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Austen's "most wicked tale," Lady Susan is a short epistolary novel by Jane Austen, possibly written in 1794 but not published until 1871. Lady Susan is a selfish, attractive woman, who tries to trap the best possible husband while maintaining a relationship with a married man. She subverts all the standards of the romantic novel; she has an active role, she's not only beautiful but intelligent and witty, and her suitors are significantly younger than she is.
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First digital edition 2017 by Anna Ruggieri
LADY SUSAN VERNONTO MR. VERNON
MY DEAR BROTHER,—I can no longer refuse myself thepleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last partedof spending some weeks with you at Churchhill, and, therefore, ifquite convenient to you and Mrs. Vernon toreceive me at present, Ishall hope within a few days to be introduced to a sister whom Ihave so long desired to be acquainted with. My kind friends hereare most affectionately urgent with me to prolong my stay, buttheir hospitable and cheerful dispositions lead them too much intosociety for my present situation and state of mind; and Iimpatiently look forward to the hour when I shall be admitted intoyour delightful retirement.
I long to be made known to your dear little children, in whosehearts I shall be very eager to secure an interest I shall soonhave need for all my fortitude, as I am on the point of separationfrom my own daughter. The long illness of her dear father preventedmy paying her that attention which duty and affection equallydictated, and I have too much reason to fear that the governess towhose care I consigned her was unequal to the charge. I havetherefore resolved on placing her at one of the best privateschools in town, where I shall have an opportunity of leaving hermyselfin my way to you. I am determined, you see, not to be deniedadmittance at Churchhill. It would indeed give me most painfulsensations to know that it were not in your power to receiveme.
Your most obliged and affectionate sister,
LADY SUSAN VERNON TO MRS. JOHNSON
You were mistaken, my dear Alicia, in supposing me fixed at thisplace for the rest of the winter: it grieves me to say how greatlyyou were mistaken, for I have seldom spent three months moreagreeably than those which have just flown away. At present,nothing goes smoothly; the females of the family are united againstme. You foretold how it would be when I first came to Langford, andMainwaring is so uncommonly pleasing that I was not withoutapprehensions formyself. I remember saying to myself, as I drove tothe house, "I like this man, pray Heaven no harm come of it!" But Iwas determined to be discreet, to bear in mind my being only fourmonths a widow, and to be as quiet as possible: and I have been so,mydear creature; I have admitted no one's attentions butMainwaring's. I have avoided all general flirtation whatever; Ihave distinguished no creature besides, of all the numbersresorting hither, except Sir James Martin, on whom I bestowed alittle notice,in order to detach him from Miss Mainwaring; but, ifthe world could know my motive THERE they would honour me. I havebeen called an unkind mother, but it was the sacred impulse ofmaternal affection, it was the advantage of my daughter that led meon; and if that daughter were not the greatest simpleton on earth,I might have been rewarded for my exertions as I ought.
Sir James did make proposals to me for Frederica; but Frederica,who was born to be the torment of my life, chose to set herself soviolently against the match that I thought it better to lay asidethe scheme for the present. I have more than once repented that Idid not marry him myself; and were he but one degree lesscontemptibly weak I certainly should: but I must own myself ratherromantic in that respect, and that riches only will not satisfy me.The event of all this is very provoking: Sir James is gone, Mariahighly incensed, and Mrs. Mainwaring insupportably jealous; sojealous, in short, and so enraged against me, that, in the furyofher temper, I should not be surprized at her appealing to herguardian, if she had the liberty of addressing him: but there yourhusband stands my friend; and the kindest, most amiable action ofhis life was his throwing her off for ever on her marriage. Keep uphis resentment, therefore, I charge you. We are now in a sad state;no house was ever more altered; the whole party are at war, andMainwaring scarcely dares speak to me. It is time for me to begone; I have therefore determined on leaving them,and shall spend,I hope, a comfortable day with you in town within this week. If Iam as little in favour with Mr. Johnson as ever, you must come tome at 10 Wigmore street; but I hope this may not be the case, foras Mr. Johnson, with all his faults, is aman to whom that greatword "respectable" is always given, and I am known to be sointimate with his wife, his slighting me has an awkward look.
I take London in my way to that insupportable spot, a countryvillage; for I am really going to Churchhill. Forgive me, my dearfriend, it is my last resource. Were there another place in Englandopen to me I would prefer it. Charles Vernon is my aversion; and Iam afraid of his wife. At Churchhill, however, I must remain till Ihave something better inview. My young lady accompanies me to town,where I shall deposit her under the care of Miss Summers, inWigmore street, till she becomes a little more reasonable. She willmade good connections there, as the girls are all of the bestfamilies. The price is immense,and much beyond what I can everattempt to pay.
Adieu, I will send you a line as soon as I arrive in town.
