© Ellen Moody. No part of this website page may be reproduced without express permission from the author and website/blog owner. All uses of information or evaluative commentary should be acknowledged and documented. Linking is encouraged.

A Calendar, Letters in and Sources for Lady Susan

There is no scholarship on the calendar Austen used to arrange the letters of Lady Susan. No letter is dated fully; however, there is a grid; during the book's crisis point (when Sir James arrives and Frederica writes her morning letter to Reginald and the scenes and letters that ensue, and when Reginald learns the truth and confronts Lady Susan) the characters refer to specific days which cohere with the larger movements of the story. The pace of external events and inner psychological movement resembles the texture of the six omniscient novels. Lady Susan has all the usual rhythmic patterns, the same careful use of ironic juxtaposition that we find in the extant Sense and Sensibility. Austen simply removed the scaffolding from sight.

What we know is this:

  1. Chapman studied the manuscript (literally -- the paper that the text is written upon). The earliest year it could have been copied out or written is 1805 since the paper watermark is 1805.
  2. B. C. Southam, Jane Austen's Literary Manuscripts. Southam examined the book in the context of his speculations and studies on the extant manuscripts. He argues for 1793-94 as the start date; however, he does not say why he thinks Austen didn't revise it in 1805.
  3. The publication of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1782. In 1782 there were four French editions. The ESTC records an English translation in 1784:
    Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse 1761
    Englished Eloisa; or a series of original letters collected and published by J. J. Rousseau, translated by William Kenrick 1761

    Laclos, Choderlos de,
    Liaisons dangereuses 1782.
    Englished: Dangerous connections : or, letters collected in a society, and published for the instruction of other societies. By M. C**** de L***. ... London : printed for T. Hookham, 1784. 4 v.; 12 mo.

    De Staël, Germaine de.
    Delphine. 1802
    Englished and published in London 1803 and 1805.

    Edgeworth, Maria.
    Leonora, 1806 epistolary tale; Manoeuvring one of the Tales of Fashionable Life, 1809.

  4. Several worthwhile studies of Austen's texts: Q. D. Leavis's "A Critical Theory of Jane Austen's Writings," Scrutiny 10 (1941), 61-90, 114-42, 272-94; 12 (1944), 104-19 wherein she argues that Mansfield Park emerged from a reimagining of the types we find in Lady Susan; Patricia Meyer Spacks's "Female Resources: Epistles, Plots, and Power, Writing the Female Voice: Essay on Epistolary Literature, edd. Elizbeth Goldsmith (Bosonton: Northeastern University Press, 1989), 63-76. Marvin Mudrick's attempt in his Irony and Defense to argue that in Lady Susan we find Austen in her truest most honest vein and that the other books represent various stages of repression (of which Mansfield Park is the worst) is well known. His comments on Lady Susan are stimulating because of his candour.
  5. Marilyn Butler wrote review of two recent biographies of Jane Austen (one by David Nokes and the other by Claire Tomalin) in which she argued Lady Susan was written in response to another epistolary novel by Maria Edgeworth, Leonora. Butler says Austen used a book of paper printed in 1805 but she wrote the draft into it around the time of her writing of the extant Sense and Sensibility, namely, when Austen was 35.

I have opted for the year 1804-5 as the most probable date of the almanac used by Austen. There could of course have been an earlier version; all Austen's were (as her brother said) "gradual performances". The piece does reveal an extraordinary emphasis on distrust and suspicion as part of the character's approach to one another. Could this be a mark of immaturity? something she imbibed from the way she heard her family talk about other people? Is the book a dream of absolute power due to "intellect and manners" from a young girl partly disturbed by her own inner deviance from the people she was surrounded by? On the other hand, the book contains an adult understanding of sexuality and the politics of submission and dominance it is hard to believe Austen merely picked up from LaClos. Also what is cruelty: when Lady Susan despises the vulnerable and shows contempt for anyone susceptible to ridicule.

I was able to draw a calendar from the novel because Austen kept time in it sufficiently exactly and frequently to allow me to follow her precisely. The question was, Which almanac to choose? The manuscript decided it: 1805. It is wholly improbable she conjectured forward one year; as in the cases of Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey whose first full-drawn calendars still underlie the present novels, she moved back into the immediately previous year into the one she was writing in.

