Since ancient times, people have written letters to communicate with each other, reveal their feelings and thoughts, and build social and emotional ties. Letters served as the main form of communication until the invention of telephones and virtual communication. For this reason, the epistolary form of writing was a well-known sub-genre of literature. Jane Austen (1871) wrote one of her first novels, Lady Susan, using the epistolary form to depict the communication between the main characters and demonstrate the development of different types of relationships between them. This novel is divided into 41 letters and ends with a conclusion, written by a third-person narrator. Although this form of writing does not fully convey the relationship between characters and their personalities, Austen used it to express the power of women and female friendships and depict men as powerless objects.
Austen’s novel focuses on the intrigues and machinations of its protagonist, Lady Susan Vernon. She is a recently widowed woman who seeks a new marriage for herself and tries to marry her daughter, Frederica, to a man she hates, Sir James. After her husband’s death, Lady Susan invites herself to the house of her brother- and sister-in-law in Churchill, even though she had tried to prevent them from marriage earlier. The woman’s friend, a young mistress Mrs. Johnson, supports her in her letters and gives advice Lady Susan is “not quite determined on following” (Austen, 1871, letter X). All other female characters, like Mrs. Vernon, her mother Lady De Courcy, and Federica, demonstrate their attitudes toward Lady Susan and discuss her indecent behavior in their letters. At the same time, most male characters find Lady Susan an attractive and charming woman. As the plot unfolds, the readers observe the formation of relationships between characters and understand their hidden intentions, motives, and beliefs.
The novel Lady Susan consists of letters, and most of these letters are written by one woman to another, highlighting the importance of their discourse. Thus, while reading the novel, readers perceive women through their interactions with other women. Kaplan (1987) writes, “Their letters are almost wholly concerned with the linguistic production and management of self-images” (p. 164). The critic means that women construct their images through writing. The absence of dialogues in letters emphasizes this claim because women are mostly focused on their own self-expression, revealing themselves as different persons than their interlocutors would think of them in real communication. At the same time, these letters help readers understand that all women share one common goal – they want to marry “a man of fortune” (Kaplan, 1987, p. 164). Therefore, they use these gratifying self-representations to attract such men and attain their goals.
Moreover, women unite in their letters to compete with each other and create negative images of their enemies. For example, Reginald’s sister tries to impose her view of Lady Susan on him, complaining about “the badness of her disposition” (Austen, 1871, letter VIII). At once, Lady Susan writes to Mrs. Johnson that she pursues ways to “persuade Reginald that she [his sister] has scandalously belied [her]” (Letter VII). One can see that each woman’s network works against each other, trying to belittle their opponent. In this competition, Lady Susan is a more powerful master of words, so she manages to persuade others of the rightfulness of her actions and decisions: “[I] told my story with great success to Mrs. Vernon who, whatever might be her real sentiments, said nothing in opposition to mine” (Letter XXII). Here, Lady Susan shares with Mrs. Jonson the success of her attractive story she narrated to Mrs. Vernon about her daughter’s marriage to Sir James. One can see that women use the power of words to uphold their views and censor their enemies.
What is more, the epistolary form of the novel helps readers better understand the characters’ own accounts of their actions. For example, Lady Susan reflects on her activities at Manwaring’s house: “I was determined to be discreet, to bear in mind my being only four months a widow, and to be as quiet as possible, – and I have been so; […], I have avoided all general flirtation whatever” (Austen, 1871, letter VI). Levine (1961) argues that “Lady Susan underestimates her effect upon others” and does not understand why her sister-in-law hates her (p. 32). On the one hand, it may seem that the character deceives others, pretending that she is innocent and has no negative intentions. On the other hand, she reveals her true feelings, manipulating others on purpose and trying to attain her goals by any means. The main advantage of writing a letter, in this case, is the possibility to deliberate one’s words before addressing them to someone. Thus, a first-person perspective allows readers better comprehend the characters’ intentions and attitudes to their own actions.
Interestingly, in this correspondence, men are depicted as powerless objects manipulated by women. In their letters, women discuss men as potential husbands who are valued for their estate only. For example, Mrs. Johnson writes about Mr. De Courcy: “I advise you by all means to marry him; his father’s estate is […] considerable, and I believe certainly entailed. […]. Mr. De Courcy may be worth having” (Austen, 1871, letter IX). Thus, Reginald is perceived as an object whose money is more important than his personal traits. Similarly, other women gossip about each other to discuss whether that or this man is worth marrying in their letters. They make jokes about male characters, referring to them as “silly” creatures who can be easily seduced and manipulated (Letter IX). In such a way, the epistolary form of Lady Susan serves as an expression of female power and dominance over men.
Moreover, men are powerless because they do not write as many letters as women and do not develop strong relationships through correspondence. Consequently, they cannot persuade each other through letters and cannot create images of other people as effectively as women. For example, Reginald does not believe in his father’s depiction of Lady Susan because his father’s linguistic skills are weaker than those of women. Due to the inability to use language the same way as women do, men are devoid of subjectivity. There are only five letters written by men in the book, while the number of letters written by women is much higher. Such linguistic modesty demonstrates that men are not ready to create social ties as effectively as women, and they can only be the issues of female correspondence.
In addition to that, readers see men only through the eyes of women. Female characters tend to view them from the unfriendly and disrespectful vantage point (Kaplan, 1987, p. 167). When men try to express their opinions, women find them incompetent and irrational. For example, Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson hide their correspondence from her husband because he does not approve of it. Lady Susan says, “since he will be stubborn, he must be tricked” (Austen, 1871, letter V). From Mrs. Johnson’s letters, one can see that she is only interested in her relationship with Lady Susan and her intrigues, while her husband is her greatest fear, and she is waiting for his absence. Since these letters are hidden from men, one can assume that women were afraid of expressing their opinions openly. Consequently, writing letters was the best way to gossip about their men and objectify them.
Finally, the epistolary form is primarily a private female discourse form, opposed to the popular patriarchal public novels at those times. This form of writing helped Austen reverse the impact of male-marked literary genres and reduce the power of men through her book. Although men continue to express strength through money and property, they have no control over women in letter writing. Through correspondence, women diminish men to small rewards in their competitions. However, all these written manipulations and contests remain hidden in the real world.
Having analyzed the epistolary novel Lady Susan, one can conclude that this sub-genre was chosen to emphasize the power of women and female ties and reduce male dominance. Women use letters to generate their self-images and create negative images of their competitors. Moreover, they disclose their true attitudes toward men, objectifying and disapproving them. At the same time, the epistolary form does not allow the author to control her readers’ moral judgments and emphasizes female intersubjectivity in a patriarchal world.
Austen, J. (1871). Lady Susan. Freedetorial.
Kaplan, D. (1987). Female friendship and epistolary form: “Lady Susan” and the development of Jane Austen’s fiction. Criticism, 29(2), 163-178.
Levine, J. A. (1961). Lady Susan: Jane Austen’s character of the Merry Widow. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 1(4), 23-34. Web.