Gendered Friendships in Georgian Literature: Rebellious Lady Power in “Lady Susan”
Long has the concept of female friendship confounded researchers, philosophers, scientists, and novelists alike. Friendships among women often confuse, and even intimidate, cultures built on hierarchies of power that center around men’s logical prowess. This cautious uncertainty extends to the writings of Jane Austen, whose often female protagonists also wrestle with the looming confusion of female friendships. In novels such as Emma and Wuthering Heights, Austen’s young heroines often end up trading in female relationships for the ultimate friendship of the Gregorian period—marriage. To understand the early English literary trend of women abandoning friendly connections in the name of nuptial bliss, one can look to philosophical understandings of reason and sensibility in friendship, as well as cultural implications of gender in both traits. Then, one can examine one of the exceptions to Austen’s pattern in her novel Lady Susan, published posthumously. The novel introduces an odd predicament in the friendship of Lady Susan Vernon and Alicia Johnson, which this paper will identify as a literary device conceivable only through the masculinized behavior of both women. Through these assessments, it becomes clear that Lady Susan is one of Austen’s only novels where she allows for gender in friendships to function in an egalitarian way.
For Gregorian England, ideas of sense and sensibility were understood in heavily gendered ways. Sense, referring to the ability to think logically, clearly, and objectively, was primarily a masculine quality. Sensibility, referring to utilizing emotions, feelings, and intuition, was understood to be inherently feminine. This cultural perception comes as no real surprise to avid Austen readers, considering the interaction many of Austen’s female characters have with their male counterparts. For example, within Austen’s Emma, Emma’s extravagantly impulsive behavior is explained by her hyper-femininized identity as the “princess paramount,” while Mr. Knightly’s composed line of thought is clearly indicative of his masculine identity and position as the older, wiser man in Emma’s life. This situation repeats itself in Austen’s novels, such as with Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, or even to a degree Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey. Reason is characterized by Austen as a masculine pursuit, while emotion belongs to the realm of women. This dichotomy makes relationships involving both sexes common-sense, combining both the head and heart together into an androgynous social unit that balances the halves perfectly. Relationships within Austen’s novels operate under this understanding that relationships work best when weaving concepts of sense and sensibility together, translating in a cultural sense, quite literally, to mean that women and men are the only parts of a functional friendship in Gregorian England.
Friendship has been the topic of philosophical discussion for eons, earning the badge of being “one of the most indispensable requirements of life” by Aristotle within the Nicomachean Ethics, 20 centuries before the complicated web of the Bennet sisterhood was even a twinkle in Austen’s eye. However, the specific topic of female friendship is historically excluded from such philosophical debate. Rather, women and their cohorts are examined “as an example of unequal friendships: friendship between husband and wife is on par with that between father and son, older and younger man, ruler and ruled. The possibility of friendship between two women and of their potential equality is never envisaged” (Jefferson 139). There is an expectation of female friendships to be fundamentally flawed, full of emotion and devoid of sense in a way that leads to no mutual growth or enjoyment. Because sense and sensibility are presented as dead opposite yet in dire need of each other to create harmony, it follows that women and men are similarly opposite but simultaneously the only way to create a truly balanced friendship.
The dichotomy of sense and sensibility regarding gender is acknowledged by multiple feminist scholars, including Mary Wollstonecraft, who approaches its social meaning within A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792. Wollstonecraft assets that philosophers “have labored to prove, with chivalrous generosity, that the sexes ought not to be compared; man was made to reason, woman to feel: and that together, flesh and spirit, they make the most perfect whole, by blending happily reason and sensibility into one character” (Todd 30). It follows, then, that a relationship between two women would be lacking in reason, and too flush with feelings to function well. Fictional friendships between women would find themselves lacking in sense, and far too fraught with sensibilities. Often, Austen presents female friendships in her novels at the formative period of her young heroine’s life, and the friendship ultimately dissolves to pave way for the stronger, editorially deeper relationship of marriage. This is easily observed in the friendship of Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe of Northanger Abbey. Even when Isabella is replaced by the leagues more rational Eleanor Tilney, the friendship Catherine enjoys with her during their few independent days at Northanger Abbey is dominated by the plot arc of her marriage to Henry. The enjoyment of their friendship doesn’t seem to be enough for Catherine and Eleanor’s development as characters, and although their marriages do not destroy their relationship completely, there is a definite overshadowing of their friendship by heterosexual romantic relationships. There seems to be a quiet implication by Austen that young women’s friendships exist only as a distraction, incapable of the same kind of positive impact that a hetero friendship is capable of. This message comes directly from cultural standards dictating what men and women bring to social relationships.