Lady Susan married early, education neglected (Let 8)
1798 (6 years before book opens in 1804)
Lady Susan and her husband forced to sell Vernon Castle; could she have kept Charles single and with her husband remained with Charles in Castle then she would have let Charles buy it; but she persuaded her husband to sell it elsewhere. At the same time Lady Susan attempted to prevent Mr Vernon from marrying Catherine de Courcy (that was) (Penguin 48)
Middle May, 1804
Lady Susan's husband had died: she was "four months" a widow when she came to Langford (Penguin 44)
Sept into Dec:
Lady Susan at Langford, Oxford (or Essex) for three months Let 1. Mr Smith there for a fortnight of this visit; he misinterprets Lady Susan Vernon completely says Reginald later Let 4 (Penguin 43, 47)
December or before Christmas 1804
Let 1) Lady Susan Vernon, Langford, house in either in Oxford or Essex, towards end of December Year 1804, to Mr Charles Vernon, Churchill, Sussex

He had invited her "when we last parted" to spend "some weeks" at Churchill;" she will come "within a few days;" she will place her daughter in "one of the best private schools" in London on the way there. (Penguin 43)

Let 2) Lady Susan Vernon, Langford, Oxford/Essex, to Mrs Alicia Johnson, London

Right around Christmas or (let us say) Dec 23rd, Sun
Mrs Vernon says she will not be able to make it back to Sussex. Evening before Lady Susan left town, she and Mrs Johson met; she received Mrs Johnson's note the morning she left (Penguin 48
Dec 24th, Mon:
Lady Susan arrives

Let 3) Mrs Catherine Vernon, Churchill, Sussex, to Lady [Catherine] De Courcy, Parklands, Kent

Let 4) Reginald De Courcy, Parklands, to Mrs Vernon, Churchill

Around Christmas
Let 5) Lady Susan, Churchill, to Mrs Johnson, London: in response to a letter 5a) she has had from Mrs Johnson written after she left town; she describes a further letter 5b) from Manwaring, dismal, complaining, lamenting the cruelty of his wife; she passes off as letter from his wife and will write to him under cover to Mrs Johnson

Let 6) Mrs Catherine Vernon, Churchill, to Reginald De Courcy, Parklands a regular correspondence between Lady Susan and Mrs Manwaring is what she thinks she is observing, actually a regular correspondence between Manwaring and Lady Susan.

"One week" has now passed since Lady Susan came to Churchill; they are now into the second; let's say Dec 30th:
Let 7) Lady Susan, Churchill, to Mrs Johnson, Edward St she hopes to marry Frederica to Sir James "within a twelvemonth;" Reginald De Courcy has come; before, "the first week, it was most insufferably dull"

"A fortnight" more has passed in which Lady Susan has charmed Reginald, let's say Wed Jan 7th
Let 8) Mrs Vernon, Churchill, to Lady De Courcy, Parklands: "a fortnight has passed"
Let's say the following written during week of Jan 13th:
Let 9) Mrs Johnson, Edward St, to Lady Susan, Churchill For "a few days last week" Sir James Martin came to London, "called several times in Edward St"

Let 10) Lady Susan, Churchill, to Mrs Johnson, Edward St

The following written say during week of Jan 20th:
Let 11) Mrs Vernon, Churchill, to Lady De Courcy, Parklands: telling of Reginald's infatuation

Let 12) Sir Reginald De Courcy, Parklands, to his son, Churchill: he has read his daughter, Mrs Vernon's letter to her mother, his wife, Lady De Courcy; written by "the same post" as Mrs Vernon's

Let 13) Lady De Courcy, Parklands, to Mrs Vernon, Churchill. That she was confined to her room and a cold affected her eyes so husband read Mrs Vernon's letter; speaks of "these long winter evenings," enclosing Reginald's reply "which came this morning"

Let 14) Reginald De Courcy, Churchill, to Sir Reginald, Parklands. He writes upon receipt of Letter 12; so this one dated after Letter 12

