whit stillmanArt, understood as a medium that engages the imagination and desires of its audience, can lure out aspects of its audience that would otherwise be kept hidden. Awareness of what desires the art excites and how one’s imagination is played upon can afford a perceptive viewer an opportunity to gain knowledge both of himself and of others who experience the same art. Thus, if one is aware of art’s power to draw out of its audience what would otherwise remain concealed, art can be used as a tool for self-discovery; conversely, if one is unaware of art’s power, he leaves himself open to exposing, unwittingly, private aspects of himself of which he may not even be aware.

Such a conception of art appears at the heart of Jane Austen’s epistolary novel, Lady Susan, where the artfully-crafted letters by the artful character Lady Susan play upon the imagination and hidden desires of their intended audiences. The power of art and artfulness also appears at the forefront of Whit Stillman’s movie and book, both entitled Love and Friendship and both based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan.

In this essay, I will first discuss how Lady Susan’s artfulness in verbal and written speech aims to play upon the imagination and desire of her interlocutors (pointing, in turn, to the intrinsic connection between what we imagine and what we desire). After establishing the artfulness of Lady Susan, I will contrast the effect of the letters on the characters with the effect of the book on its readership, and what the difference between these two effects may mean for Austen’s overall thesis on the power of art. Next, I will examine how Jane Austen’s discussion of art is in conversation with arguments Socrates posits in Book Two of Plato’s Republic and reflects conversations to come in the history of philosophy, such as Friedrich Nietzsche’s treatment of art in Birth of Tragedy. Finally, I will conclude with a brief look at Whit Stillman’s movie and novel inspired by Lady Susan, with an eye to how Mr. Stillman seizes on these themes of art, imagination, and desire through his ambitious attempt to reconstruct our perception of Lady Susan.

The Art of Lady Susan

I begin my examination of Lady Susan’s artfulness by turning to the first letter of the novel. When the content of this letter is compared with the subsequent four letters, it is clear that nearly everything Lady Susan writes in the first letter is false.[1] By putting a clear example of Lady Susan’s deception at the very start of the work, Austen prepares the reader to be sensitive to Lady Susan’s ability to play upon the desires of her intended audience (in “Letter 1”, the intended audience is Charles Vernon, the brother to her late husband, and his wife, Catherine Vernon). Lady Susan begins “Letter 1” by stating that she can “no longer refuse myself the pleasure” of visiting the Vernon’s estate.[2] She continues, stating that she has long desired to meet Catherine and to know their children. Lady Susan accounts for her departure from her current location at Mr. and Mrs. Manwaring’s home by saying that “their hospitable and cheerful disposition lead them too much into society,” which she declares is an unfit situation for a newly widowed woman. Finally, she states that her daughter Frederica will not be coming with her to the Vernon’s abode; rather, Frederica will be at boarding school to remedy her poor education earlier in life when her now late father was ill.[3]

The falsity of Lady Susan’s letter to her brother-in-law becomes apparent mainly through Lady Susan’s letters to her friend and confidante, Alicia Johnson. In her letter to Alicia, Lady Susan reveals that she is not leaving the Manwarings’ estate because they are too social for a newly-widowed woman, but rather because she is having an affair with Mr. Manwaring, and Mrs. Manwaring is nearly mad with jealousy. Furthermore, she has forced the engagement between Mrs. Manwaring’s sister and Sir James (a man staying in the Manwarings’ home) to dissolve so as to secure Sir James as the husband to her daughter, Frederica. That Frederica refuses to marry Sir James is the cause for her being placed in a boarding school (for, as her mother states, she hopes Frederica will suffer so much that the prospect of marrying Sir James appears better than school). Finally, at the conclusion of the letter, Lady Susan writes that “Charles Vernon is my aversion and I am afraid of his wife” and states that if there were any other place in the world she thought she could stay for a time, she would go there.

That Lady Susan lies, however, is not the most interesting aspect of the letters; rather, it is how she lies. Her first invention, that she desires to meet Catherine, is not just appealing to the Vernons because it would allow for a more loving and connected family, but, as we learn from both Catherine and Lady Susan, Lady Susan has shown nothing but enmity towards Catherine (for example, Lady Susan strove to prevent Charles from marrying Catherine by telling him terrible lies about her). Thus, expressing a desire to get to know Catherine implies that all the hostility Lady Susan once showed her is in the past—that Lady Susan is no longer a threat to Catherine or the stability of their family. Next, by stating that she is leaving the Manwarings’ home not because she divided a family, but rather to be less in society, implies that the style of life that Lady Susan currently prefers is one in accord with the Vernons’ (who live in a small country village) and thus affirms the Vernons’ mode of living. In regard to Frederica, stating that she is leaving her at boarding school not to torture her until she agrees to marry, but rather to fulfill her duty as a mother, reflects Catherine Vernon’s own aspirations to be perceived as a caring and dutiful mother. Hence, each of the lies that Lady Susan tells attempts to make the Vernons imagine her in a way that speaks to the Vernons’ deeper personal desires and to their desires for what they would want Lady Susan to be. Lady Susan is not, however, fully successful in turning Catherine Vernon to her side, for, as Catherine writes, “If I had not known how much she has always disliked me for marrying Mr. Vernon, and that we had never met before, I should have imagined her an attached friend.”[4] Catherine even bemoans the sway Lady Susan has over her husband’s temperament: “If her manners have so great an influence on my resentful heart, you may judge how much more strongly they operate on Mr. Vernon’s generous temper.”[5]

