Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Anonymous
c. late 14th century, England
J.R.R. Tolkien, translator (pub. 1975)

And so this Yule passed over and
the year after, and severally the seasons ensued in their
turn: after Christmas there came the crabbed Lenten that
with fish tries the flesh and with food more meagre; but
then the weather in the world makes war on the winter,
cold creeps into the earth, clouds are uplifted, shining rain
is shed in showers that all warm fall on the fair turf,
flowers there open, of grounds and groves green is
the raiment, birds are busy a-building and bravely are
singing for sweetness of the soft summer that will soon be on
     the way
and blossoms burgeon and blow
in hedgerows bright and gay;
then glorious musics go
through the woods in proud array. (Stanza 22)

If I recall correctly, my familiarity with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, prior to listening to The Great Courses® series The Western Literary Canon in Context, was seeing it listed as one of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. This was a misattribution–although he contributed to a scholarly edition of the Middle English text, his only other involvement in a Sir Gawain story was as a translator. But even with the Tolkien connection, chances are it very likely would never have made it onto any of my Classics Club lists were it not for the aforementioned Great Courses series–I have not yet read a large number of the titles covered by Professor John M. Bowers, and so have started adding them to my various “to read” lists. Thus it was with Sir Gawain.*

Although written in the late 14th century, making the anonymous author roughly a contemporary of Chaucer, unlike the more famous works by the London poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stayed in relative obscurity for centuries, with only one manuscript–a scribal transcription rather than an original–surviving. Little is thus known about the author of Sir Gawain, although based on his dialect, it is believed that the author was from the West Midlands of England, perhaps Cheshire, and it is possible that his work lost favor for political rather than literary reasons (the author may have been a part of Richard II’s court, who was deposed by the future Henry IV). It is possible–Tolkien thinks likely–that he wrote a number of other poems as well, including Pearl, Purity (or Cleanness) and Patience, all of which were contained in the same manuscript. It is also possible that he was a clergyman (so Bowers speculates), though Tolkien suggests that his interest in theology may have been that of an amateur.

‘But in this you lacked, sir, a little, and of loyalty came short.
But that was for no artful wickedness, nor for wooing either,
but because you loved your own life: the less do I blame you.’ (stanza 95)

Certainly, Christianity flavors the entire story, with references to Biblical stories and faith throughout. After introductory stanzas connecting the kings of Britain with Aeneas (of Trojan War and Aeneid fame)–apparently it was the thing to connect Britain to Troy–we enter a Christmastime scene at King Arthur’s Camelot court. It is a season of celebration, but King Arthur is also fond of a challenge, and is only too happy when the Green Knight–not merely dressed in green, but with hair and skin of a green hue as well, and towering over the knights at court–appears to challenge a courageous knight to trade blows. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge, beheading the Green Knight. Of course, this being a chivalric romance, the knight calmly picks up his head, reminds Sir Gawain that he has promised to appear before the Green Knight in a year to bravely take a blow from the Knight’s hands, and leaves. The remainder of the poem that follows is the story of Sir Gawain’s unplanned visit at Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert’s castle before his necessary departure to place his fate in the hands of the Green Knight. But the bulk of the poem–most of part II and all of part III–takes place at the castle, as we follow the games and temptations that ensue as both Lord and Lady Bertilak extract hasty promises from Sir Gawain who struggles to live up to the codes of Chivalry and courtesy in the face of temptations and the fear of his likely impending death. I can’t recall if it is ever directly stated, but even if not, it is clearly strongly implied that the codes by which Sir Gawain is expected to live and the courtesy for which he is known are considered not merely knightly virtues, but Christian ones, and by extension, the temptations he faces, are temptations to sin not merely against his host but against God.

The story is told over 101 stanzas of varying length, but following a poetic style known as the Alliterative Revival (revived from older Anglo-Saxon works). Unlike what we might think of as alliteration today, Sir Gawain’s alliteration is based on the sounds of words on the stressed syllable. To borrow an example from the Appendix, in the phrase “apt alliteration’s artful aide,” “alliteration” does NOT alliterate because the stressed syllable is “-lit-.” On the other hand, every word in the phrase “Old English art” would have been considered alliterative, because vowels alliterated with each other. Each line was divided into two halves, and the alliterative sound between the front and back half may not have always been the same (although, perhaps more so in the original than in translation). Interestingly, alliterating many (say 3 or 4) syllables in a half-line was not considered necessary. The stanzas ended with a device known as the “bob and wheel,” a five line structure of one very short (typically two to three syllables) line (the bob) followed by four more lines about half as long as the rest of the stanza (the wheel). In addition to maintaining alliteration in the wheel, a rhyme scheme, absent elsewhere, is added: ABABA. Amazingly, Tolkien is able to maintain all this complexity throughout his translation!