The following would then be written the week of Jan 27th
Let 15) Mrs Vernon, Churchill, to Lady De Courcy, Parklands, upon reading Reginald's infatuated letter; on "this morning" Lady Susan receives letter 15a) from head of school requesting Frederica be removed as she attempted to run away

Let 16) Lady Susan, Churchill, to Mrs Johnson, Edward St That Charles gone; Frederica attempted flight upon receipt of her mother's letter 16a) requiring her to marry Sir James; when "weather tolerable," she and Reginald now "pacing the shrubbery for hours together"

"Thursday evening", Jan 31st?
Mr Vernon returns with Frederica

Let 17) "A few days later:" Mrs Vernon, Churchill, to Mrs De Courcy, Parklands Charles returned "Thursday night" with Frederica; first lines came that day from Charles to Lady Susan 17a) headmistress will not keep Frederica; "the whole evening" watching Lady Susan exult, act cold to Frederica, and silly Reginald distressed for Lady Susan; a thirty mile journey from London to Churchill; small pianoforte removed into Lady Susan's dressing room for Frederica "in these few days" No noise from that room, but Mrs Vernon does not think Frederica reads: "it is not every girl who has been running wild the first fifteen years of her life, that can or will read"

Let 18) From the same to the same, Mrs Vernon, Churchill, to Lady De Courcy, Parklands. She is responding to a letter from Lady De Courcy 18a) to herself saying that description of Frederica interested her; Mrs Vernon now says Frederica is falling in love with Reginald; fond of books, spends chief of her time reading, little cousins fond of her

"Last Thursday fortnight", 2 weeks later, so Feb 14th:
Let 19) Thursday: Lady Susan, Churchill, to Mrs Johnson, Edward St. "Last Thursday fortnight" Frederica arrived; Frederica's behavior was in response to Lady Susan's letter (16a); she had got the length of 2 streets (!), she exults in how girl cannot escape her authority;

"A few days before" Sir James arrived in Churchill, he visited Mrs Johnson in Edward St (Penguin 71)

"Tuesday", the following week, so Feb 18th:
Sir James's arrival

During this week (see Let 26, Penguin 87 below) Manwaring also visited Mrs Johnson more than once.

Wednesday, early morning & whole day, Feb 19th:
Let 20) Mrs Vernon, Churchill, to Lady De Courcy, Parklands: describes the coming of Sir James yesterday, the terror of Frederica, the machinations of Lady Susan, his self- invitation to remain a few days

Let 21) Wednesday "before it was light" Frederica to Reginald Desperate plea for help

Let 22) Wednesday before breakfast Lady Susan, Churchill, to Mrs Johnson, Edward St "Who should come on Tuesday but Sir James Martin?" She managed things until "this morning" when Reginald come to her dressing room filled with new insights he has had from Frederica's letter

Let 23) Mrs Vernon, Churchill, to Lady De Courcy, Parklands Later that same Wednesday Reginald calls sister out of the room to tell her he's going, sending James with hunters on ahead; going through London to arrive Parklands "Wednesday or Thursday" Lady Susan comes out for confirmation, and says he told her "nothing of it at breakfast" and she suggests he may change his mind

Let 24) Two hours later that same day (Wednesday, Feb 27th still) Mrs Vernon, Churchill, to Lady De Courcy, Parklands Story of meeting Frederica crying on the stairs, her dawn letter, after breakfast conference with Reginald, but two broken in upon by latest talk in Lady Susan's dressing room which has swayed him back to Lady Susan again, the conference with Lady Susan, the departure of Sir James. She is glad her last letter (23) "will precede this by so little" (2 hours)

"Ten weeks penance" so in 1805 written the week of Mar 3rd:
Let 25) Lady Susan, Churchill, to Mrs Johnson, Edward St She speaks of "humiliations" she has "stooped with in these few days;" of her stay at Churchill as a "ten weeks' penance." She wants Mrs Johnson to seek lodgings for her "within a short distance of you."

Let 26) Mrs Johnson, Edward St, to Lady Susan, Churchill Lady Susan should come to town "without loss of time" and without Frederica; it is to her interest to marry De Courcy and against her interest to force Frederica to marry Sir James. Manwaring "came to town last week" and came to "see" her. Jealous; she must see him when she comes to London or he may go to Churchill. She can get Lady Susan "a very nice drawing-room apartment in Upper Seymour Street." A second time in the novel a day is made a point of and it's Tuesday: "I have still another motive for your coming. Mr Johnson leaves London next Tuesday. He is going for his health to Bath ..." (Let 26, Penguin 87).

