Although I've been dipping into collections of letters here and there, I've not done a very good job at actually reading/completing many of them for Melwyk's Postal Reading Challenge. I did finish and quite enjoyed Mary Hocking's Letters from Constance. I could use another book like that I think, as nonfiction letter collections only seem to bog me down right now (though in theory I do love them). Serendipity then that one of my most recent Meville House novellas has turned out to be Jane Austen's Lady Susan, which is an epistolary novel. I read it five or six years ago, so perfect timing for a reread (and a second book read for the challenge). Jane Austen is an author I will happily revisit any time.
Lady Susan was written early in her career, about the time that she was working on Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. Lady Susan is her only epistolary novel, though Sense and Sensibility started out as an epistolary novel as well. It is thought she initially wrote it in 1793-94 and was transcribed in 1805. Her later works definitely move forward from this, and she seems much more at ease in her later works--much more like Jane Austen than someone writing in the style of the eighteenth century (if that makes sense). The novel is made up of 41 letters and a conclusion. You can read the novel online here, and there is also a helpful family tree, which isn't included in the Melville House edition.
The letters fly fast and furious back and forth (well, as much as they can in the 18th century, which actually now that I think of it, might be even faster than today!) between Lady Susan and her friend Mrs. Johnson, and between Mrs. Vernon (Lady Susan's sister-in-law) and her mother Lady de Courcy, and to a lesser extent between Lady Susan and her brother, and Sir Reginald (Lady de Courcy's husband) and his son. It didn't take long to get into the rhythm of the letter writers'missives and be able to differentiate their "voices", and of course it's sort of a delicious feeling to look over one's shoulder and read their correspondence though maybe a little bit intrusive, too. There's the feeling of being a fly on the wall to scenes you aren't and maybe shouldn't be privy to. And you get both sides, both perspectives of an event--however slanted each one is.
Lady Susan--she's quite a concoction. Although she is really quite wicked, she comes off as worldly, intelligent and polite. We know nothing of her past--only that she was married and has a daughter of 16 called Frederica who is away at school. She calls her daughter stupid and is trying to marry her off to an utter bore of a man, which of course Frederica wants no part of. She has little money and is traveling back and forth between friends and family trying to work out a monetarily beneficial and comfortable future for herself. Lady Susan is definitely not your usual Austen heroine (though I suppose in a way she is, since she is at the mercy of others in trying to marry well--just not as appealing and charming as Austen's later creations). She seems more like an anti-heroine. She is manipulative and just wants her own way and knows how to get it. She is having an affair with a married man and flirts with her sister-in-law's younger brother while at the same time trying to win her over by fawning (insincerely I might add) over her children. Of course Mrs. Vernon sees through it all.
If nothing else you have to admire Lady Susan for being a strong character--if not a particularly nice one. Even Mrs. Vernon gives her her due when it comes to looks, and notes how excessively pretty she is and so few women are as lovely or have such grace. Her manner and coversation are studied and admired. She knows how to play a room you might say. But she's awful towards her daughter. You never really get to know Frederica, and I felt rather sorry for her and wouldn't have minded getting to hear the story more from her perspective as well.
I do like epistolary novels, though I can see what their limitations can be. You don't always get all the details you'd like, though Austen really did quite an admirable job in conveying her story. Only once or twice did she give lengthy dialogs in the letters, which do feel a little artificial, but who cares as reading letters in the form of a novel is great fun. She ties up nicely the loose ends, though it felt a smidgen abrupt. Of course this was a novel she decided she didn't want to publish. It makes you wonder what she might have done with the story had she gone back and edited it for publication.
Next up is Thomas Hardy's The Distracted Preacher, which I've only just started and must admit it's an odd little story, though it's early days yet. Not the Hardy I am used to since this has decidedly comic overtones. I am now fully four books behind in my Art of the Novella subscription! Three of the books are by Russian authors so maybe in July I'll have a Russion (novella) literature festival; The Enchanted Wanderer by Nikolai Leskov (who I look forward to reading as he was influential for Chekhov, who I hope to eventually make a reading project out of), How the Ivan's Quarrelled by Nikolai Gogol, and The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoevsky. And I have Willa Cather's Alexander's Bridge--yay, another woman author. Although all the Russian authors do intimidate me the tiniest bit I look forward to reading all the novellas as I love this form of writing.