Jane Austen, psychologist II: “Lady Susan” – study of a sociopath

When she was not yet 19, Jane Austen wrote a short novel she titled “Lady Susan.” It was not published in her lifetime, possibly because she wrote about a widow who had affairs–common enough at the time, but not something a “lady” would mention in public, and an unmarried girl was not supposed to even know about such things. Other women authors of the day were harshly criticized for even hinting at such things, including Charlotte Bronte for having Rochester tell Jane Eyre that he’d had a mistress.

The novella has now been made into a film titled “Love and Friendship” (actually the title of another unpublished story by Austen). It’s beautifully done and worth seeing in itself, but even more so if you are an Austen fan, because it contains the forerunners of several of her later books’ characters: the silly Sir James Martin prefigures Mr. Collins of “Pride and Prejudice” and Mr. Rushworth of “Mansfield Park,” the hysterical Lady Manwaring will be softened into the ridiculous Charlotte Palmer of “Sense and Sensibility” and Mrs. Bennett of “Pride and Prejudice,” and the “perfect” Lord Manwaring will, I suspect, evolve to become Mr. Darcy. Lady Susan herself will be toned down to become the vain and selfish Fanny Dashwood of “Sense and Sensibility.”

Neither Lady Susan nor Fanny Dashwood care about other people; their first and only concern is for themselves, although they may cloak this selfishness by claiming they do what they do for someone else: Lady Susan for her daughter, Fanny for her son.  They are sociopaths.

According to Dr. Scott A. Bonn, professor of sociology and criminology at Drew University, the key traits that define a sociopath or psychopath are:

  • A disregard for laws and social mores

  • A disregard for the rights of others

  • A failure to feel remorse or guilt

  • A tendency to display violent behavior

He then outlines the traits unique to a sociopath:

Sociopaths tend to be nervous and easily agitated. They are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts, including fits of rage. They are . . . unable to hold down a steady job or stay in one place for very long. It is difficult but not impossible for sociopaths to form attachments with others. Many sociopaths are able to form an attachment to a particular individual or group, although they have no regard for society in general or its rules. In the eyes of others, sociopaths will appear to be very disturbed. Any crimes committed by a sociopath, including murder, will tend to be haphazard, disorganized and spontaneous rather than planned.

Lady Susan is not violent (not all sociopaths or even psychopaths are), but she fits all the rest of the criteria. She flouts social mores by having an ongoing affair with a married man (and seems, in fact, to open to more than one affair at a time.) She does not care about the rights of others or even how others might feel, including her own daughter; in fact, she sees other people solely in terms of how she might manipulate them for her own ends. She not only feels no remorse over her actions, she thinks those who try to rebuke her or hold grudges against her are wrong to do so.

She is entirely dependent on others and so has to keep moving from place to place as she wears out her welcome (and often arrives to “visit” unannounced, just to make sure the welcome mat is not withdrawn before she gets there), while remaining convinced that she has every right to expect others to take care of her. She does not, however, feel any need to pay her “friend” who travels with her and performs the services of a lady’s maid.

Another trait of sociopaths is the ability to compartmentalize. They are masters of reacting to the immediate situation and have an instinctive ability to manipulate those around them to gain their own ends. Although it is said they have little empathy, they are able to read cues from others and adapt instantly as needed. In the movie the volatile Lady Susan, who talks nonstop in every situation as a way of controlling what is happening, is able to respond in an eyeblink to anything anyone else says even if it means contradicting what she has just been saying.  As soon as she leaves the room and enters another one with different people, she undergoes a chameleon change to suit that situation. Thus she is able to get Reginald deCourcy, the young heir to a substantial estate, to propose to her–and then promptly kick him out of the house because her lover is on the way, and as he goes, hand him a letter to deliver to a friend that reveals what she is doing. When the letter is opened by Lady Manwaring instead and read aloud to Reginald, opening his eyes, her only response is to become angry and tell Reginald it was improper of him to read a private letter.

Lady Susan does not plan ahead. She reacts to what is going on but is unable to look beyond the present. She does not consider consequences and so is always surprised by them (and takes them as a personal affront). But she is a master of moving with the situation. After losing Reginald, she promptly marries the wealthy but stupid Sir James, whom she has been trying to force on her daughter.  There is no punishment in the story, no lonely exile as happens to the other adulteress Austen wrote, Maria Bertram of “Mansfield Park.” Unlike her other books, Austen does not provide moral instruction for us in “Lady Susan.” Instead, she provides us with a brilliant case study of a sociopath.

Ref: Scott A. Bonn, PhD. How to Tell a Sociopath from a Psychopath. Psychology Today, Jan. 22, 2014.

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