Although many of Austen’s novels follow this pattern, Lady Susan forges a new and uncommon path for female friendships in Austen’s writing. To fully analyze the cultural implications of Lady Susan Vernon and Mrs. Johnson’s rebellious friendship, one must first analyze how strongly Austen emphasized their close relationship. Then, one can begin to relate their friendship to how both characters are presented as rogue to gender norms, which allows their friendship to flourish.
The epistolary format of Lady Susan allows its reader to see tangible proof of Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson’s close relationship. One of Austen’s most endearing qualities of being able to exemplify lasting human nature shines in her presentation of Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson as gossipy best friends, a trope recognized decades later. Sharing each morsel of titillating the drama that is Lady Susan’s lifestyle with each other, the two women’s relationship can fully shine via their personal letters. One example of which is through Lady Susan’s request of Mrs. Johnson to detain Sir Reginald at her home on Edward Street and convince him to quit his visit to Bath, which Lady Susan frames in shadowy terms, speaking of “Propriety and so forth” (Austen 239). This vague phrasing inferences some unspoken acknowledgment for both women, left unexplained to the reader. Such intricacies of the women’s correspondence point not only to a similarity of mind, but also previous communication about similar things and a comfort with inferencing conversations beneath the letter’s surface level. It’s also worth noting that it seems that Mrs. Johnson is aware of the true parameters of Lady Susan and Mr. Manwaring’s relationship, based on how quickly Lady Susan mentions him in letters without much exposition.
The formatting of their letters also hints to their close friendship. As opposed to Lady Susan’s rather verbose letters to other characters, such as Sir Reginald, her letters to Mrs. Johnson are rather short and direct. Lady Susan uses full, fluid sentences in her addresses to other people, almost in a sly effort to influence their reception of her news. With Mrs. Johnson, though, Lady Susan is much jumpier in punctuation and word choice. This difference feels almost reminiscent of modern differences between a text sent to a parent, and a text sent to a best friend. Points are made quicker, there’s far less exposition and filler statements, and Lady Susan seems far more conversational than manipulative. It seems that Austen is trying to make a statement on the two women’s comfort with each other, a quality not typically seen in Austen heroine’s friendships.
The tendency of modern readers to identify Mrs. Johnson and Lady Susan’s friendship as suspect, or manufactured by Austen only to highlight the manipulative abilities of Lady Susan, is symptomatic of a cultural mistrust of female friendships. As observed by Ann Jefferson within Female Friendship as a Literary Fact, “Friendship between women tends more generally to be regarded with suspicion, and that suspicion usually focuses on sex. Either women are assumed to scheme together to arrange illicit sex with a man, or…women may actually be having sex with each other” (140). Because patriarchal culture has popularized an understanding of friendships as strategic, and often “pleasantly useful,” Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson’s genuine friendship feels doubtful to readers (Thomason 228). Despite their constant communication, deep understanding of each other’s motivations, and their kindness to each other that acts against their personalities, there is an inherent want to distrust their friendship.
In part, this is a side-effect of Austen’s literary patterns. There exists no other Austen novel where two women operate in such a synchronized way to further each other desires while prioritizing themselves. Even Elizabeth Bennet manages to avoid directly scheming Mr. Bingley back into her sister’s arms after their separation, despite the girl’s mutual want for the other’s nuptial happiness in Pride and Prejudice. Austen has not conditioned her readers to expect two women to coordinate themselves with each other. Austen has especially avoided women allying themselves in ways not centered around an innocent hope of trapping a young man for guiltless flirting. Backed by this unassuming literary pattern, the more conspiratorial behavior of Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson arouses suspicion. The fact that suspicion of female friendships often centers around sex reinforces the fact that fear of such relationships is grounded in gender expectations. Because such a relationship challenges gender norms, friendships between women provoke fears that women will either hatch a plan to trick men and undermine their power, or will eliminate the sexual need for men that reinforces patriarchal control over women.