Lady Susan’s artfulness is, however, successful in convincing everyone else around her, specifically Mr. Reginald De Courcy (Catherine’s younger brother who is visiting his sister). Before arriving, Reginald is aware of Lady Susan’s reputation for trickery, as he writes to his sister: “By all that I can gather, Lady Susan possesses a degree of captivating Deceit which it must be pleasing to witness and detect.”[6] Lady Susan, however, perceives Reginald’s low opinion of her and makes it her goal to convince him that she is a virtuous woman, for as she writes to Alicia, “There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predetermined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority.”[7] By using the word “spirit,” Lady Susan points to how deeply her rhetorical devices penetrate, and the word “subdue” shows that her words have the power to conquer and control that spirit. Lady Susan’s success with Reginald is so complete that within a few weeks, Reginald writes in a letter to his father that he “admires her Abilities and esteems her Character.”[8] By “Letter 30,” a span of about eight or nine weeks, the two are engaged to marry.

The degree to which Lady Susan is able to tailor her speeches to design different versions of reality for different people comes out most clearly in the moment in which it fails. Lady Susan gives Reginald a letter to deliver to Alicia—a letter containing details of Lady Susan’s clever schemes regarding Reginald and her continued relationship with Mr. Manwaring. When Alicia is not home, the letter is found instead by Alicia’s husband (who is very much set against Lady Susan) and Mrs. Manwaring (there to seek advice from Alicia’s husband regarding a cheating spouse). The letter is subsequently read aloud to Reginald, revealing the crafty ways of Lady Susan. When Reginald writes to Lady Susan to break off their engagement, he articulates his experiences by stating that “the spell is removed. I see you as you are.”[9] And in a following letter to Lady Susan he writes: “My Understanding is at length restored, and teaches me no less to abhor the Artifices which had subdued me than to despise myself for the weakness on which their strength was founded.”[10] Reginald’s disturbing realization that Lady Susan had been able to alter his perception of reality for her own advantage comes about because the letter was read by the wrong audience.

What this concluding situation displays is not just the power of Lady Susan’s artfulness (here likened to a spell), but how particular it was to the individual. In this way, Lady Susan’s letters themselves had an ideal reader. While all letters have an intended audience, Lady Susan’s letters caused her different interlocutors to imagine such different realities that when the wrong audience read one of her letters, they felt as though for a time they had lost their capacity to understand reality.

However, an obvious difference between the recipient of a letter and the reader of Jane Austen’s novel is that the reader of the novel knows from the outset that everything they are reading comes from the author’s imagination. The reader of Lady Susan never believes Lady Susan herself is a real person, for they approach the novel knowing it is a work of fiction. Moreover, Jane Austen organizes the letters to ensure that at every step, the reader is aware of Lady Susan’s lies. The reader is quickly made aware of Lady Susan’s imagined tales to her brother-in-law, while the characters in the story are not privy to the same information. Thus, by making Lady Susan appear so detestable throughout the work, and by ensuring that the reader is aware of her artifice, the reader is able to learn to be more sensitive to the artful speech of a Lady Susan. Looking at the work from this angle, it would appear that Lady Susan can be used as a tool to learn to detect and overcome the artifice of others.

Austen in Conversation with Plato and Nietzsche

Thus, there are two concepts of art Jane Austen posits in the work Lady Susan. One is that Lady Susan represents the corrupting and dangerous nature of art and rhetoric because it can lead us to believe what is bad is good. The other is that Jane Austen is using the work as a means of teaching the reader how to identify and overcome a “Lady Susan” in one’s daily life. On one hand, Jane Austen appears to be making the argument that art and artfulness can be deceptive and corrupting. On the other hand, Austen also appears to be allowing the reader the opportunity to see the deception of Lady Susan, and thus use the book as a kind of tool to strengthen and prepare oneself against being fooled himself.

These two possibilities broadly reflect the arguments about art in Plato’s Republic and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. In the following section, I will lay out these ideas in order to put Jane Austen’s notions regarding the role of art in conversation with the ideas of Nietzsche and Plato.[11]

The aspect of Socratic thought from the Republic I will focus on is Socrates’ discussion with Adeimantus at the end of “Book Two” about the role of music (especially speeches) in the education of the guardians of the city they are imagining through speech.[12] Here, Socrates argues that speeches that depict the gods or heroes as being the cause of evil or as not perfectly virtuous should be banned from the city because they corrupt the listener’s soul—specifically when the tales are heard first as a child. The soul’s corruption, it is argued, corrupts the moral understandings and the deeds of the audience. One way Socrates illustrates this is by arguing that “it mustn’t be said that gods make war on gods, and plot against them and have battles with them—for it isn’t even true—provided that those who are going to guard the city for us must consider it most shameful to be easily angry with one another.”[13] Here, Socrates argues that the actions of those we are asked to imagine will alter the way we behave and what we think is good or the opposite. In short, the Platonic idea that art that depicts gods and heroes as being less than completely good, beautiful, and virtuous must be abolished with the understanding that they are corrupting. As stated above, this appears to reflect Jane Austen’s own thesis about the deeply corrupting nature of artful speech, as it can make what is bad appear good.

