Lady Susan and Subverting Gender Roles

The title character of ‘Lady Susan’ would have been considered subversive in 1871, as she rejects traditional gender roles.

Lady Susan actively uses men for her own advancement. In response to Sir James’ overtures of marriage to Lady Susan’s daughter, Frederica, Lady Susan decides to ‘lay aside the scheme for the present.’[1] The word ‘present’ implies that she will return to this plan to marry the wealthy James Martin to Frederica. Lady Susan herself adopts the fatherly position in trying to find her daughter a suitor, noting that Sir James made ‘proposals to me’[2] for Frederica. Austen’s heroine Emma Woodhouse too brings people together but is not forceful like Lady Susan. This emphasises the subversive nature of Lady Susan as she actively seeks a partner for her daughter and subverts traditional gender roles. In this novel it is the women, not the men who influence the action.

Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica, in contrast, lives up to the expectations of women at Austen’s time, as she is virtuous and chaste. Catherine Vernon declares her to be ‘timid, dejected and penitent.’[3] She fulfils societal expectations, in her marriage to Reginald at the story’s end. Lady Susan expresses irritation towards her daughters’ countenance, declaring that she is the ‘greatest simpleton on Earth.’[4] Lady Susan clearly finds traditional ideas of femininity infuriating. Frederica is portrayed as ‘feminine’ by Simone de Beauvoir’s definition, as ‘weak, futile, docile.’[5] By deciding that Frederica epitomises the idea of femininity, one must recognise the subversive nature of Lady Susan as she openly rejects these ideals, and traditional gender roles.

This is demonstrated by her scandalous affair with Manwaring, despite being widowed ‘four months’ previously.[6] This contradicts the assumption that all of Austen’s unmarried female characters were virgins. While Frederica goes to men for help, Lady Susan manipulates them for her gain. Serious Femme Fatale vibes here.

Lady Susan has been called an ‘unkind mother,’[7] and she sarcastically praises her ‘maternal affection.’[8] Lady Susan rejects her societal duty of motherhood to Frederica, and instead spurns her daughter throughout the novel, declaring that Frederica was born to ‘torment’ her life.[9] Ann Oakley, in contrast, believes that ‘women’s position in the family is founded in their maternity.’[10] This aspect of the character could be an insight into Austen’s own views about society and may imply that the novel is a social satire. Austen could be excoriating the gender conventions of her time, by creating a heroine that flouts them, to a degree of success. Brassard concurs, noting that ‘Austen applauds her heroine’s pursuit of freedom and rewards her maternal indifference.’ The ‘reward’ could be referring to Lady Susan’s wealthy marriage to Sir James at the novel’s close, and therefore her success, as Brassard’s mentioning of this implies Austen’s support for her subversive heroine.[11]

The epistolary form of the novel shows that the strong female relationships drive the plot. Lady Susan initially feels isolated by these relationships, noting that other women in the family are ‘united against’ her due to her disregard for social conventions, and inappropriate behaviour.[12] Despite their domestic roles, the women of the novel are still ‘pragmatic and powerful,’ as Deborah Kaplan notes.[13] Lady Susan’s power has already been noted through her ability to use men for her advancement. Her friend, Alicia, is privy to her private thoughts, and it is in these letters that Lady Susan’s character is truly explored. Lady Susan draws power from this relationship, as Alicia acts as her confidante and advisor. Lady Susan appears as a conventional woman to an extent, as she has female friends. However, this is hampered by the fact that some women in the novel still dislike her.

By writing letters, Lady Susan is able to freely express herself as her letters remain unchecked by men. Her discourse is different to that of the male characters, resulting in a distinct, female voice. In the eyes of Virginia Woolf, this is a positive step in the history of women’s writing, as previously, women could only express themselves using the ‘language of men.’[14] It is the deployment of her own voice, and the sense of strong female relationships that allows Lady Susan to subvert gender roles. Lady Susan’s use of the first person allows for clear characterisation, and the formation of a character that is multidimensional, as she discusses her feelings in the past, present and future.

The men in the novel are uninvolved in the machinations of the female characters, and therefore remain unaware of their schemes, rendering them powerless. Kaplan acknowledges the strength of ‘intense relationships with female correspondents,’[15]  but despite this, she berates Lady Susan’s attempts to detach herself from gender conventions, as she still needs to marry to gain ‘property.’[16] Women did not own property in Austen’s time, and therefore their only access to it was through marriage.[17] Kaplan is highlighting the fact that, despite Lady Susan’s cavalier attitudes, her interests sit firmly with all other women at the time, making her hardly extraordinary.

Despite this, Lady Susan’s scheming, poor treatment of her daughter and use of her own voice still make her standout against Austen’s other heroines, as the most scandalous, subversive, and also as one of the most captivating.

Thanks for reading!


[1] Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sandition (New Edition, London, Penguin Classics, 1974), p. 4.

[2] Ibid., p. 4.

[3] Ibid., p. 26.

[4] Ibid., p. 4.

[5] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and. ed. by H. M Parshley (London: Pan, 1988), p. 359.

[6] Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sandition (New Edition, London, Penguin Classics, 1974), p. 4.

[7] Ibid., p. 4.

[8] Ibid., p. 4.

[9] Ibid., p.4.

[10] Ann Oakley, Woman’s Work: The Housewife, Past and Present (New York: Vintage, 1976), pp. 186-197.

[11] Genevieve Brassard, ‘”The Sacred Impulse of Maternal Devotion”: Austen’s Critique of Domesticity and Motherhood in Lady Susan’, Women’s Studies, 34.1 (2004), 27-48 (pp. 27-28).

[12] Jane Austen, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sandition (New Edition, London, Penguin Classics, 1974), p. 4.

[13] Deborah Kaplan, Jane Austen Among Women (Baltimore, The John Hopkins University, 1992), p.160.

[14] Virginia Woolf, ‘Men and Women’, TLS 1920; repr. in Essays II, Hogarth Press, 1986, p. 67.

[15] Deborah Kaplan, Jane Austen Among Women (Baltimore, The John Hopkins University, 1992), p.160.

[16] Ibid., p.164.

[17] Ibid., p. 164.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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