The language–dialect–of Sir Gawain is apparently even further from Modern English than Chaucer’s, and so Tolkien, in his introduction states that for any but the Medieval scholar translation is necessary. (A statement I easily believe based on snippets of the original in the Appendix of my copy as well as those I’ve seen online.) Reading it, I appreciate the availability of translation to bring us this gem, but is one of those many times when I have appreciated the difficulty of the translator’s task–and wondered how, with its poetic structure, it could possibly be translated into a language with completely different characteristics (as from a Germanic to a Romance language). Certainly, it seems it would bring a different reading experience–and makes me pause to wonder how different it is when translated into a descendant language. After all, there were times when I noted that the syntax seemed perhaps a bit Yoda-like: was this play of word order unique on Tolkien’s part in order to match the original’s alliteration as closely as possible, or is it a carry-over from the original? In his commentary on the verse form of the poem, Tolkien does note that at times he had to vary the alliteration more than the original, if for no other reason than that there were no appropriate equivalent-meaning words in Modern English that could alliterate with a key word that couldn’t change (a location name, for example)

(Source, Simon Armitage translation. Click either for full size)

It took me some time to decide on which translation I wanted to read of Sir Gawain. A decent number are available; the most recent by Simon Armitage is, I believe, the edition currently selected for the Norton Anthology of English Literature. However, when I read some bits as translated by Armitage, I was reminded of one of my particular translation preferences: when a work is old (especially very old, as with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), I prefer the translation to sound as if it is old as well–almost as if it is of the same era, just in English I can understand. Perhaps other translations may be of a better quality or more readable, or flow better, but Tolkien’s fits my own preferences. Sir Gawain  is old and sounds it. Of course, sometimes this means that Tolkien uses archaic (or for that matter, obscure armor-related) terms; fortunately there is a glossary. But overall, I was satisfied with my choice. It doesn’t hurt that the book comes with two other Tolkien translations as well, Pearl and Sir Orfeo. Guess what’s up next on my reading plans?

* Context information from the Introduction and Appendix to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1975 (HarperCollins) and from The Great Courses® course, The Western Literary Canon in Context, taught by Professor John M. Bowers, 2008 (The Teaching Company).

I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for the 20th Classics Club Spin. It also slots into the “translation” category for Back to the Classics 2019.

Completed: The Woman in White

Is anyone as shocked as I am to find out that it’s the end of April already? I’m really not sure where the past month went. And alas, my reading seems to have vanished with it–despite a readathon earlier this month, I haven’t finished a single book since mid-March. Guess what my plan is for May? But at least I still have a small pile of drafts to post here–it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, even if I also wrote these up over a month ago. Sigh.

Cover: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins
England, 1859

I was determined to finally read The Woman in White last autumn as a suitably seasonal read, and although I only write it up now, I did more or less succeed in reading it during the appropriate season.

I’ve long been a Collins fan, having found The Moonstone unputdownable when I read it in high school, but somehow or another I’d never managed to read his other famous mystery. While I didn’t fly through it the way I did The Moonstone (a fault, perhaps, of me as a reader), I found is surprisingly engaging considering that the mystery seemed slight, with much of the outcome well-foreshadowed.

It is a story told through the narration of several different pens, and it begins with a long section of narration by Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher who firsts meets the mysterious woman in white on his way home one night. In his recollections, he seems unexpectedly affected by the brief encounter, though perhaps this is to be expected when only days later he discovers a strong physical resemblance between the woman and one of his new pupils. The idea of a woman in white conjures up the idea of a ghost, and indeed, this flesh-and-blood woman proves to have a sort of ghostly presence throughout the rest of novel, turning up again and again, whether in person or in conversation. The mystery of her past and her present will prove to have unexpected ramifications for the remainder of our cast of characters.