Let 27) Mrs Vernon, Churchill, to Lady De Courcy, Parklands Reginald's "long visit" about to end; the Vernons have ability now to pressure Lady Susan at least for the moment into not taking Frederica to London with her.

Let 28) Mrs Johnson, Edward St, to Lady Susan, still at Churchill. Mr Johnson has had an attack of gout which prevents him from going to Bath; same thing happened when she wanted to go to Lakes with Hamiltons and 3 years ago when she had a fancy to go to Bath nothing could induce him to go; Mrs Johnson has received another letter from Lady Susan 28a) which we do not see, but which Mrs Johnson thinks has influenced Lady Susan in the direction of marrying De Courcy

The following written the end of week of Mar 3rd, say Fri, Mar 8th:
Let 29) Lady Susan, Upper Seymour St, to Mrs Johnson, Edward St. She "arrived last night about five;" Manwaring came & she was so enchanted for "an hour or two" she almost "staggered in her resolution" of marrying Reginald. She is scarcely "ten months a widow" (Penguin 90) so we have to be into March
Sat, Mar 9th:
Let 30) Lady Susan has received a letter 30a) from Reginald telling her he's eager to come to her; so she writes to him while he's at Parklands, Kent; she wants to delay beyond the time originally fixed; they are secretly engaged; she wants him to stay away "for some months" (!) and says Manwarings are in town with her

According to final letter, the "eclairissement" occurred on a Monday so we have the following happening on

Mon, Mar 11th:
Let 31) Lady Susan, Upper Seymour St, to Mrs Johnson, Edward St. Reginald hastened to town as a result of her letter and is bringing this to Mrs Johnson. Much later we are told this was on a "Monday" (Let 41, Penguin 100), so let's say Mar 11th. She wants him to spend the evenings at the Johnsons so as to be free to be with Manwaring within "half an hour." She asks Mrs Johnson to help convince him to return to the country

Let 32) Mrs Johnson, Edward St, to Lady Susan, Upper Seymour, on the same day much later (again Mon, Mar 11th). While she as out at the same time Reginald arrived with the note Mrs Manwaring had forced her entrance into the house and into Mr Johnson, her guardian's presence while Reginald in drawing-room; she arrived yesterday in pursuit of Mr Manwaring. She "had wormed out of Manwaring's servant that he had visited you every day since your being in town, and had just watched him to your door herself!" As she writes she finds all three are "closeted" together.

Let 33) Lady Susan, Upper Seymour, to Mrs Johnson, Edward. Asserts she is undismayed and will have set all to rights after "tomorrow's dinner" (Tues, Mar 12th)

"A Tuesday" so Mar 12th:
Mr Johnson had been planning to go to Bath for his health (Penguin 87, Letter 26). Mrs Johnson had "wish[ed] he may be laid up many weeks." He did not go. We can see that this is doubling the woe and irony for "bad Tuesday" in Austen. Had Mr Johnson gone to Bath, Mrs Manwaring could not have exposed Lady Susan to Reginald de Courcy. It's an important counterfactual.
Tuesday, March 12th:
Let 34) Mr De Courcy, Hotel, to Lady Susan, Upper Seymour. "Since we parted yesterday," he has been told truths he cannot deny; declares an "eternal separation;"

Let 35) Lady Susan, Upper Seymour, to Mr De Courcy, Hotel. She writes upon receipt of the above; she points out this switch in feeling has taken "but an hour;"

Let 36) Mr De Courcy, Hotel, to Lady Susan, Upper Seymour. Points out her continuing correspondence with Manwaring and Manwaring's daily visits to her house

Let 37) Lady Susan, Upper Seymour, to Mr De Courcy, Hotel. Accusing him; engagement formed "a fortnight ago" (Penguin 97, Feb 26th)

Wednesday, March 13th:
Let 38) Mrs Johnson, Edward St, to Lady Susan, Upper Seymour. We are told in final letter (Penguin 99, Let 41) that "Wednesday" was day Reginald returned to Parklands. She will soon be unable to correspond, Mrs Manwaring come to live at Edward Street, and today joined by Maria, the niece; Mrs Johnson now advises Lady Susan to nail Sir James

Let 39) Lady Susan, Upper Seymour, to Mrs Johnson, Edward. She yields to inevitable but momentary loss of correspondence; She says she will tomorrow fetch Frederica from Churchill, bring her back, and make her marry Sir James; in fact she left for Churchills that day.