Just as Austen has avoided creating a situation where women operate in a genuinely friendly way, so has a patriarchal culture which views the friendships of women as fraught with an excess of sensibility, leading to self-indulgence and loss of judgement. The subconscious reasoning behind this distrust is that women shouldn’t be allowed to operate without some decent sense—or, more literally, without some decent men. The only reason for female friendship in Gregorian England, as demonstrated in Austen novels and backed by cultural understandings of gender, is as a placeholder for a superior friendship with a man. Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson challenge this, holding their friendship in high importance while simultaneously married (assuming their correspondence began before Lord Vernon’s death, which seems to be the implication.) Austen is able to establish and explain this friendship by painting both characters as masculine.
By gendering both women as masculine, Austen justifies the friendship between Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson. Austen avoids the cultural expectancy of such a friendship to lack rational capabilities by not viewing both as women, and therefore sensible, but instead as both men, and thus logical. This gendering is a key aspect when considering the two women’s sudden split from each other at the end of the novel. Obviously, both Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson are akin to each other’s wants. Lady Susan is aware of Mrs. Johnson’s want for attention amidst her unfulfilling marriage, allowing her to flirt with Mr. Reginald, while Mrs. Johnson is available for Lady Susan’s schemes and ready to offer political refuge for all the woman’s romantic conquests. This claim of friendship may seem to pale when considering their sudden end of correspondence, but by assessing why we may be skeptical of such a strong female friendship ending so suddenly, it becomes clear that Austen is intending a comment on the function of gender in the friendship. Readers may be more prepared to see such a relationship from male characters, who are expected to be more emotionally detached from one another, and more self-servicing than women. Austen pushes against this notion with the friendship of Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson. Both women show affection to each other, but it is overshadowed by a stereotypically male sense of duty to oneself and self-protection. Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson are women operating within patriarchal confines, and Austen does not push against their feminity besides assigning both of them the role of sense over sensibility in their friendship. It’s curious that the one Austen novel to present women as truly symbiotic remained unpublished during her lifetime, but the depth of that implication remains beyond the scope of this paper.
In conclusion, Lady Susan presents Austen’s most telling account of female friendship in Lady Susan Vernon and Mrs. Johnson. The friendship of both women is culturally unusual, presenting a new side of sense and sensibility that challenges current ideals. It is unclear if Austen meant to champion Gregorian era gal-pals getting what they want from life, or if she was making a less forward-thinking comment on conniving women drawing inspiration from other infamous female assemblies (think covens and other terrifying all-women groups.) Either way, Lady Susan becomes a charming piece of inadvertent girl power literature. One can only wonder what would have happened had Austen allowed Elizabeth and Jane Bennet to see how Lady Susan Vernons’s female power backed conspirations allowed her to get hers.
Jefferson, Ann. “Female Friendship as a Literary Fact.” Romanic Review, vol. 107, nos. 1-4, Jan-Nov 2016, pp. 137-51. MLA International Bibliography.
Thomason, Laura E. “The Dilemma of Friendship in Austen’s Emma.” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, vol. 56, no. 2, 2015. MLA International Bibliography.
Todd, Janet M. “Female Friendships in Jane Austen’s Novels.” The Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries. MLA International Bibliography.