The other pole of Austen’s thought—the idea of art as a means of strength—reflects thoughts articulated in Friedrich Nietzsche’s work Birth of Tragedy, in whcih he posits that the Greeks put the horrible and evil aspects of human existence into their poetry as a means of facing it through imagination, and thus not head-on, so as to develop the strength to face it more directly within themselves. Here he writes:

The Greek knew and felt the terror and horror of existence. That he might endure this terror at all, he had to interpose between himself and life the radiant dream-birth of the Olympians. That overwhelming dismay in the face of the titanic powers of nature, the Moira enthroned inexorably over all knowledge, the vulture of the great lover of mankind, Prometheus, the terrible fate of the wise Oedipus, the family curse of the Atridae which drove Orestes to matricide: in short, that entire philosophy of the sylvan god, with its mythical exemplars, which caused the downfall of the melancholy Etruscans—all this was again and again overcome by the Greeks with the aid of the Olympian middle world of art…[14]

Here, unlike Socrates’ argument that the tales about the downfall and evil actions of great men and the gods in poetry are corrupting to readers, Nietzsche argues that such tales are tools that can be used for the reader to become stronger. Nietzsche’s understanding of art could be likened to that of a boy learning to play-wrestle with his brother, so that when he is in a real fight motivated by anger, he is not destroyed by it since he knows what to do. Applying this understanding to Jane Austen, because we face a Lady Susan through a fictitious medium and are exposed to her artfulness from a position that allows us to see both her imagined reality and the truth, the reader is able to overcome a Lady Susan through the imagined world of art, so as to better confront a Lady Susan in real life, were they ever to meet one.


As stated above, Whit Stillman expands upon Jane Austen’s thesis of art as presented here. In Mr. Stillman’s novel, whose full title is Love and Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated, Mr. Stillman takes on the task of reshaping what the reader believes about Lady Susan.[15] In Austen’s Lady Susan, a fictitious, unnamed editor is written to have collected all the letters, and the conclusion of the novel is told in this unnamed editor’s voice. Mr. Stillman’s narrator in his novel argues that the reader has put a great deal of trust in the unnamed editor of the letters. Mr. Stillman’s narrator continuously refers to this unnamed editor as the “Spinster Authoress” and argues the novel Lady Susan was written to slander Lady Susan’s name and good character.[16] By throwing the unnamed editor’s trustworthiness into question, Mr. Stillman points to the difficulty of having an identifiable truth by which we can judge other things as “false” or “imagined.”

Based on this discussion of Nietzsche and Plato, we can understand Mr. Stillman as pointing to the fact that the reader of the novel who does not question who has organized and reprinted all these letters has not fully learned to guard himself against the potential deceit and corruption of others, and has thus fallen victim to the deception, not of Lady Susan, but of this “unnamed editor.” However, by also creating a movie, which serves as the “true” events of Lady Susan (as it differs both from Mr. Stillman’s and Austen’s accounts in their respective novels), Mr. Stillman gives the reader a “true” realm to compare with the two accounts in the novels.[17] By doing so, he renews Austen’s “Nietzschean” (as we understand it) goal of giving the reader a medium through which he may strengthen himself through art.

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[1] The work Lady Susan contains 41 letters and a conclusion written by the story’s unnamed collector of the letters).

[2] Jane Austen. Lady Susan. Ed. John Whitney Stillman (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016), 59

[3] Ibid., 59-60.

[4] Ibid., 173

[5] Ibid., 174

[6] Ibid.,168

[7] Ibid., 178

[8] Ibid., 195-198

[9] Ibid., 258

[10] Ibid., 161

[11] The intention of this is not to say that Jane Austen is thinking of the Republic when she wrote Lady Susan or that Nietzsche was thinking of Jane Austen when he wrote Birth of Tragedy (which came out a year after Lady Susan was first published). Rather, the intention is simply to put these ideas in conversation with each other to point to a continuous string of thought throughout the history of philosophy. Furthermore, as the focus of this paper is on Lady Susan, we will be using general ideas from the Republic and Birth of Tragedy, while understanding that Nietzsche and Plato’s writings about art are more intricate and complicated than presented here.

[12] Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Allan Bloom. (New York: Basic, 1968). Print.

[13] Ibid., 378c

[14] Friedrich Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Modern Library, 2000) Print., 42

[15] Whit Stillman. Love and Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated. (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2016). Print.

[16] Ibid., p. 8 (for an example)

[17] Whit Stillman (Producer and Director). (2016). Love and Friendship [Motion Picture]. United States: Westerly Films.

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