And yet, it does not seem at first as if the existence of this mysterious woman should have any true impact. Walter is to teach Laura Fairlie and Marion Halcombe drawing in the months before Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival Glyde. The marriage was sanctioned by Laura’s father shortly before he died, and there seems nothing sinister in the arrangement, at least not at first. But time, money problems, and Laura’s unfortunate affection for Walter, will prove that all is perhaps not as it first seems with Sir Glyde or his friend Count Fosco.

No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace–they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship–they take us, body and soul, to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?

An early example of the mystery genre, The Woman in White remains a classic of the form. It is full of suspense and mystery and memorable characters, none of whom are extraneous to the plot. And although it sits well with the realm of Victorian sensationalist novels, I found it surprisingly feminist–it seems that Collins was not a fan of the institution of marriage, or at least the ways it could harm women. It is not merely that he gives us Marion, a strong, intelligent woman, but the undercurrent of criticism of the limitations which Laura faced as a married woman, unable to control her destiny. And although Laura may at first appear to be the prototypical Victorian lady, she has her own sort of inner strength as well, disturbed though it may be by her husband’s harsh treatment.

Suspenseful and full of great characters–Count Fosco is a fascinating study–it is no wonder that The Woman in White endures. I imagine I could read it again and get something yet different out of it. Now I’ve only to wonder why it took me so long to read it in the first place?

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Cover: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Penguin cloth bound edition)Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy
England, 1891

I can’t believe tomorrow’s the first of April already. I really don’t know where the first three months of this year have gone (although I can tell you that they were cold, gloomy, but fortunately with not too much snow). But I’ve barely read anything–judging by the number of books finished so far. Hopefully the arrival of spring (err…off-and-on–it snowed last night, just a dusting) will prompt more reading?

Some of it could be what I’m reading, too. I’ve been attempting to read the first Harry Potter novel in Spanish, which is, of course, much slower going for me than it’s English counterpart. (But I’ve been learning, too: I didn’t know there were two words in Spanish for where we would say ‘owl’ – and they apparently mean different owls!) And I’ve been oh-so-slowly making my way through The Iliad–it’s simply proving a slow read for me, much the way Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Tess of the D’Urbervilles were for me last year.

I’ve seen a number of articles/listened to a number of stories about how the Internet has changed the way we read—that people don’t sit and read for long periods of time, that our eyes and minds wander, that we don’t think as deeply. I’m beginning to wonder if that mightn’t be true for me—it certainly took long enough for me to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles: nearly five months, and it’s only 398 pages in my copy. Nor do I remember such difficulties finishing classics when I was in high school (including reading Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge), before I had ready access to the Internet and its distracting influences. Of course there’s also option b, which came to me the other night as I was shifting in my reading chair yet again: in high school I could sit for hours on end in one position before I noticed a crick in the neck or a stiffness of the back. No such luck today!

But to Tess itself.

I believe it to be one of Hardy’s better known novels; it is the story of an initially naïve young woman (barely more than a girl at the start) and the trials of her life, starting from the time an amateur historian misguidedly informs her father that he believes the family of descended from the ancient D’Urberville line. It spans a number of years, and both highs and lows, but all following along a trajectory that is seemingly determined for Tess–though the narration makes clear several “if-only” moments–from the moment her father learns of his grand ancestry.

There is so much to unpack in the novel, and the more I think on it, the more I am convinced that it needs, if not more than one reading, at least a closer reading than I gave it. There is the analysis of character: of how Tess differs from her family and companions and so suffers in ways they might not, of how Angel Clare succumbs to a morality that seems at odds with his stated religious views and which Hardy apparently condemns, and so causes further suffering to Tess and pain to himself. It is a pastoral novel, and setting and scene undoubtedly play an important part in the atmosphere and the experience of reading the novel, but reading superficially as I did, I miss any significance, any connection to plot or revelation of character.