Let 40) Lady De Courcy, Parklands, to Mrs Vernon, Churchill. Written "an hour" after Reginald arrived, to say he and Lady Susan were parted forever. She has missed her daughter's visit "many long weeks."

Thurs-Fri, Mar 14th-15th:
Let 41) Mrs Vernon, Churchill, to Lady De Courcy, Parklands. Nervous rejoicing, lest Lady Susan show her "power" again. She says that on "Wednesday" the day Reginald came to Parklands, Lady Susan showed at Churchill, cheerful, good-humor, stays "two hours," Reginald had been kind enough to call on her in town on "Monday," takes Frederica away as she will fix herself in town for "several months." Mrs Vernon and her children will come to Parklands next "Thursday," Mar 21st. She and Frederica will write and she has promised herself to visit the girl.

  • Mrs Vernon makes "an early visit" to London, perhaps May; Sir James not being pressed on Frederica, upon hint London doesn't perfectly agree with Frederica, Mrs Vernon directly proposes taking Frederica back to the country, and "in a few days" using presence of influenza as an excuse Frederica sent back to Vernons for "visit of six weeks" (Penguin 101-2)
  • "Three weeks later"--say June--Lady Susan announces her marriage to Sir James (Penguin 102); writes one or two affectionate letters talking of Frederica's return, but agrees to prolongation of stay
  • In course of "two months" ceases to write of Frederica's absence (July)
  • "Two more months" she ceases to write at all (September).
  • It took a "twelvemonth" for Reginald to fall in love with Frederica; "three months" might have done it for others, but Reginald had strong feelings
  • From March 1805-March 1807 Miss Manwaring impoverished because of cost of clothes she had bought in efforts to "secure him;" "defrauded by a woman ten years older than herself." Maria then 25.
  • Regular correspondences we don't see: Manwaring and Lady Susan (more description of Manwaring's side in Let 16:
  • "I prefer the tender and liberal spirit of Manwaring... Poor fellow! he is quite distracted by jealousy... He has been teasing me to allow of his coming into this country, and lodging somewhere near me incog. -- but I forbid anything of the kind."
  • Then Mrs Vernon and Frederica: "style of Frederica's letters" shows they are "written under her mother's inspection"


Since there is no scholarship on the internal calendar and what there is of exegesis of the novel is highly tendentious or not demonstrable, I thought I would conclude this presentation of the calendar with a couple of postings I sent to Austen-l about the pivotal use of Tuesday, the autobiographical sources of the novel, and what can be learnt by comparing it to Les Liasons Dangereuses:

The Important Tuesday in Lady Susan

The reader who has made it through the calendar may like to see the evidence for the pivotal Tuesday brought altogether: Tuesday is the day of Lady Susan's major crisis in the novel: "Who should come on Tuesday but SIr James Martin" (Penguin ed, Letter 22, p. 74). The day that Sir James arrives reveals to the Vernons and Sir Reginald de Courcy for the first time why Frederica fled school. They can see she means to marry her daughter to an amoral dolt.

It is just at this point that suddenly several days are named and accounted for. Now we are told by Mrs Vernon that Sir James "arrived yesterday" (Letter 20, p. 70). So now we now that the very early morning on the next day when Frederica wrote her note was a "Wednesday:" "I got up before it was light -- I was two hours about it" (Letter 24, p. 79). Later that morning Reginald confronts Lady Susan and drives her into making Sir James leave Here is an exactly parallel scene to that of Marianne in S&S behind Frederica's letter to Reginald: Marianne and Frederica write letters to the men they love on Wednesday mornings at dawn while half-hysterical.