MRS. VERNON TO LADY DE COURCY
My dear Mother,—I am very sorry to tell you that it willnot be in ourpower to keep our promise of spending our Christmaswith you; and we are prevented that happiness by a circumstancewhich is not likely to make us any amends. Lady Susan, in a letterto her brother-in-law, has declared her intention of visiting usalmost immediately; and as such a visit is in all probabilitymerely an affair of convenience, it is impossible to conjecture itslength. I was by no means prepared for such an event, nor can I nowaccount for her ladyship's conduct; Langford appeared so exactlythe place for her in every respect, as well from the elegant andexpensive style of living there, as from her particular attachmentto Mr. Mainwaring, that I was very far from expecting so speedy adistinction, though I always imagined from her increasingfriendship for us since her husband's death that we should, at somefuture period, be obliged to receive her. Mr. Vernon, I think, wasa great deal too kind to her when he was in Staffordshire; herbehaviour to him, independent of her general character, hasbeen soinexcusably artful and ungenerous since our marriage was first inagitation that no one less amiable and mild than himself could haveoverlooked it all; and though, as his brother's widow, and innarrow circumstances, it was proper to render her pecuniaryassistance, I cannot help thinking his pressing invitation to herto visit us at Churchhill perfectly unnecessary. Disposed, however,as he always is to think the best of everyone, her display ofgrief, and professions of regret, and general resolutions ofprudence, were sufficient to soften his heart and make him reallyconfide in her sincerity; but, as for myself, I am stillunconvinced, and plausibly as her ladyship has now written, Icannot make up my mind till I better understand her real meaning incoming to us. You may guess, therefore, my dear madam, with whatfeelings I look forward to her arrival. She will have occasion forall those attractive powers for which she is celebrated to gain anyshare of my regard; and I shall certainly endeavour to guard myselfagainst their influence, if not accompanied by something moresubstantial. She expresses a most eager desire of being acquaintedwith me, and makes very gracious mention of my children but I amnot quite weak enough to suppose a woman who has behaved withinattention, if not with unkindness, to her own child, should beattached to any of mine. Miss Vernon is to be placed at a school inLondon before her mother comes to us which I am glad of, for hersake and my own. It must be to her advantage to be separated fromher mother, and a girl of sixteen who has received so wretched aneducation, could not be a very desirable companion here. Reginaldhas long wished, I know, to see the captivating Lady Susan, and weshall depend on his joining our party soon. I am glad to hear thatmy father continues so well; and am, with best love, &c.,
MR. DE COURCY TO MRS. VERNON
My dear Sister,—I congratulate you and Mr. Vernon on beingabout to receive into your familythe most accomplished coquette inEngland. As a very distinguished flirt I have always been taught toconsider her, but it has lately fallen in my way to hear someparticulars of her conduct at Langford: which prove that she doesnot confine herself to that sort of honest flirtation whichsatisfies most people, but aspires to the more deliciousgratification of making a whole family miserable. By her behaviourto Mr. Mainwaring she gave jealousy and wretchedness to his wife,and by her attentions to a young man previously attached to Mr.Mainwaring's sister deprived an amiable girl of her lover.
I learnt all this from Mr. Smith, now in this neighbourhood (Ihave dined with him, at Hurst and Wilford), who is just come fromLangford where he was a fortnight with her ladyship, and who istherefore well qualified to make the communication.
What a woman she must be! I long to see her, and shall certainlyaccept your kind invitation, that I may form some idea of thosebewitching powers which can do so much—engaging at the sametime, and in the same house, the affections of two men, who wereneither of them at liberty to bestow them—and all thiswithout the charm of youth! I am glad to find Miss Vernon does notaccompany her mother to Churchhill, as she has not evenmanners torecommend her; and, according to Mr. Smith's account, is equallydull and proud. Where pride and stupidity unite there can be nodissimulation worthy notice, and Miss Vernon shall be consigned tounrelenting contempt; but by all that I can gather Lady Susanpossesses a degree of captivating deceit which it must be pleasingto witness and detect. I shall be with you very soon, and amever,
Your affectionate brother,
R. DE COURCY.
LADY SUSAN VERNON TO MRS. JOHNSON
I receivedyour note, my dear Alicia, just before I left town,and rejoice to be assured that Mr. Johnson suspected nothing ofyour engagement the evening before. It is undoubtedly better todeceive him entirely, and since he will be stubborn he must betricked. I arrived here in safety, and have no reason to complainof my reception from Mr. Vernon; but I confess myself not equallysatisfied with the behaviour of his lady. She is perfectlywell-bred, indeed, and has the air of a woman of fashion, but hermanners arenot such as can persuade me of her being prepossessed inmy favour. I wanted her to be delighted at seeing me. I was asamiable as possible on the occasion, but all in vain. She does notlike me. To be sure when we consider that I DID take some pains toprevent my brother-in-law's marrying her, this want of cordialityis not very surprizing, and yet it shows an illiberal andvindictive spirit to resent a project which influenced me six yearsago, and which never succeeded at last.
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