And most interestingly to me on this first read (I feel as if I will someday be pulled back), there is Hardy’s social criticism. I recently read Wilkie Collins’ suspense-thriller The Woman in White, and am fascinated that these two well-remembered Victorian male writers seemed to have the same criticisms for the institution of marriage and the suffering of women at the hands of men. They were not of a time that the 21st reader might think of as progressive, and yet it is clear that they were observers and critiquers of the social ills that British Victorian ease and prosperity did not alleviate or prevent. (And now my brain seeks to go down a rabbit hole – thinking of Dickens and Gaskell as well – and these are only the authors I’ve read; I imagine there are others.) This illustrates the attraction of literature for the acute observer of society, but what I find most fascinating is the idea that these books, critical of their times as they were, are the ones that survive. Is it the condition of great literature that it illumines our greatest flaws, individually and socially?

I found it hard to enjoy Tess–even for a reader who is better equipped to enjoy the prose and the pacing of the story than I am, it is perhaps difficult to say “enjoy” of an ultimately tragic novel–but as I think over it more, I find myself drawn back, in a way. There will certainly be more Thomas Hardy in my reading future. I only hope I can do him more justice going forward.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Cover: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna ClarkeJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Susanna Clarke
2004, Britain

He wished he had stayed at Hurtfew Abbey, reading and doing magic for his own pleasure. None of it, he thought, was worth the loss of forty books. (Ch. 29)

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been on my shelf, and my to-be-read list for quite some time. It sounded just my thing: a tale of two magicians, set in Regency England. A sort of Harry Potter-Jane Austen mash-up. It took me some time to get to it, however, as I find so often with books I own rather than books I’ve borrowed.

It is a deliciously slow read, not the brisk jaunt through magic and manners that one might expect of a genre novel. Rather, it unfolds its tale gradually, taking us from York and the Society of Magicians–more a social dinner group, than anything–to the bustle of London, the battlefields of the Iberian Peninsula, the remote English countryside, and beyond. As the story opens, neither title character is anywhere in sight, and one wonders at first if the first magician we encounter, John Segundus, will perhaps morph into one of the titular characters. He is rather our introduction to this magical world–someone who believes in magic, but doesn’t know how to yet do it himself. It is not long, however, before Mr. Norrell comes on the scene and so begins the long, winding build-up to the great climatic battle of magic and wits. All in good manners and taste, of course.

There is an interesting tension in the world that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell inhabits, between a reality that impresses upon the reader the idea that this is almost a pure historical fiction tale–the Regency era is rendered so fully–and the wonderous magical environment overlaid upon the history. King George III and the Duke of Wellington are characters, but so are the magical Raven King and the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. More fully rounding out the depth of the invented world are the delightful footnotes, complete with (fictional) citations to historical and magical books, telling tales of the (fictional) history of English magic and folklore.

I found Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a delightful and immersive, if slow, read (though how much of that is one me?), and I could see myself returning to its magical world again. After reading it, I watched the BBC miniseries adaptation, and was equally charmed, though I really see the TV series as a complement, rather than replacement for the novel.

Christmas Reads 2018

With the New Year fast approaching, Christmas season is nearly past as well. I didn’t expect this year that I would complete any seasonal reading (too many in-progress  books already), but then my mom told me about a P.D. James short story collection, and I found that some Christmas-set reading was only my to-do list. One thing leads to another, and soon an Agatha Christie was on hold at the library as well

I’m not sure that one should really call any of James’s or Christie’s stories “seasonal” – peace, love, goodwill to all men with a side of murder just doesn’t seem very Christmas-spirit. But on the other hand, both Christie and James knew that the holidays can bring with them stress and strife, as the obligations of the season often bring together estranged family members who otherwise might conveniently forget each other’s existence. Perhaps one might say the Christmas season is actually ripe for murder?

Cover: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by PD James

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories
P.D. James
2016, England (collection of previously published stories)

“The Mistletoe Murder”

Set during World War II, a young war widow is invited to her grandmother’s estate for the Christmas Holidays, along with a couple other  relations. But the seemingly peaceful gathering is shattered when a distant cousin is found bludgeoned to death and our young heroine feels the need to solve his murder. This felt to me rather of the Golden Age of detective fiction, though perhaps more graphic or at least more serious. In fact, it made me nostalgic for Christie (thus my second seasonal read). I was not surprised by the “who” though I was so caught up in the narrative that I’d forgotten my suspicions until all was revealed. It was my favorite of the short collection.

“A Very Commonplace Murder”

A first person narrative, told by the witness to a crime, who at each phase of the investigation confirms to himself his reasons why he shouldn’t come forward…yet. The title is both apt–and not quite. I found this little tale tawdry and out of step with the others.

