Letters from the Drawing Board

This post was originally posted at Austenesque Reviews, but I’m sharing here for my readers to enjoy as well.

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Rational Creatures is a new anthology from the Quill Ink Collective that celebrates Austen’s female characters and explores the ways in which they challenged the social mores of their time. One of Austen’s greatest achievements was creating characters who were all unique and yet each still drawn with great depth and complexity. Courage abides with timidity, servility with pride; indeed, all manner of vices and virtues are to be found intermingled in Austen’s women.

Among them, Lady Susan is conspicuously and unrepentantly callous, with very little good to mitigate it. She is a widowed woman in possession of a handsome countenance, in desperate want of a good fortune. In her pursuit of it, she displays no regard for others’ feelings, very little shame and about as much maternal instinct as a chamber pot. All in all, not a woman doing much to advance society’s respect for women.

So, when Christina Boyd invited me to write a story for an Austen-inspired feminist anthology, I couldn’t resist the challenge of trying to account for Lady Susan’s journey to becoming the pithy, manipulative coquette we see in the eponymous novel.

There is, of course, a darker side to Lady Susan’s behaviour. Though the original story is amusing, told with Austen’s usual flair for wit, the basic premise of a woman fighting to for her place in the world is one common to all Austen’s works. I wanted to keep it light-hearted, though; both in homage to the original and because celebrating womanhood should not be a miserable exercise! With my tongue firmly set in my cheek, I set about exploring why and how Lady Susan might have come to believe the only way to achieve what she wanted was to manipulate everyone into giving it to her—and The Edification of Lady Susan was the result.

As fans of Austen will know, the original story is epistolary. I chose to follow suit because letters are a such a wonderful way of revealing intent. A character’s duplicity is easily demonstrated when he or she writes several different letters to several different recipients, each with wholly contrary messages. Though dishonesty is obviously unpardonable, I loved working with Lady Susan’s resolve and ingenuity to whip up a hornet’s nest of deceit, all the while celebrating her cleverness in “getting one over” on all the people (men andwomen) who do to her as she later learns to do to others.

For a bit of fun, I thought I’d share one of the plans I laid out to help work out the order of the letters in the story. This being a prequel of sorts, the outcome will be no surprise, so it’s not a spoiler—and hopefully it’ll make you smile to see how Lady Susan’s pithiness permeated even the planning stages of the story.

LETTER 1                  

LADY SUSAN TO ALICIA

Lord Doyle is flirting with me! Also, only been here two days and Claire has already fallen in love with this Frederick Vernon chap. 🙄

 

  LETTER 2                  

LADY SUSAN’S MUM TO LADY SUSAN

Superb that you have the hots for Lord Doyle. Now hurry up and secure him.

 

  LETTER 3          

   ALICIA TO LADY SUSAN

Ooh! Flirting? How marvellous! Flirt back and write to tell me about it—I’m so bored!

 

LETTER 4

LADY SUSAN’S SISTER-IN-LAW TO LADY SUSAN’S BROTHER

Come home, it’s boring as sin here and your mother is an ogre. She’s making your sister marry Lord Doyle! 😱

  LETTER 5

LADY SUSAN TO ALICIA

Turns out Lord Doyle was just toying with me. 😒 My brother thinks I should marry his friend Mr Cohen instead.

 

  LETTER 6

ALICIA TO LADY SUSAN

Don’t marry Mr Cohen either, he’s engaged to Jennifer! 😱

 

 

LETTER 7

LADY SUSAN’S BROTHER TO LADY SUSAN

Don’t panic, Cohen isn’t engaged… technically. You should defo marry him, he’s awesome. 😎

 

  LETTER 8

LADY SUSAN’S MUM TO LADY SUSAN’S BROTHER

Butt out Samuel! I need Susan to marry Lord Doyle or we’ll all be ruined! 😡

 

  LETTER 9

LADY SUSAN’S BROTHER TO LADY SUSAN

Mother is using you to settle a debt to Lady Doyle! 😱 Luckily you have me to look out for you. 

LETTER 10

LADY SUSAN’S MUM TO LADY SUSAN

Susan, how could you think I have anything but your best interests at heart? Marriage to Lord Doyle is the best thing for you. Trust me. 😇

 

  LETTER 11

LADY SUSAN TO ALICIA

Mother thinks I’m a fool. And now Claire is using me as well. She’s asked me to marry her buffoon of a brother to better her family name. 😒😒

 

  LETTER 12

JENNIFER TO LADY SUSAN

Pleasemarry Mr Cohen so that I don’t have to. Then I can marry Mr Vernon before Claire gets her claws into him. 🙏🏻

 

LETTER 13

LADY SUSAN TO ALICIA

Seriously, everyone’s on the take! On top of Mother, Claire and Jennifer, have discovered my brother is using me as well!

😒😒😒

  LETTER 14

ALICIA TO LADY SUSAN

You poor thing! It’s so unfair that everyone is treating you so badly, but what can you do? 😢

 

 

  LETTER 15

ALICIA TO LADY SUSAN – AGAIN

Well, yes, you could to that. Ingenious! Count me in. I have passed on your letter as requested. 😈

 

LETTER 16

LADY SUSAN’S MUM TO LADY SUSAN

Splendid idea to bring Claire and her brother back here with you when you come! Glad you’ve finally seen sense re the latter. 😉

 

  Letter 17

JENNIFER TO LADY SUSAN

You’re right, Mr Vernon is a cad! Of course I’ll come to Great Mandeley to forget about him and make up with Claire, good idea! 😃

 

  Letter 18

LADY SUSAN’S MUM TO LADY DOYLE

It’s all going to plan. Susan has your son eating out of her hand. She’s definitely a chip off the old block. Give it a week and they’ll be engaged.

 

LETTER 19

LADY SUSAN’S SISTER-IN-LAW TO LADY SUSAN’S BROTHER

Lord Doyle is here and I’m fairly sure that he’s in love with Susan. 😍

 

 

  LETTER 20

LADY SUSAN TO ALICIA

Lord Doyle has proposed to me. 🤯 Idiot. It’s ok though, I’ve convinced him Jennifer is better for him. Thanks for the letter. Please pass on the enclosed reply.

 

  LETTER 21

LADY SUSAN’S BROTHER TO LADY SUSAN

I told you not to marry Doyle! I’ve sent for Cohen, he’s on his way. Do as you are told you ungrateful wench! 😡

 

LETTER 22

ALICIA TO LADY SUSAN

Sounds a mess, but I have faith in your plan. Shouldn’t be difficult—Claire and Cohen are both simpletons.

I’ve met Mr V and your letters have definitely done the trick. 😉

 

  LETTER 23

LADY SUSAN’S MUM TO LADY DOYLE

Not quite what I had planned, but it’s all worked out for the best. Your son AND your daughter are both engaged to be married and you are saved. Happened under my roof so…we good now? 🤗

  LETTER 24

LADY CLAIRE TO LADY DOYLE

I’m engaged! Forget Mr Vernon, I love Mr Cohen, and he’s four times as rich! 🤑

 

 

 

LETTER 25

LADY SUSAN’S BROTHER TO MR COHEN

So, yeah, I dunno what’s happened but Susan tells me that you’re with Claire now. Happened under my roof, so…we good now?  🤗

  LETTER 26

LADY SUSAN TO ALICIA

Whaddayaknow? I’m engaged to Mr Vernon.😏

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

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