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.
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