The truncated ending is, I suggest, the result of Austen's family calling a halt to this amoral unpleasant fiction. She had not intended to end it because there is in play another Tuesday, one which occurs between the day Sir James arrived at the Vernon home and the day Reginald came to London (see directly below). This Tuesday was the day Mr Johnson intended to leave London for Bath for this health (Letter 26, p. 87). As in Persuasion, Austen dropped this hook so as to work it out later: there would've been ugly times in Bath. In the event, Mr Johnson stayed.

The final crashing break between Reginald and Lady Susan occurs on a Tuesday. We are told that Reginald hastened to town on a "Monday" (Letter 42, p. 100) after Lady Susan upon being told by her to stay away for "some months" (Letter 30, p. 92). We are told several times in different ways that on the very same day Reginald arrived and while Mrs Johnson was out, Mrs Manwaring forced her way into Mr Johnson's drawing-room and was closeted alone with him and Reginald. On the next day, Tuesday, Reginald writes his note to Lady Susan telling her he now knows the truth (Letter 34, p. 95, beginning "I write only to bid you farewell"), to which she replies on the same day (Letter 35, p. 95, beginning "I will not attempt to describe my astonishment on reding the note, this moment received from you ..." ). If you work out the calendar, you discover the Tuesday that Mr Johnson had intended to go to Bath is this very day: so it's a bad Tuesday twice-over.

This second Tuesday confirmed over and over. We are told by Mrs Vernon that Reginald came to Parklands on "Wednesday;" Lady Susan actually arrived on the same days, and stayed for "two hours" but was only able to take Frederica away with her (Letter 41, p. 99).

What follows is a series of postings I wrote to Austen-l long ago. At the time I was convinced the novel was influenced by Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse. I still think so; the different today is that I think Austen's novels belong to a tradition of French and English novels and have all been influenced heavily by French novels either in translation or in the original language.

December 7, 1996
Lady Susan: In the Background

I'd like to agree with Dorothy Willis that it is probable the "sources" for Austen's portrait of a vicious woman were drawn from life as well as books. This is after true of most artists and most characters in novels; characters are an amalgam of the author's imagination and memory, of invention and imitation working upon experience. What seems most interesting to me is that on first blush the story of Lady Susan is not very like that of Mrs Craven; yet the spirit of Mrs Craven as remembered is very like; contrariwise, the story of Madame de Merteuil on first blush is very like that of Lady Susan while the spirit of the two characters seems animated on different principles.

I hope I am not repeating Dorothy's posting (which by mistake I deleted) but seem to remember she omitted who first told the story that Mrs Craven was "the inspiration for Jane Austen's Lady Susan Vernon." My source for this is George Holbert Tucker's Jane Austen The Woman. He says the primary source for this idea was Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh, a great niece of Austen's (daughter to James-Edward, he of the 1870 Memoir). Further, Tucker is also careful to tell us that Mary Augusta "got" her account of Mrs Craven from her aunt, Caroline Austen's Reminiscences and Caroline Austen made no mention of the supposed connection between the fictional Lady Susan and Mrs Craven as remembered by Caroline and Mary Augusta. I'd like to add that reading the account myself Mrs Craven seems a bit too much of a real life witch, not that there aren't people who are sadistic and mean (Tucker's words). So as with trying to investigate and solidify an argument that Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a "source" for Lady Susan we run up against problems when we investigate and try to nail down as iron-clad an argument that Austen had the Lloyds' grandmother in mind when she wrote Lady Susan.

Dorothy told us how Mrs Craven made her daughters act as servants for her; how they were "sometimes not allowed proper food, but were required to eat what was loathsome to them, and were often relieved from hunger by the maids privately bringing them bread and cheese after they were in bed." The daughters fled to marriage with men beneath them in class and with little money. This is not the plot of Lady Susan, is it? It's only when we think about it afterwards that we say, ah, here is a woman who is vicious to her daughters, and here is Lady Susan who is vicious to Frederica.

