Facts are such horrid things!
—Jane Austen, Lady Susan
I just finished reading Jane Austen’s early epistolary novel, Lady Susan. It could almost be called an unfinished novel because of its precipitate ending. Just when the truth about Lady Susan’s scheming comes fully to light, the letters stop and all matters are concluded in scarcely three pages of prose. Did Austen not know how to proceed or did she simply tire of the project? It does seem as though she was following a form from the waning 18th century—correspondence around a scheming female—but that was simply not her style, to judge from her later novels. Lady Susan is not a nice person, and the only one who seems like a typical Austen heroine, her daughter Frederica, is only allowed a single, desperate letter (though we are assured she marries well in the end).
To me, Frederica seems to be the direct forerunner of Fanny Price. She is young, mild, bookish, affectionate, sensitive, neglected, and subject to the schemes of powerful adults. Her aunt writes:
“Though totally without accomplishment, she is by no means so ignorant as one might expect to find her, being fond of books and spending the chief of her time in reading.”
Books are clearly her saving grace, having lost her (presumably superior) father early in life and being neglected by her mother, both emotionally and educationally, though in the latter case that was perhaps for the best. I wonder if Austen was acquainted with any girls in similar circumstances? She evidently thought enough of the plight of such girls to create Fanny Price twenty years later. Obviously the public sympathized with the shy, overlooked, friendless girl because Mansfield Park ended up being Austen’s best-selling book in her lifetime. Today we may prefer the beautiful, talkative, swash-buckling female, but I’m glad Austen paid some attention to those who do not naturally attract it.