Like heroes, villains come in all shapes and sizes. However, not all villains desire world domination or commit evil against humanity. Some villains wreak havoc on ordinary lives. Some villains are the protagonist of the story.
Jane Austen is best known for her moral novels of social satire/comedy of manners. When you pick up an Austen novel, you expect to be introduced to a good heroine who goes on a journey of self-discovery and by the book’s end, she is an even better person. That’s not the case with Lady Susan Vernon. Written in the epistolary style, Jane Austen penned Lady Susan in approximately 1794 and she never sought publication for it. Critics have noted that Lady Susan is lacking compared to Austen’s later works, however, her lively wit and well-drawn characters are fully on display. Relayed through a series of letters authored by the plentiful cast of characters, we can fully see who Lady Susan truly is.
Lady Susan Vernon is newly widowed. After causing a bit of trouble in the Manwaring household (i.e. having an affair with the married Mr. Manwaring), she opts to visit her brother-in-law in the country at Churchill. Her sister-in-law, Catherine, is not happy. Before she married Charles Vernon, Lady Susan went out of her way to prevent the marriage. Then there is Lady Susan’s notorious reputation. It is well-known that when Frederick Vernon was dying, Lady Susan was out socializing, flirting, and conducting affairs. They welcome Lady Susan into the household.
When Catherine’s single, and impressionable younger brother Reginald De Courcy visits, he falls under the beautiful widow’s thrall. A friendship develops. Lady Susan and Reginald are smitten with one another. The age difference doesn’t bother them. Reginald is the heir, a match between would certainly be helpful on Lady Susan’s side, since she is penniless. However, she still prefers Mr. Manwaring… the very married Mr. Manwaring. When her daughter Fredrica runs away from her boarding school and comes to stay at Churchill, the relationship between mother and daughter strains. Lady Susan spins her web of lies, but in time it becomes clear she is abusing and manipulating Fredrica into marriage to the foolish Sir James Martin. Her plans fail when, after a time, Reginald realizes Lady Susan’s true nature, and eventually finds himself persuaded into love with Fredrica. Lady Susan isn’t one to give into despair. She maneuvers Sir James Martin into proposing and accepts him.
Lady Susan never has to learn a lesson. She never receives a comeuppance. And unlike many Austen protagonists, she never feels an ounce of remorse for her actions. She is content with having her own way. If that means behaving in a way contrary to conventional morality, so be it. Throughout the narrative, from start to finish, she schemes, lies, manipulates, cheats, abuses, and flaunts all that is good. She never evolves or improves. The only person she treats well is her friend and confidant, Alicia Johnson, who is as duplicitous as she is. And in the end, Lady Susan gets rewarded. She marries a fool, but he is a titled gentleman with an estate, and since he is a fool, she can easily manage him. She can continue her affair with Mr. Manwaring and conduct herself however she pleases. Sir James Martin will remain none-the-wiser.
In that respect, Lady Susan Vernon is one of the greatest villains of all time. Her original plans didn’t pan out, but she triumphed, and faced no repercussions. The de Courcy and Vernon families may know her nature, yet except for carefully worded hints, there are no confrontations. She is still can attend family events and is welcome in polite society. The novella may end at this point, but as the reader we know Lady Susan cannot be stopped. Whatever happens in her life, she will turn the circumstances into her favor.
I regret that Jane Austen never picked up Lady Susan and revised into a full-fledged novel. While I would never want to cross paths with a woman like her in real life, as a character and a villain, I love Lady Susan Vernon.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Veronica Leigh has been published in several anthologies and her work has appeared on GoWorldTravel.com and the Artist Unleashed, and she has published a couple of fictional stories. She makes her home in Indiana with her family and her furbabies. To learn more about her, visit her blog.