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Lady Susan and the cunning heroines of society

That is the ultimate nightmare: a woman who ‘does not know her place’ and, therefore, defies expectations

By Farwa Naqvi |
PUBLISHED March 14, 2021

Everyone loves to read female characters who manage to be outspoken in adversarial circumstances and fight to snatch their rights. Those who are isolated but refuse to remain voiceless give hope to us all. But what of the women who are not in a position to do that? Those who have no choice but to use tools such as manipulation to get what they want? Such characters are usually frowned at but what people often don’t realise is that while it is brave to raise one’s voice against injustice, for many women who are trying to make ends meet, it is not a realistic possibility.

Lady Susan is one of those rare characters who have nothing to gain by speaking out. So she twists difficult situations in her favour by using her power subtly. The central character of an obscure novel by Jane Austen by the same name, Lady Susan Vernon is a widow in her thirties who has no wealth left and has no way of ensuring a comfortable life for herself and her daughter except by enchanting the men who can give it to her. Described by their peers as scheming and clever, she is despised by most of her peers.

Fully aware of the gossip she inspires, Lady Susan, instead of despairing, takes it upon herself to prove her haters wrong by disarming them with her charm and then uses the change of opinion to her advantage.

"There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predetermined to dislike acknowledge one's superiority," she tells her friend and partner in crime Mrs Johnson in a letter. Lady Susan makes that remark after noting that her sister-in-law’s brother already had a negative opinion of the widow before they even met.

She is also not averse to seeking pleasure and is unapologetic about being in a relationship with a married man and the chaos that it leads to. She would rather wreak havoc on a family than be cowed into hiding what she wants.

Austen’s wit and sarcasm shines in the epistolary novel, which shatters the author’s reputation as one only capable of writing stories about love and marriage. Despite being written in the late 18th century - though it was published much later - the story is ahead of its time. At a time when women had little control or agency, Lady Susan stands out as one who is incredibly self-aware and knows how to get what she needs and wants. She is not ignorant of society's contempt towards women who come across as intimidating and goes to great lengths to appear as non-threatening and innocent as she can.

Even in the contemporary world, independent, outspoken women make society uncomfortable and insecure and the latter often goes to great lengths to silence such females by casting them in a negative light and launching personal attacks. The recent interview of Duke and Duchess of Sussex Harry and Meghan comes to mind, where the latter has been viciously attacked by the British tabloid media for speaking out about mental health problems that she suffered from when part of the royal family as well as highlighting the racism that exists in the Institution.

Closer to home, we have women like actor Mehwish Hayat who was trolled and defamed when she was nominated for Sitara-i-Imtiaz. Many commenters on social media accused her of handing out sexual favours to earn the coveted award, criticised her for her appearance and dressing for no apparent reason. Many other women suffer similar attacks for simply being vocal and good at what they are doing. Acknowledging a woman’s success and the hard work that led to it is extremely hard for the society we live in.

Our society, in short, is threatened by women who come across as independent, outspoken and successful. That is the ultimate nightmare - a woman who does not know her place in society and, therefore, does not act according to people’s expectations. In such circumstances, a woman who wishes to survive is left with two choices: either she toes the line and struggles, or she uses society’s expectations against it and prospers.

Lady Susan understands the importance of keeping up appearances and acting in an agreeable manner so as to not offend the society. So she is friendly and warm to everyone she meets, no matter what opinion she might have of them, appears non-threatening and vulnerable so feathers are not ruffled. At the same time, she is aware that maintaining propriety for the sake of society’s approval will not take her far. If she must behave in accordance with the society’s wishes, she must also take something in return.

Appearance versus reality is a constant theme in the story as Lady Susan weaponsises herself with the manners which are expected from her and forces others to drop their guards, enabling her to take advantage of them.

“Grace and manner, after all, are of the greatest importance,” she notes in one of her letters, while discussing the futility of studying arts, sciences and languages. For her, the only way to get her way is to understand the wishes and hopes of the other person and use that knowledge to manipulate them. A society that turned its back on her after her husband’s death, leaving her with little resources to lead a respectable life and bring up her daughter, deserves to be exploited by her. Who else can she possibly rely on apart from herself in a world that has spurned her?

Lady Susan’s tactics also shed light on a callous society that is happy to revel in gossip about the “most accomplished coquette” but refuses to acknowledge her unfavourable circumstances which force her to move from place to place in search of shelter and comfort. She has no friend but one Mrs Johnson, an American who married an older, richer man who controls the people she interacts with. She is Lady Susan’s only confidant who does not judge her for any of her actions, including her efforts to prevent the marriage of her brother-in-law. The indifference and contempt Lady Susan experiences at the hands of her other acquaintances and family members is very relatable. How many times have we seen society heaping scorn over a woman, who does not have the tools to defend herself, by criticising her character and giving credibility to rumours which have the potential to damage her reputation? We as a society revel in gossip about women, whether it has a foundation or not, but we cannot be bothered with their appeals for help. We love vulnerable, innocent women, but taking responsibility for their situation? That’s too much to ask.

Lady Susan’s schemes may not be morally acceptable but they are a means of survival. She has figured out the rules her society plays by and follows them all impeccably but instead of allowing people to pull her down, she drags them with her head held high.

The only difficulty in Lady Susan’s life, apart from the lack of fortune, is her daughter Frederica, who she refers to as a “simpleton” and the “torment of my life”. A teenager, Frederica is the only person in the story who tries to resist her mother’s attempts to manipulate her life.

Frederica’s character of a scared teenager who manages to find enough courage to stand up for herself is, of course, very enjoyable to read as she is the female we all root for - even though most of us won’t support people like her in real life. For Frederica, the society is her own mother whose expectations she defies constantly. Given how Lady Susan herself refuses to mould herself according to the wishes of the society, it is ironic that she is so repulsed and agitated by her daughter's attempts to resist her mother's influence.

Though Frederica’s situation grows favourable by the time the story comes to an end, it is only because Lady Susan could no longer bother with maternal duties. Deprived of her only friend, the widow has to look at other ways to improve her situation and keeping her daughter close would have disturbed her plan to marry the very man who she earlier thought was suitable for Frederica.

The story also highlights how the institution of marriage can be a trap for women who were deprived of the option to step out and the hypocritical treatment meted out by the society to husband and wife. The young wife of Lady Susan’s lover Mr Mainwaring is said to be devastated by her husband’s betrayal and does not want to live with him anymore. However, even though Mr Mainwaring is not judged for cheating on his wife, she cannot leave or take similar liberties as him. While he can visit Lady Susan any time he wants, Mrs Mainwaring, who does not lack for money, must sit at her guardian’s house and “fret” about her husband.

Many may argue that all Lady Susan was after was men and fortune, and therefore the story’s focus is not much different from Austen’s other novels. The argument, if raised, would be superficial, however, as it would be ignorant of Lady Susan’s ground realities. If she has nothing but men and wealth to run after, whose fault is it? The very society that criticises her.

In my limited reading experience, I’ve come across few characters who are as fully aware and comfortable with their follies as Lady Susan, who admits to have tried to stop her brother-in-law from marrying for the sake of property and insists that her scheming should be left in the forgotten past. Like a true politician, she believes in turning past foes into allies if circumstances call for it. Had the era allowed her, she surely would have had a great career but alas, she had to make the entire society her chessboard because no other opportunities were afforded to her.