Feminism in Lady Susan

June 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

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[1]’ 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[2]’. 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[3]’, 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[4]’, 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”[5]’. 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[6]’. 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[7]’. 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[8]’. 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[9]’, 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[10]’, which is slightly humorous as the hyperbole suggests the situation is unbearable despite it being her ‘last resort[11]’. Her economic difficulties are highlighted further by the price of Frederica’s education being ‘much beyond what I can ever afford to pay[12]’. 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’[13]. 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[14]’, however Austen takes this literary convention and challenges it in the form of her treatment of Sir James. The verb ‘bestowed[15]’ 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[16]’, 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[17]’, 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.

[1] Austen, Jane. Lady Susan, The Watson’s, Sandition, ed. Drabble, M. (London: Penguin Random House, 1974). P4.

[2] Ibid, P4.

[3] Ibid, P4.

[4] Ibid, P4.

[5] Irirgaray, Luce. translated by Carolyn Burke, Signs, Vol.6, No.1, Women: Sex and Sexuality, part 2 (1980, The University of Chicago Press). p79

[6] Irirgaray, Luce. translated by Carolyn Burke, Signs, Vol.6, No.1, Women: Sex and Sexuality, part 2 (1980, The University of Chicago Press). p78.

[7] Ibid, p5.

[8] 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

[9] Ibid, p4.

[10] Ibid, p5.

[11] Ibid, p5.

[12] Ibid, p5.

[13] Ibid, p4.

[14] Woolf, Virginia, A Room Of One’s Own and Three Guineas. ed. Schiach, M (London: Oxford University Press, 2008). P.96

[15] Ibid, p4.

[16] Ibid, p4.

[17] 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

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