I already went over the problems in trying to show that Austen read Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The plots though have some striking similarities. I would suggest that it's not just a question of a coquet in one novel resembling a coquet in another. Both Austen and LaClos are determined to show us corrupt older women who carry on love affairs with younger men (of course LaClos is far more daring and his Madame actually had an affair with Valmont before the novel opened; Austen only suggests an affair is in the offing, or a marriage, if Lady Susan can pull it off); both show women determined to sell young girls to men; both find that the younger lovers they meant to make use of fall in love with a young girl they had meant to sell (again LaClos's story is much more daring, for corruption here includes deflowering one girl related to Madame and living with her, and seducing another married woman upon whom Madame wants to take revenge). The triangles are alike. It is really not a forced comparison at all.

On the other hand the spirit behind the two books is utterly different. It is fair to call LaClos's book nihilistic; LaClos believes in the utter amorality of all people; we can be divided into predators and preyed-upon. Some of us (MMe. La Presidente, the married one Valmont corrupts and who falls in love with Valmont and he with her) may believe in morality, but that's because we are fools, blinded, and therefore all the more vulnerable. I would say it's not so much the sex--after all we could say Austen is as daring as she dared to be given her sex, who she was dependent upon, her class, and so on. It's the moral that's different. It may seem in these opening 10 letters that Lady Susan is not heavily condemned nor punished, but she will be. I have always taken the small-pox visited upon Madame de Merteuil at the end of Les Liaisons Dangereuses as a kind of joke, a final sardonic fillip on the part of the author to his sadistic character (he gets his kick too), and a sop to the audience.

I'd like to remind those who are still reading of the article by Roger Shattuck in The New York Review of Books in which he argued for a French erotic tradition in which the female character learned to renounce sexual enthrallment. I think that Austen's Sense and Sensibility was written "in" that tradition. Well I have come to believe with Chapman and others that S&S was originally written as an early work called Elinor and Marianne, probably epistolary, and then rewritten as S&S in 1797 in probably epistolary form still; it was during the interval between these two writings that she wrote Lady Susan at least so says Southam and Chapman agrees perhaps. So I submit that Lady Susan belongs to the same tradition. It began in English with Clarissa which then influenced the French (Rousseau's La Nouvelle Heloise & Les Liaisons Dangereuses among others) which then influenced the English. Austen turned her E&M and S&S into the finished omniscient narrative we know today; she backed away from the harder tale, Lady Susan which is part of the same tradition. It also takes into its "maw" Austen's own life experiences and perhaps accounts she heard from Martha and Mary Lloyd of the shameful bully (Tucker's words again), Mrs Craven.

December 9, 1996
Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Lady Susan

In response to the speculation about the relationship between LaClos's famous epistolary novel and Austen's Lady Susan, I'd like to say that one, there is no documentary evidence Austen ever read La Clos. But then there wouldn't be, would there? This is a book which even today is startling in its sardonic celebration of power and amoral sexuality. The first letter of Madame de Merteuil (the second in the volume), to her ex-lover Valmont, opens thus:
"Revenez, mon cher vicomte, revenez... j'ai besoin de vous."
She has a project for him; she wants him to corrupt a young girl in her charge (deflower her to be exact) so she can use this girl as she pleases, sell her to the highest bidder. Valmont is a younger man than she as De Courcy is younger than Lady Susan.

Jane Austen had the French to read this one; in her letters she quotes other French books; Madame de Sevigne was a favorite of the period. It was also in its own time recognized as a knock-off from Clarissa. (One of the more interesting things about the BBC movie of Clarissa is that the director has the actor who played Lovelace play it as if he were a ruthless Valmont; the film is as much influenced by the movie made of LaClos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses with Malkowich as it is of any critical reading of Clarissa.) Was it available in English? I don't know [obviously I hadn't come across the 1784 translation printed by Hookham when I wrote this]. I know books in French were almost as a rule translated into English very quickly; French literature was enormously popular and influential in England throughout the 18th century (and vice versa -- Prevost of course "did" Clarissa & Grandison into French; it's worth saying that Austen's first three novels were translated into French very quickly). La Nouvelle Heloise sold as The New Eloisa everywhere, and was wildly popular. However I have a list of French sentimental fiction which lists hundreds of translations by one Josephine Grieder; it is not listed there. Many many epistolary novels in French were translated.