“The Boxdale Inheritance”

The first Adam Dalgliesh story I’ve read. (Really, I should read some full-length PD James!) Interestingly, the actual mystery is from the past, over 60 years, as Dalgliesh is asked by a friend to investigate his uncle’s murder; Dalgliesh’s friend doesn’t fell comfortable accepting an inheritance form  his late aunt if she were really the guilty party.  Although a short story, it plays with both murder and ethical concepts.

“The Twelve Clues of Christmas”

Much like the first story, this tale seemed also to have something of Christie about it – which Dalgliesh himself notes: a country house full of family only arrived for the holidays, an unexpected death, and so many clues. Twelve, to be exact. While the mystery is no match for Dalgliesh, the story and setting bring a comfortable whiff of Golden Age detective nostalgia with them (and perhaps the question – do the British really have so many family homes in which to set murders?!).

Overall, I found the stories an enjoyable afternoon diversion, but left me wanting more…

Cover: Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie
Hercule Poirot’s Chrismtas
Agatha Christie
1938, England

My immediate solution to the need for more Christmas-timed murder and mayhem was to turn to the queen of the Golden Age. A quick search turned up Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (also known as Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder). It is yet another tale of long estranged family gathering at home for Christmas, summoned by the patriarch, Simeon Lee, ostensibly to reconcile for one last family Christmas. However, Simeon is an unrepentant scoundrel, more interested in setting his sons and daughters-in-law at each other’s throats than in familial bonding. Throw in a Spanish granddaughter, a son of Simeon’s former partner from his South African diamond mining days, and a sneaky valet and it is a combustible mix, with nothing good bound to happen. Fortunately, Hercule Poirot happens to be staying nearby for the holidays, so justice is bound to be served.

The mystery is solid, and the clues and personalities laid carefully, so that while I often saw the significance of Poirot’s line of investigation, I didn’t actually work out the “who” in advance of the big reveal. Which is how I prefer my mysteries: tantalizingly close to figuring it out, but not so close that the ending is a let down. On the whole, a mostly satisfying read. On the other hand, I find myself agreeing a bit with Simeon’s granddaughter Pilar: it wasn’t quite an English Christmas. Perhaps “Hercule Poirot’s Boxing Day” would have been better?

Completed: The Warden

Cover: The Warden by Anthony TrollopeThe Warden
Anthony Trollope
1855, England

So, The Warden is my first Anthony Trollope. It won’t be my last Trollope, I hasten to add (if nothing else, Barchester Towers is sitting on my shelves, waiting patiently), though there were times when The Warden itself, slim as it is, felt a bit of a slog to get through. (Though other chapters just flew by.) It has certainly been one of several books recently instructing me in how to read – that necessity of letting the novel lead the dance, not the reader.

The party went off as such parties do: there were fat old ladies in fine silk dresses, and slim young ladies in gauzy muslin frocks; old gentlemen stood up with their backs to the empty fireplace, looking by no means so comfortable as they would have done in their own armchairs at home; and young gentlemen, rather stiff about the neck, clustered near the door, not as yet sufficiently in courage to attach the muslin frocks, who awaited the battle, drawn up in a semicircular array. The warden endeavoured to induce a charge, but failed signally, not having the tact of a general: his daughter did what she could to comfort the forces under her command, who took in refreshing rations of cake a tea, and patiently looked for the coming engagement: but she herself, Eleanor, had no spirit for the work; the only enemy whose lance she cared to encounter was not there, and she and others were somewhat dull. (Chapter 6, “The Warden’s Tea Party”)

The plot of The Warden is simple enough: Dr. John Bold, suitor to the daughter of Warden Rev. Septimus Harding, questions publicly the legality of the current division of the revenues of the estate of John Hiram, whose will, many years since, set up an almshouse for up to twelve poor elderly men of Barchester and also funding for the position of Warden to oversee the almshouse. The question at hand–does the warden have the right to a full 800 pounds a year currently received while the men only have one shilling and fourpence a day, plus lodging? This is the question that instigates the action, and how the various involved parties react is the substance of the novel.

