in the 21st century I might allow myself the liberty of expanding the story of this brisk lady, exaggerating just a little its ebulliently amoral effect.
I know, I know: many people think it disrespectful, or just plain silly, to spin off Jane Austen—not that this stops any of us! But Austen’s very global fame means that her characters and plots are known outside the experience of the novels, in much the same way as those of Shakespeare or Homer. So a little fun with her iconic creations seems OK to me—and I doubt that any spinner-off thinks for a minute that she’s truly imitating or coming anywhere near the genius of Jane Austen. It’s all homage of a sort.
Yet it’s fun to try to catch with a few markers the idiom of Austen and her times—to go beyond avoiding ‘like’ and ‘absolutely’ at every turn and suggest some of the phrases the characters might have spoken. And, more importantly, to show what it was to live within different constraints. It’s annoying that a woman with entrepreneurial skills of the sort Lady Susan displays can’t simply—as now—up-stakes and go into business for herself, probably in high finance where we’ve seen a little crookedness deliver great rewards—or perhaps in the erotic exploitative side of the fashion industry; at the same time the convention that made relatives feel obliged to take in their irritating kin can fuel a story in the way impossible for us.
Jane Austen made a fair copy of her original epistolary jeu d’esprit but never suggested publishing it. After her death the family feared that a story about a sexy widow fitted ill with the gentle refined image they were creating for their increasingly famous relative. Most shocking at the time was the hint of sexual impropriety; to us now, in a more sexually explicit, sentimental and less robust age, I suspect it’s the open dislike by a cold mother of an only daughter that’s most alarming.
There’s always a comic disjunction between what the culture teaches us to be and do and the reality of social hypocrisy: that duty of telling lies that falls on Elinor in Sense and Sensibility when her romantic, spontaneous sister refuses to play her part—and can get away with it only because she’s young and pretty. I enjoyed displaying the exasperation of a sophisticated mother who finds her child has swallowed all the virtuous platitudes of society without understanding that no one should really follow them. And I loved writing about the devastating power of charm, which may, I suppose, be innate but which so often seems to be forged in an awkward background of inadequate or absent parents—as with Lady Susan. Above all it was fun to display the predatory power of language.
Lady Susan is very much an 18th-century figure, which is why I so much engage with her. (In my literary academic career I preferred the Restoration and 18th century over the 19th—a time of experimental living for remarkable women such as Aphra Behn and Mary Wollstonecraft.) I wanted to get round Jane Austen’s (ambiguous) moral and give Lady Susan a bit more latitude, to let her have a life beyond simply fleecing a rich bumpkin; so I took her out of England and to my favourite city, Venice, at its political nadir and decadent height. I also gave her a worthy opponent—for a woman like Lady Susan must surely live with some sort of threatened violence, emotional, physical or social; she must have sensation to be alive, she needs to plot and risk or she feels dead. Thinking only of children and a new vicarage or pasturage for cows, as at the end of some of Austen’s novels—getting on the housing ladder and taking an allotment in modern terms—could never be her mode. I hope readers will enjoy my Lady Susan as much as I’ve enjoyed writing her.