Feminism in Lady Susan
The French philosopher Jacques Rousseau had a great influence upon Romantic writers with his radical yet traditional views on education; where he believed that women’s education was considerably different to that of a man. He famously said; ‘the women’s entire education should be planned in relation to men. To please men, to be useful to them, to win their love and respect, care for them as adults… these are women’s duties in all ages and these are what they should be taught from childhood.’ In actual fact, this essay will question the extent in which Austen challenges social expectations and strays from Rousseau by creating the character of Lady Susan. This is enacted is through strong female connections and a reversal on the typical patriarchal society, and by doing so Austen has written a novel that can arguably be interpreted as a feminist text. Specifically, I will look at letter two, addressed to Mrs Johnson, which provides the reader with a more detailed insight into communication between the female protagonist and her closest friend Alicia. The contact between the two women is significant as the letter comically introduces Lady Susan’s ‘true’ self, as opposed to the way she behaves around other characters in the novel, where her actions are always dictated by an ongoing motive. The epistolary form in itself in an interesting device, as it allows useful insight into the contact of women which usually isn’t available as they generally occur within the private sphere.
Letter two introduces female communications, which dominates the majority of the action, and identifies the close friendship between Lady Susa and Alicia Johnson. The anaphora of the phrase beginning ‘dear’ creates an affectionate term of address, and an intimacy between the pair. Shortly into the letter, Lady Susan reveals her current circumstances; stating ‘at present nothing goes smoothly’. The short syntax length creates a sense of honesty and trusting, a bond is evident between them. Despite the close friendship, Lady Susan does not engage herself in this way with any another female in the novel. In fact; her relationships with other women in the novel seem to be hostile, when referring to her current residency at Langford, she states ‘the females of the household are united against me’, and for this reason she must leave. The hyperbolical phrase produces military imagery, as an army would be united against their enemy, something which could have been influenced by the French Revolutionary Wars which Britain were fighting at Austen’s time of writing. This highlights the power of women, but also may surprise the reader as conventional expectations of power are usually associated with male figures. The ill treatment of Frederica, demonstrated by the superlative ‘greatest simpleton on earth’, shows that even the relationship with her daughter is brittle. The juxtaposition of ‘greatest’ and ‘simpleton’ demotes Frederica and demonstrates Lady Susan’s sense of superiority.
Luce Irigaray is a prominent author in French feminism; and her essay ‘When Our Lips Speak Together’, places emphasis on the importance of women communicating with each other. The distinctly close relationship between Alicia and Lady Susan complies with Irigaray’s ideas; entailing the idea that the communication between women is vital in order to be regarded as non-dependant on men. Irigaray concludes with the empowering sentence: ‘You? I? That’s still saying too much. It cuts too sharply between us: “all”’. The personal pronouns used here and throughout the essay create a sense of solidarity that at the time was perhaps hard to vocalize between women. The interrogatives that follow ‘I’ and ‘You’ portray a sense of detachment that can only be settled by the joining into ‘all’; which suggests that women who are against each other are considerably weaker. Irigaray fails to provide support for Lady Susan as a feminist text. She proposes that the lack of strength between women can have a knocking effect on the existence of female independence; ‘let’s not dictate, moralize or war with each other…if you/I sit in judgment, our existence comes to a stop’. Lady Susan’s inadequate relationships with the majority of females in the novel alongside the poor treatment of Frederica, in terms of Irigaray’s writing; implies that in fact her female networks are not promoting feminism.
Lady Susan herself perhaps realizes the consequences of a lack of well-built relationships between females, as she encourages Frederica to mix with socially adequate people by enrolling her into the care of Miss Summers. Lady Susan remarks’ ‘she will make good connections there, as the girls are all of the best families’. Female connections are essentially the device that creates the action that occurs in the novel, and it is only under close analysis that the power of women in the novel can actually be recognized.
Austen has shaped the character to defy the patriarchy that she is presented with, which presents the text as unconventional as shown in the letter. Typically, women would be expected to obey completely to the male, and Rousseau writes in his novel Emile, ‘if woman is made to please and to be in subjection to man, she ought to make herself pleasing in his eyes and not provoke him to anger; her strength is in her charms’. Although he creates strict guidelines on how females should act, Lady Susan doesn’t completely disobey them. Her remark ‘I have admitted no one’s attentions but Manwaring’s’, implies that she has allowed no other male her attentions, but only made herself attractive and available to Manwaring. The verb ‘admitted’ creates a serious and formal tonality that matches with Rousseau’s instructions; justifying that Lady Susan isn’t fundamentally a feminist text.
