Jane Austen wrote an unpublished manuscript around 1795-ish (about the same time as Sense and Sensibility) called Lady Susan. For a description of the original story, you can read my post, Lady Susan: An eighteenth century epistolary novella.
In 2005, Jane Rubino and her daughter, Caitlen Rubino-Bradway, rewrote this story as a novel and called it Lady Vernon and Her Daughter. As Lady Susan had been written in a very 18th Century manner, these authors attempted to update the story as Jane Austen may have done if she had revisited it in her lifetime. That is, they tried to make it more like a Regency romance, rather than an 18th Century moralist tale.
In order to do this, the story has been changed quite remarkably from its original, making use of the idea that the way people present themselves to others is not always an accurate representation of who they really are.
Lady Susan was originally portrayed by Jane Austen as a manipulative, controlling and seductive woman, willing to use other people ruthlessly to obtain her own ends. In contrast, Lady Vernon is portrayed as a misunderstood woman who is fiercely maligned and gossiped about by her so-called friends and family.
So, what Jane Austen represented as fact in her story, these authors have represented as hearsay. Lady Vernon still has a reputation as a manipulative controlling person, but those closest to her – like her daughter, Frederica, and her childhood friend, Sir James – know that this is not really her.
There is something really wrong – in my mind – about changing the plots of historical literature! In fact, I even struggle watching movie adaptations of historical literature because of the changes that are made to the story line. When I first began reading this book, I really hated the way the plot had been changed. It was really difficult for me to like Lady Vernon as a character – as the authors evidently wanted me to do -, especially because Jane Austen had originally not intended this character to be liked.
That being said, once I had struggled epically through half of the book (trying not to lose the motivation to finish reading it!), I began to appreciate the clever twist to the original story.
As Lady Susan was originally a epistolary novel (a novel made up of largely of letters to and from each of the characters), it is quite plausible that the characters may not have represented the truth to each other. It is even plausible that Susan may not have represented her own motives or personality accurately in her own letters. It is this plausibility that Lady Vernon and her Daughter hinges on, using it to twist the original story. So, the motives and personalities of each of the main characters are inverted. Good becomes bad, and bad becomes good. Close friendships become distant, and distant acquaintances become best friends. Those who were deceived are now in possession of the whole truth, and vice versa.
One of my main criticisms of this book (aside from the unsettling changes to the original plot) is the level of character development. I got quite lost at the beginning of the story, finding it quite difficult to understand the different characters and how they differed from each other. This was probably exacerbated because of the plot changes. It wasn’t until about halfway through that I really settled into the story and felt I knew the characters well.
To anyone thinking of reading this book, I would recommend to also read Lady Susan (either before or afterwards), as it does make the appreciation of the book richer.
Have you read this novel? What did you think of it? How does it compare to Lady Susan?
Sources and Relevant Links
Lady Vernon and her Daughter (2005), by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway – buy online
Lady Susan, by Jane Austen – read online