A couple of months ago I read and enjoyed Janet Todd's first venture into fictional writing, A Man of Genius - I reviewed it for Shiny New Books and you can read my review of it here. Now, somehow or other, Prof. Todd has managed to publish a second novel - presumably one that was already in existence. This one, with it's lovely cover, is a reimagining of Jane Austen's early novel Lady Susan, which was probably written in the mid-1790s but not published till the end of the 19th century. Most real Austen lovers will probably have read it, though it's often treated as something of a curiosity. It's very short, more of a novella really, and it's written in the form of letters, an epistolary novel to give it its correct name, and it's interesting because it shows a side of Austen we don't usually see. Why? Because Lady Susan has very little to recommend her apart from her looks, superficial charm, and ability to manipulate people in order to get her own way. She might, perhaps, appear as a minor character in one of the more mature novels, but it's interesting to encounter her here as the central character, mistreating her daughter, sleeping with her best friend's husband, flirting with her daughter's intended fiancé, and sponging off those who are richer and better settled than herself. I re-read it after I'd read Janet Todd's version, and enjoyed it a lot, though I wouldn't put it in a class with the later novels.
Austen's novella was obviously not intended for publication, and it ends rather abruptly. It also lacks, owing to its form, the ability to see what other characters are thinking and doing. I suppose that may have been the reason for this new adaptation, which sticks rigidly to Austen's original in terms of the basic plot, but adds to and embellishes it considerably. Most notably we get to see into the mind and heart of Lady Susan's unfortunate daughter Frederika, a shy, insecure teenager who is desperately missing her recently dead father. She presumably took after him, as he sounds as if he was a good man, and she is truly the polar opposite of her mother, who despises her for her quiet, gentle nature. We see her trailing around the various grand houses where her mother has managed to take up residence, having a miserable time at a boarding school in London, being more or less assaulted by the unpleasant young man her mother wants her to marry, falling desperately in love with a man who Lady Susan has got her claws into. As for Lady S herself, her extra-marital exploits are spelled out in ways that Austen would quite possibly have never even heard of and certainly would not have written about.
This is far from the first spin-off from Lady Susan, and no doubt won't be the last. In fact a film has recently come out, rather confusingly called Love and Friendship (the title of one of Austen's other youthful efforts) starring Kate Beckinsale as the eponymous heroine. You can read something about that one here. Perhaps lovers of the film will want to pursue Lady Susan further, and this novel will give them a chance to do so. But I'd strongly recommend taking a look at the original - I got it on Kindle for free, and read it in about an hour.