Furthermore; the economic struggles faced by Lady Susan can also contribute to the idea that the male dominant society has left her without fortunes, but more so without a house from her dead husband. Upon her destination of Churchill, she calls it an ‘insupportable spot’, which is slightly humorous as the hyperbole suggests the situation is unbearable despite it being her ‘last resort’. Her economic difficulties are highlighted further by the price of Frederica’s education being ‘much beyond what I can ever afford to pay’. This creates empathy which soon vanishes as Lady Susan fails to show concern over her insufficient funds. In contrast; Lady Susan creates the impression that she is not only looking for money, when on her dismissal of Sir James, she announces ‘riches only, will not satisfy me’. As women were limited by social restrictions, marriage would have been the most important event of their lives, whereas this hints that Lady Susan’s marriage expectations stretch beyond money. Perhaps this is why Austen subverts the narrative to present the female as having a voice that they wouldn’t typically own, giving it a feminist perspective.
It can be argued that even before the book has begun, Austen has pushed social boundaries of the 18th and 19th centuries by giving out qualities which typically would be laid aside for a male character. Instead of being presented as authority figures in the novel, males are reduced to objects that women are able to manipulate for their own needs. On Sir James’ marriage proposal to Frederica, Lady Susan remarks upon the unsuitable timing and says it would be ‘better to lay aside that scheme for the present’. Remarks such as this create a sense of dismissiveness, and shows Lady Susan to hold control over the male character which defies the typical patriarchy present in the time period. Critics such as Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, suggests; ‘it is the masculine values that prevail’, however Austen takes this literary convention and challenges it in the form of her treatment of Sir James. The verb ‘bestowed’ is commonly involved between a person of higher status providing something to an inferior individual, which in fact conveys that Lady Susan perceives herself as socially superior. She quickly diminishes him as a ‘creature’, giving him qualities which make him seen less than human, effectively establishing that Austen has written an unconventional novel in terms of a phallocentric society.
To conclude, Lady Susan is presented as being able to conform and defy typical feminine behaviors which were expected by men and through critics such as Rousseau. The novel can be interpreted as anti-feminist as Lady Susan does conform with some expectations of society such as looking for a wealthy suitor in order to gain financial marrying for security. In spite of this, many feminist aspects are woven through her behavior. She only conforms to a conventional female when it best suits her, and typically resists expectations that dwell alongside the patriarchal society which hung over the 18th and 19th centuries. The way in which Lady Susan conducts two different sets of behavior depending on the company, opposes societal expectations and determines that Austen; though oblivious and unaware, created an early feminist character. Rousseau suggests that women should act accordingly ‘to please men’, but Austen flips this and has characterized Lady Susan to feel superior to men, as seen by her conduct with Sir James Martin. By creating a character as socially controversial as Lady Susan, Austen has written a novel that overlooks its central character conducting both types of behavior, and the reader either feels bemused or appalled at her conduct.
 Austen, Jane. Lady Susan, The Watson’s, Sandition, ed. Drabble, M. (London: Penguin Random House, 1974). P4.
 Ibid, P4.
 Ibid, P4.
 Ibid, P4.
 Irirgaray, Luce. translated by Carolyn Burke, Signs, Vol.6, No.1, Women: Sex and Sexuality, part 2 (1980, The University of Chicago Press). p79
 Irirgaray, Luce. translated by Carolyn Burke, Signs, Vol.6, No.1, Women: Sex and Sexuality, part 2 (1980, The University of Chicago Press). p78.
 Ibid, p5.
 Jean Jacques, Rousseau, Emile. translated by Barbara Foxley. (London and Toronto: J.M Dent and Sons, 1921. New York: E.P Dutton, 1921). P.322
 Ibid, p4.
 Ibid, p5.
 Ibid, p5.
 Ibid, p5.
 Ibid, p4.
 Woolf, Virginia, A Room Of One’s Own and Three Guineas. ed. Schiach, M (London: Oxford University Press, 2008). P.96
 Ibid, p4.
