Lady Susan, the source work for our novel Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, was a short epistolary (novel-in-letters) story, written by Jane Austen some time in the early to mid-1790s, when she was no more than twenty. The epistolary format was very popular in the 18th century – utilized by novels like Pamela, Clarissa, Evelina, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, works that were full of romantic tribulation, seductions, perils and amorous adventures all related by way of letters.
The conversion of Lady Susan to Lady Vernon and Her Daughter is not without precedent – Sense and Sensibility was first an epistolary novel before Austen revised it, and for good reason. The epistolary format is limiting and unwieldy, and, in fact, Austen abandons it towards the end of Lady Susan. She concludes the work with a narrative chapter that opens with a humorous observation on the tale, and on the epistolary form in general – “This correspondence, by a meeting between some of the parties and a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post Office revenue, be continued longer.”
The epistolary novel is the literary equivalent of the multi-tasker. A limited conduit – the letter, journal or periodical – has to supply all of the content: the plot, the dialogue, the characters, their descriptions and relationships and opinions and feelings, the sequence of events, conflicts and resolution. To have a few scribblers all with a talent for describing people, furnishings, landscape in minutest detail, faithfully recounting every exchange of dialogue, and recording each daily experience – is an awkward, even artificial, way to tell a story. It’s also unintentionally hilarious, since it requires a reader to buy into the premise that the characters, flawed in so many other respects, all possess extraordinary recall.
When we first started working on Lady Vernon, we knew the epistolary format had to go, but we also knew that we had to keep as many of the letters as we could (and even write some new ones) in order to maintain Jane Austen’s prose style. While Austen’s mature works did not employ the epistolary format, letters always had an important function in her novels.
In a letter dated January, 1801, Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra, “I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth.” The letters in her novels do not have the epistolary novel character’s self-absorption or seeming omnipresence; still, they are effective, informative, and illuminating. Even those written in the heat or aftermath of emotion, are organized and cogent. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, for example, written hours after he declares that he “ardently” admires and loves her, is nearly as bullet-pointed as Mr. Collins’s proposal (“My reasons for marrying are first…Secondly…thirdly…”)
Moreover, the letters of Austen’s fictional correspondents reflect their writers’ conversational styles. Mary Crawford, infatuated with Edmund Bertram, makes no secret of her chagrin that Tom, rather than Edmund, is the heir to Mansfield Park. She is clearly fishing for information when she observes that “there is generally an uncle or a grandfather to leave a fortune to the second son” and when it appears that Tom is on his death-bed, she is fishing again when she writes to Fanny Price, “…with a fearless face and bold voice would I say to anyone that wealth and consequence could fall into no hands more deserving of them.”
Lydia Bennet’s exuberance is the same whether she is speaking or writing. “Let us talk and laugh all the way home – have you seen any pleasant men? Have you had any flirting,” she demands of her sisters, and when she elopes, she writes in the same high-spirited tone, “You will laugh when you know where I am gone and I cannot help laughing myself.”
The malicious Lucy Steele, aware that Elinor Dashwood is in love with Lucy’s fiancé, Edward, addresses Elinor with saccharine underhandedness: “Your regard for me, next to Edward’s love, is the greatest comfort I have.” And when Lucy elopes with Edward’s brother, her parting shot to Edward is in the same malicious tone: “Please to destroy my scrawls but the ring with my hair you are very welcome to keep.”
And in Sense and Sensibility, the infamous letter Marianne receives from Willoughby seems almost impossible to believe. While we get a glimpse of Willoughby’s callousness early on (as in his description of Col. Brandon as a man “whom everyone speaks well of, and nobody cares about”), there is an uncharacteristic cold-bloodedness in his parting letter to Marianne. It doesn’t “sound” like Willoughby, and, indeed, we later learn that he only copied the letter, and that it was dictated by his wife.
It’s very interesting that while there are correlations between the conversational and the written style, there is style – a distinctive mode of expression, with each character’s being unique and identifiable. How very different from the homogenous tech-speak of texts, e-mails and tweets. Only imagine if Frederick Wentworth, summoning his courage, decided to address Anne the second time with: “i cn lstn no lngr in slnc. i mst spk 2 u by sch mns as r w/in my rch. u pierc my sol. i r hlf agny hlf hp. tll me nt tht I r 2 l8.” It doesn’t quite have the same charm and feeling.
Jane Rubino holds a BA from NYU in Dramatic Literature, Theatre and Cinema. She lives in Ocean City, NJ and is the author of a contemporary mystery series set at the Jersey shore, and a volume of Sherlockian novellas. She has also written several short screenplays that have been produced as student and independent films; one of the films was recently awarded a jury prize at San Francisco’s annual WYSIWYG Film Festival.
Caitlen Rubino-Bradway holds a BA in English Literature and an MA in English and Publishing from Rosemont College. While in college, she interned with LeFrak Productions, Tor, and Jane Dystel Literary. She currently lives in NYC where she works for a literary agency.
Both avid readers of Austen, Caitlen and Jane re-examined Austen’s six great novels in order to reproduce her distinctive style and apply the fundamentals of her storytelling to expand the epistolary novella Lady Susan to novel length. Lady Vernon and her Daughter, while retaining much of the original text, restores Lady Susan Vernon and her daughter Frederica to a vivid, authentic, and more recognizably “Austen” milieu: much like the Dashwoods (Sense and Sensibility), the Bennet sisters (Pride and Prejudice), and Anne Elliot (Persuasion), Lady Susan and her Daughter must navigate a society where a woman’s security is at the mercy of an entail, where love is hindered by misunderstanding, where marriage can never be entirely isolated from money, and yet romance somehow carries the day.
Jane Rubino’s website http://janetility.com/