Sarah Skwire loves the recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, and believes that Austen was heavily influenced in this particular work by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women:
Wollstonecraft argues that the women of her time — and Austen’s time — were “weak, artificial beings, raised above the common wants and affections of their race, in a premature unnatural manner, [who] undermine the very foundation of virtue, and spread corruption through the whole mass of society.”
Their corrupting influence, though, is not due to some sort of original sin handed down from Eve after the Garden of Eden. It is the result of the conscious and intentional educating of women out of natural virtue and into habituated weakness, dependence, and immorality.
Women are, in fact, so much degraded by mistaken notions of female excellence, that I do not mean to add a paradox when I assert, that this artificial weakness produces a propensity to tyrannize, and gives birth to cunning, the natural opponent of strength, which leads them to play off those contemptible infantine airs that undermine esteem even whilst they excite desire.
This is Lady Susan in a nutshell. Her tyrannical hold over her daughter’s future, her constant deceptions in matters large and small, and her pretended helplessness and innocence, which her male acquaintances interpret as charm — these are all hallmarks of her character.
Even more a propos is Wollstonecraft’s description of women who have been educated in this fashion and who are then left, as is Lady Susan, widowed and with a family to care for.
But supposing, no very improbable conjecture, that a being only taught to please must still find her happiness in pleasing; — what an example of folly, not to say vice, will she be to her innocent daughters! The mother will be lost in the coquette, and, instead of making friends of her daughters, view them with eyes askance, for they are rivals — rivals more cruel than any other, for they invite a comparison, and drive her from the throne of beauty, who has never thought of a seat on the bench of reason.
Wollstonecraft adds that it doesn’t take a literary genius to imagine the “domestic miseries and petty vices” occasioned by such a mother.
A world without real education for women, a world without legal equality for women — this is a world that is rife with Lady Susans.
But in Austen’s imagining of Lady Susan, we have precisely that — a literary genius turning her considerable talents (though in early days) to delineating a portrait of a woman who has become precisely what she has been educated to be. In that way, Lady Susan becomes a powerful adjunct to Wollstonecraft’s Vindication. A world without real education for women, a world without legal equality for women — this is a world that is rife with Lady Susans, grappling for power and money in the marriage market and in the gray market of sexual favors, because that is the only sphere open to women with ambition.