A Jane Austen pastiche involving a disgraced young lady, amateur theatricals, and matrimonial machinations.
Disliking her dull lessons, 16-year-old Susan Smithson is more pleased than saddened to be dismissed from school after allowing the music master to kiss her hand. As an orphan possessing a great deal of beauty but no fortune, Susan is dependent on the generosity of her uncle, George Collins, who’s redoubled his determination to make her “thoughtful, quiet and obedient.” At first, things go well: Susan manages to behave, meets some attractive gentlemen, and is given a new gown by a rich widow. The young woman even charms the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who’s now visiting London. But a further indiscretion with the rakish Mr. Oliver is the last straw, so Susan is sent to Hunsford to stay at the country parsonage of her tiresome uncle, the Rev. William Collins, and her Aunt Charlotte; at least her shy cousin and friend, Alicia, will be there. Lady Catherine is the clergyman’s patroness, and on returning to her country estate, she gives Susan further chances to ingratiate herself. Susan gets to know the local gentry and their set, including Frank Churchill (from Emma), the Johnson family, and their guest, the heiress Miss Richardson. After noticing that Alicia and young Henry Johnson share an attraction, Susan hits upon a scheme to bring them together: putting on a play. Using her skills at reading people and quietly manipulating them, she convinces Henry to hold amateur theatricals. Onstage and off, there’s much life-changing drama—including proposals, an elopement, and a death. Although its events take place sometime after Pride and Prejudice (and include some of that novel’s characters), McVeigh calls her debut a “Jane Austen Prequel” in that it tells the origin story of the title character in Austen’s unfinished work Lady Susan. By the time the latter novel opens, Lady Susan Vernon is a widow in her mid-30s, and although she’s beautiful and charming, she’s a cold, scheming, and shameless seductress. McVeigh introduces a much milder Susan, even if she is manipulative and self-involved. But it isn’t easy for readers to see how she’ll become the older version, as there’s little Austenian character development in these pages. Whatever Susan’s future, McVeigh portrays her as much the same person at the end of this novel as at its beginning—possibly because the young woman has no real obstacles to overcome or any foil to challenge her perceptions. This contrasts with how Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet is challenged to reconsider her judgments of Mr. Darcy, or how the timid Fanny Price must stand up for herself against Henry Crawford’s determined courtship in Mansfield Park. All Susan has to do is wait out her forced exile from London. Undeniably, though, McVeigh displays a brilliant, spot-on command of Austen’s diction and tone, as well as familiar phrases, as in the observation that “nothing is more fragile than a lady’s good name—for that, once lost, is lost forever.”
An intelligent prequel packed with enjoyable Austen references, hampered somewhat by underdeveloped characterization.