 Ibid, p4.
 Jean Jacques, Rousseau, Emile. translated by Barbara Foxley. (London and Toronto: J.M Dent and Sons, 1921. New York: E.P Dutton, 1921). p.322
Exploration of Gender and Sexuality in Lady Susan and Wide Sargasso Sea
In Jane Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, the concept of gender remains a key aspect throughout both of the narratives in regard to plot development and characterization. Whilst Lady Susan was thought to be written almost two centuries before Rhys’ novel, Austen’s approach towards gender is more modern, as the female protagonist is independent and uncoventionally confident in terms of her sexuality. As a “distinguished flirt”, Lady Susan allows Austen to challenge the stereotypical gender roles of contemporary society. On the other hand, the Creolian female protagonist in Wide Sargasso Sea remains oppressed by her English husband. The postcolonial novel unveils the lack of female freedom during the 19th century, especially for women such as Antoinette, born into a brutal colonialist and patriarchal society. Despite the Austen’s feminist approach, she still hints at the chauvinistic attitude of society, as shown by the wide disapproval of Lady Susan’s avant garde behavior. However, both authors also capture glimpses of male weakness, as the men in Lady Susan appear somewhat foolish and easily manipulated by the female protagonist. Likewise Rochester is shown to be slightly intimidated by the otherness of his Caribbean wife.
Austen tests the norms of power relations between man and women through her presentation of Lady Susan, who is shown to be a revolutionary figure, both “rich, independant, and sexually satisfied”. Contrary to the traditional expectations of femininity, Lady Susan is openly flirtatious and aware of her seductive mastery. At the beginning of the narrative Mrs Vernon describes her as “captivating” (p.6), meaning the reader is immediately aware of her charisma. This marks her as striking – not necessarily in terms of just her physical appearance, but her character too, hinting at her powerful nature. Claire Tomalin refers to the protagonist as “a predator”; implying that in essence her male subjects are her prey. This builds on the idea of Lady Susan as a dominant female, who reverses the stereotypical gender roles by cunningly enchanting men. Her magnetism is further implied in Mr DeCourcy’s early letter to Mrs Vernon, as he exclaims “What a woman she must be!” (p.7), indicating his eagerness to acquaint himself with the widow. The abruptness of this phrase and the use of punctuation also emphasises his sense of admiration for Lady Susan. He later refers to her “bewitching powers” (p.7) which contributes to the portrayal of the protagonist as a compelling seductress. The choice of the word ‘bewitching’ is interesting, as it hints at her hypnotic hold over men, whilst also highlighting the unusual nature of her fortitude; Lady Susan’s assertiveness and sexual appetite is incongruous to her society, and consequently these qualities are seen as almost supernatural. Kate Macdonald describes the female figure as “utterly ruthless in the pursuit of her own desires”, which supports this view of her being atypically selfish concerning her carnal desires.
Unlike Lady Susan, the female protagonist of Wide Sargasso Sea lacks independence and self-assurance. As a Creole woman whose identity becomes sapped by her husband, Antoinette is almost at the other end of the spectrum to Lady Susan. She needs Rochester in order to fulfill her, and is shown to be impotent without his reassurance. For example, in Part II of the novel, following Antoinette’s emotional abandonment by Rochester, she declares “But I cannot go. He is my husband after all.”, demonstrating her subservience. The justification of her actions by the mere fact that Rochester is her husband shows her incapacity to act for herself – the reader discovers that her decisions become moulded by him, whereas in Austen’s novel, it is Lady Susan who manipulates the opposite sex. Andrea Masset discusses this “[loss of] identity in phallocentric society” as she refers to Antoinette as holding a “muted position”. This contributes to the portrayal of the protagonist as a powerless sufferer due to societal conventions – a point which is epitomized by Angela Pneuman; “She is, in short, a victim”. This description adds to her somewhat pathetic portrayal, evoking pity in the reader. Antoinette is also heavily dependent on her caretaker Christophine, who eventually leaves her, leading Antoinette into a state of despair as she cries “what will become of me?” (p.63). This hints at Antoinette’s inability to be self-sufficient, and shows that in contrast to Lady Susan, she is reliant on those around her for comfort. In fact, Christophine is far more comparable to Austen’s protagonist, as she recognises the importance of female power, stating “Women must have spunks to live in this wicked world” (p.63). Here Rhys alludes to society’s cruel condemnation of women, and stresses the need for female ascendancy – something which is not manifested in the character of Antoinette. Sandra Drake refers to Christophine as a “model of female independence-and self-reliance”, therefore reinstating this idea of her as a feminist icon who is considerably stronger than Antoinette.