But it needn't have been translated; it was published in 1782 so it's possible Austen knew it, and as younger girl she had her rebellions and avid curiosities too; she clearly knew Gothic fictions which are very sexy (e.g., The Recess). LaClos was in London in 1789. But another factor is LaClos was connected to the revolution, an Orleanist, and later became a Napoleonic General. It wouldn't do to be seen reading his books during the Napoleonic wars. That he was infamous and well-known is suggested by his tomb in 1815 being destroyed on the return of the Bourbons. They went for it as a something they needed to root out. (He died 1803.)

Maybe it was just too daring ever to mention or even read in front of others or even be caught reading by someone like Austen. We don't know that she read Mary Wollstonecraft for the same kinds of reasons. We should here remember it was Henry Austen boasted about Austen's knowledge of Sir Charles Grandison; the only way we know for sure that Austen read Clarissa is she gives a salacious dolt in Sanditon a passage in praise of Clarissa's amorality.

Still while some of the above suggests one can't rule out Austen read it and that if she did we wouldn't be told about it, it also suggests it is possible or perhaps even probable that the striking analogy between the character of Lady Susan, a woman with all the makings of a dominatrix and the character of Madame de Merteuil is coincidental; but if it is, it still tells us about how unusual this conception of Austen's is for her. Henry James used it for his Madame Merle in The Portrait of a Lady.

Maybe Austen's genius just hit upon the same configuration. She went for the jugular in embodying the female predator insofar as a young girl could--for she was young when she wrote this.

I would see the analogies with Wilkie Collins as further individual imitations of a type that emerged out of the school of Clarissa (if I may be permitted the phrase). What I liked about the Becky Sharp analogy was Becky is gay (in the original sense of the word), light, witty, and while Lady Susan's behavior is certainly anything but funny or light when it comes to her daughter, the vein Austen has hit upon is not redolent of dark sensuality in the manner of LaClos but more a matter of a moral inversion out of an austere morality much like Thackeray's, though Thackeray is more forgiving of his Becky than I think Austen means us to be of her Lady Susan.

December 11, 1996
Les Liaisons Dangereuses

In response to Elizabeth James I'd like to say I am fascinated by the parallels she sees between MP and Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Someone on this list showed me a paper where she compared Fanny Price to Clarissa Harlowe and I have always been struck by some parallels between the ways Henry Crawford seeks to win Fanny's heart the the ways Lovelace seeks to win Clarissa's. Lovelace is also generous to his tenants and a decent estate manager.

My view would be that both Les Liaisons Dangereuses and MP are "children" of Clarissa. Richardson's novel was and in a way still is phenomenally influential. Rochester is a chip off Lovelace with a good deal of Byron thrown in for good measure. Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca belongs to the family. Anita Brookner's novels are recent progeny and ASByatt's Possession is the old letter novel reborn once again. A packet of letters is at its center. Natch. But of course the direct children of Clarissa are much closer to one another than their 20th century rebirths. So I would say to Elizabeth there are all sorts of novels in the eighteenth century which have similar kinds of characters and situations to that we find in Clarissa, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and MP. Lady Susan is one. Another is the Marianne story in S&S. For a start in finding other titles and an enjoyable book to read I'd recommend JMS Tompkins's Popular Novel in England, 1770-1800.

One curious parallel I saw in the character of Manwaring who is described as a "tender and liberal spirit... impressed with the deepest conviction of [Lady Susan's] merit, is satsified that whatever [she does] must be right; & looks with a degree of contempt on the inquisitive & doubting Fancies of that Heart which seems always debating on the reasonableness of it's Emotions." Is not this a version of both Marianne and her mother? They both accuse Elinor of being suspicious, wary, not candid; the mother ironically says to Elinor that if she saw Willoughby at an altar she might suppose Willoughby was about to be married (or words to this effect). Well its "source" is Rousseau and La Nouvelle Heloise. The sentimental hero is Saint-Preux; he is just this kind of deeply trusting person who follows his heart. So. Manwaring is not a Valmont or Lovelace; he's a son of Rousseau, brother in this to Marianne Dashwood.

The room at 8, College Street, Winchester, in which Austen died: "We have a neat little Drawing room, with a Bow-window, overlooking Dr. Gabell's garden."

[photo pre-1964]

Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Updated: 3 January 2003.