And there are a number of parties involved. In addition to John Bold and Septimus Harding, there are his daughter Eleanor; his friend, the elderly Bishop Grantly; his elder daughter Susan and her husband, the imperious Archdeacon Grantly. The current bedesmen, recipients of the charity, are of course deeply concerned in the matter, with some, visions of riches dancing in their heads, dreaming of the success of Bold’s inquiry, while others, acknowledging the friendship and generosity of Harding, support him to the end. While the stakes most directly concern the bedesmen and Rev. Harding, Archdeacon Grantly can see only how such inquiries might damage the Church, in direct contrast to Rev. Harding’s concern with being in the right, a concern the Archdeacon cannot seem to grasp.

The Warden thus becomes an interesting character study and an investigation of human nature. The motivations and perspectives of those involved are examined and explained; there is no guesswork as to why anyone acts or doesn’t act in a certain manner. And given the feelings of these parties, the conclusion comes as no surprise–it seems that the resolution to the problem at hand could be none other than what is presented, for any person involved could not behave in any other manner.

Although this novel proved a bit of work on my part, it was a rewarding sort of work, and I look forward to further Trollope. Though, perhaps after a dose of something less concerned with 19th century church politics!

I read The Warden for both Back to the Classics 2018 and the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

Completed: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Cover: Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane AustenLady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
Jane Austen
(England, c. 1794-1818)

It is a pity that Austen didn’t live to complete her final novel.

Although I picked Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon off my shelves intending just to read Lady Susan, which was completed, though unpublished in Austen’s lifetime, in the end I decided to reread the two unfinished novels as well.

The first time I read this collection, I was disappointed primarily that The Watsons was left hanging–Emma’s story held so much interest to me. But coming at it years later, I realized that there are so many elements of The Watsons in her other novels that the plot seems anticipatable by inference, while on the other hand Sanditon appears to have just enough variation from Austen’s “norm” that it tantalizes with a world of possibilities of what might have been. While I would assume the marriage plot elements of her complete novels would be present, there’s little enough of the novel (though ever so much more than The Watsons) that I can’t say for sure who would end with who, though I may make some guesses. Nor, perhaps more importantly, can I be sure of which characters will see growth–for there are plenty of silly, or perhaps in the case of Sir Edward, dangerous, characters. Will Arthur Parker remain indolent or will a pretty girl prompt him to action? Will Sir Edward remain on his path of intrigue, or will rejection strike sense into him? (Doesn’t seem likely.) And perhaps the biggest question of all: Will Sanditon see success as a holiday town, or was part of Austen’s satire to be its failure, or even just indifference? All such questions must remain only in speculation, alas (though there seems to be no shortage of continuations by other authors).

Lady Susan, on the other hand, is very much finished. According to the introduction in my copy, Austen had even written it out in a fair copy, but did not submit it for publication, perhaps because she was unsatisfied with the epistolary style. While the style leads to a quick read, it does place limitations on how much of the story we can see –for only that which can be told in a letter can be portrayed.

There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority. (Letter 7, Lady Susan to Mrs. Johnson)

Lady Susan herself is a frequent contributor to these letters. A widow with a teenage daughter, it seems plain that her ambitions are to get her daughter out of the way–by way of a wealthy husband, if at all possible–and to perhaps make a new match for herself, or at least to divert herself a while until she can, perhaps, resume her affair with a married man. She is clearly a clever woman, and one with much spirit, who seeks her own amusement and entertainment, feeling little true sympathy for others. Although at times one may wonder if she is not unfairly treated by her times and society, limiting as it is with its expectations of “proper” female behavior and the limited opportunities for female advancement or even survival, Lady Susan’s own letters give her away as unfeeling towards her own daughter and cavalierly toying with the emotions of men in pursuit of her own motives. She cares not if she breaks hearts or tempts a man away from his relationship with another woman (though perhaps, in at least one case, this will be better in the long term for the young woman in question). Despite the limitations of the form, there is still enough here to form quite an entire picture of the Lady.

Lady Susan is by no means Austen at her finest, but it is an early example of her keen observation of society around her and remains entertaining for all its brevity. It formed the basis for the 2016 film Love & Friendship, a film I have yet to see but which I eagerly look forward to watching.

I read Lady Susan as part of the 2018 TBR Challenge, for “A Classic by a Woman Author” for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge, and for my Classics Club list.