Despite Austen’s modernist slant on gender roles, the author still conveys a sense of disdain with regards to Lady Susan’s free-spiritedness, as the letters exchanged between the other female characters reveal their contempt towards the widow. This is evident in a letter from Mrs Vernon to Lady DeCourcy, in which Lady Susan is said to be an “unprincipled woman” (p.13). This demonstrates that, although Lady Susan is very confident in terms of her sexuality, her actions disgust her fellow lady subjects. She herself even recognizes this, stating to Mrs Johnson that “The females of the family are united against me” (p.4). Her non-conformist attitude is discussed by Kate Macdonald, as she refers to her as “one of the truly great Appalling Women in British Fiction”. This supports the opinions of the other female figures in the novel, as Macdonald’s use of the word ‘appalling’ hints at the seemingly shameful behavior of Lady Susan. Mrs Vernon’s revulsion is also indicated in a letter to Lady de Courcy, describing her behavior as “inexcusably artful and ungenerous” (p.6). Here Austen allows the reader to consider the expectations of contemporary society regarding the conduct of women, as during the the 19th century, the time in which the novel was published, women were still regarded as largely inferior, and therefore unable to express themselves as freely as men – certainly not sexually. It is not only her female subjects that disapprove of her flirtatiousness, as shown by Sir Reginald DeCourcy, who says her encouragement of other men is “so gross and notorious, that no one [can] be ignorant of them at the time, nor can [forget] them” (p.18). This refers to the importance of image for women, as Lady Susan’s actions have clearly tainted her status; her openness about her sexual desires renders her somewhat unappealing in the eyes of certain men carrying traditional values. It is clear that although she is proudly self-willed, she is an object of scorn to many of her subjects.
The misogynistic undertones of Austen’s novel are comparable to those of Wide Sargasso Sea, especially when considering the significance of the male protagonist Rochester. His attitude towards his wife is similar to that of many of Lady Susan’s subjects, as Rhys clarifies that she is little more than an article to him – someone who he continues to dominate and eventually drive to madness. For instance, in Part II of the novel, Rochester talks about Antoinette as if she is an inanimate object, stating “The doll had a doll’s voice” (p.110). This reveals his lack of compassion towards his wife; here the use of the determiner ‘the’ to address Antoinette stresses the impersonal nature of their relationship and his lack of respect for her. The metaphorical comparison of his wife to a doll also contributes to the portrayal of Rochester as an oppressor, as Rhys depicts Antoinette as a lifeless toy, helplessly puppeted by her husband. The fact that Rochester rejects his wife’s real name, renaming her as ‘Bertha’, also demonstrates his disregard for Antoinette as an equal. Furthermore, by refusing to listen to her side of events towards the end of the novel, he effectively denies her the right to have a voice. He even begins to mimic his wife by calling her ‘Marionetta’; a cruel joke that reflects her doll-like malleability. Sandra Drake explores this idea of female repression, as she describes Rhys’ narrative as one concerning “the struggle for Antoinette’s survival” in which she is reduced to “psychological helplessness by European colonialism and patriarchy”. In light of this view, Rochester comes to represent the tyranny of colonialism as well as a male-dominated society, as he exerts his complete English control over the Caribbean landscape and people. This allows Rhys to highlight the extent to which the male protagonist damages his wife’s mental state.
Although Austen’s novel is set in a time period in which men are considerably more powerful and liberated than women, certain male characters are portrayed in a weaker light – as Mr Manwaring, Mr DeCourcy and Sir James become helplessly ensnared by Lady Susan. Austen’s presentation of such characters serves a somewhat comical purpose, as they are strangely charmed by a female; an occurrence which would not traditionally take place in contemporary society, as the male figure is typically expected to adopt such a role. Lady Susan is also able to manipulate Mr Vernon, which she reveals at the beginning of the novel, stating “I really have a regard for him, he is so easily imposed upon!” (p.8) when referring to his acceptance of her lodgings request. This implies that Mr Vernon is weak-willed, as Lady Susan is able to exploit him without him showing any real knowledge of her actions of manipulation. Similarly, Mr Manwaring is shown to be rather pathetic, as Lady Susan exclaims “Poor Manwaring!” (p.9) in a letter to Mrs Johnson, adopting a pitying tone, hence painting him as a feeble man, rather than one exuding dominance. Sir James is presented as equally as meagre, being described as “contemptibly weak” (p.4), providing the reader with a rather laughable image of a sickly, inadequate man. This allows Austen to cleverly challenge the gender stereotypes, as these qualities were not commonly associated with men throughout the 19th century, where women were treated as the weaker beings. The foolishness of men in the narrative is further exemplified by Mr DeCourcy’s submission to Lady Susan, as Mrs Vernon states “Her power over him must now be boundless, as she has entirely effaced all his former ill-opinion” (p.16). This humorous description emphasizes the meekness of Mr DeCourcy as a result of his enticement by the adulteress Lady Susan, as Austen’s use of the word “boundless”, hyperbolizes the extent to which he is charmed, suggesting that the widow possesses infinite dominance over him. The alliteration in the phrase “entirely effaced” also stresses the weak nature of Mr DeCourcy, implying that he is completely numbed by female power.
Rhys, like Austen, also allows the reader to see the weakness in male characters, as Rochester reveals occasional signs of angst. This is largely suggested to be consequential of his wife’s difference, which perhaps intimidates him. For example, he is shown to be deeply disorientated and potentially perturbed by the unfamiliarity of Jamaican culture – and regards his wife as emblematic of this. As a result, Rhys’ presentation of Rochester as an oppressor is perhaps a mere indicator of his own feelings of distrust and fear, which ultimately drive him to imprison his wife in his attic. This fear is unveiled towards the end of the narrative, as Rochester says “I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of loneliness. Above all I hated her.” (p.111). Here the author implies that Rochester’s detestation for the Caribbean and Antoinette is simply due to the fact that he is frightened of the unknown and therefore unwilling to accept the lifestyle that his wife represents. Glyn Griffith describes Rochester’s treatment of his wife as a result of “the Otherness which he feels obliged to repress in order to maintain his Eurocentric perspective intact”. This therefore implies that he is scared of losing his ‘Europeanness’ as he thinks that the Caribbean landscape could possibly cloud his judgement and forget his colonial loyalties. The presentation of the relationship between Amélie and Rochester also hints at his weakness, as Rhys foreshadows the power that the servant will capitalize on Rochester at the beginning of Part II, where she is described to give him a look so deeply malicious that he is forced to turn away. As he succumbs to his sexual urges with Amélie, he disregards his imperialist beliefs and disapproval of Jamaican culture, highlighting his lack of power in terms of carnal desire.
Upon considering the concept of gender in Lady Susan and Wide Sargasso Sea, it is evident that both authors are influenced by the circumstances of their own societal upbringings. Austen’s novel shows a female figure who is far more selfish but also braver than the typical nineteenth century woman, who pushes the social boundaries and unapologetically expresses her sexuality – regardless of the disdain she provokes in others. Rhys’ experience of growing up in the colony of Dominica means her narrative instead presents the female protagonist as a victim of the patriarchal society, as her marriage is portrayed as an act of colonialism; based on conquest and power. Nevertheless, both of the novels capture aspects of male weakness; an almost alien concept in contemporary society. Regardless of the author’s different explorations of the theme, gender is shown to be a construct determined by social pressures – the characters are either afraid of disobeying the gender norms, or open to challenging them.