A Regency Delight
Susan: A Jane Austen Prequel
First in The Warleigh Hall Jane Austen series. A prequel to Austen's Lady Susan.
Sixteen-year-old Susan Smithson - pretty but poor, clever but capricious - has just been expelled from a school for young ladies in London.
At the mansion of the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, she attracts a raffish young nobleman. But, at the first hint of scandal, her guardian dispatches her to her uncle Collins' rectory in Kent, where her sensible cousin Alicia lives and "where nothing ever happens."
Here Susan mischievously inspires the local squire to put on a play, with consequences no one could possibly have foreseen. What with the unexpected arrival of Frank Churchill, Alicia's falling in love and a tumultuous elopement, rural Kent will surely never seem safe again...
After supper, Mr Collins uncorked his claret and addressed Edward: ‘And so, what say you, nephew? This deplorably self-aggrandising event is in only two days’ time. The play could scarcely be more ill-chosen; the performances are certain to be risible; and yet – when all is said and all is done – the fellow is our near-neighbour, and has been generous to the girls, besides.’
‘Too generous, sir, in my opinion.’
‘Perhaps, as you suggest, too generous. My dear Charlotte agrees with you. She fears they are distracted, to the great detriment of our connections at Rosings – and to Susan’s studies too. Which she was sent here on purpose to improve.’
‘That is of no great consequence,’ said Edward. ‘Susan will never attend to anything requiring application. Her fancy has always overruled her intellect – and always will.’
‘My own concern is more that the Johnsons’ influence might prove too great a temptation. Johnson himself is inexplicable! – He has hosted dances – inaugurated a hunt – and perpetuated every kind of display imaginable, even before the play! And yet he is also supporting your aunt’s new school, which shall bear his name. Without him, between ourselves, we could never have encompassed it.’
‘I have no such fears for Alicia, but Susan… You were not in town to observe the machinations by which Susan secured Lady Catherine’s good graces. Her ladyship, for my cousin, is no more than a means to an end. She does not comprehend the gulf that exists – and is intended to exist – between ourselves and such great people. In her mind, I grieve to say, there appears to be no gulf at all.’
His uncle thumped the table. ‘Precisely! Even her manners, at Rosings, seem entirely different! There is some genius to it, because her ladyship has always preferred young ladies to be reserved and discreet. Her own daughter’s spirits seemed sometimes low to the point of oppression before she was wed, though she has assuredly gained confidence since.’
‘My dear sir, though it grieves me to admit it, Susan can deceive. I have never, in the entire course of our lives, heard her employ a softer tone than she uses with her ladyship. As for pertness, you and I might observe a thousand instances in a single day, yet with her ladyship she hardly ventures to comment! It is as if there are two Susans: one who is quiet, loves poetry and possesses a most ladylike wit – and the other, who is mocking and provocative and utilises her charm to her own advantage.’
Mr Collins very nearly banged the table again, but his hand still ached, so he forbore. ‘You have described her to perfection! – How ironic it is that the one true actor of the party has never been called upon to act! I know that this entire play – would that the notion had never occurred to Mr Johnson – greatly troubles your aunt, and that she will be exceedingly relieved when Friday is passed. Yet we cannot offend Mr Johnson – and does not her ladyship attend?’
‘I believe so,’ said Edward.
‘But I have an ill feeling about this play, as does Charlotte – and her instinct is second to no one’s. What a fortunate day it was when she accepted me!’
‘I only wish that I might be half so fortunate. And yet, I did hear that she was not your first choice.’
His uncle sighed, and his waistcoat popped a button. ‘I am astonished that such a rumour ever reached you – yet such was, indeed, the case. Due to the reversion of the Longbourn estate, I considered it most becoming to choose a wife from amongst the five Bennet girls – and I visited there with nothing less momentous in mind. Miss Bennet, an exceedingly sweet, pretty girl, being already spoken for, I made an offer for the hand of the second, who is now married to Mr Darcy. However, my cousin Elizabeth, doubtless already conscious of her own noble destiny, disdained me. Their mother then hinted that Miss Mary would bless herself at such an unlooked-for opportunity – but I had already conceived hopes of persuading your aunt to make me the happiest of men. I shall never forget that day! I set off early – the sun had scarcely risen – to her father’s abode. Imagine my surprise to encounter her, all alone, quietly perusing her psalter – almost as if waiting for me. I can see her now, so composed, that dappled sunlight on her hair…’ He paused, in near ecstasy.
‘Such an occurrence,’ observed his nephew, ‘must have assured you that the marriage was destined to be – though very ill luck on Miss Mary, of course.’
Alice McVeigh was born in South Korea, of American diplomatic parents, and lived in Asia until she was 13. At 22 she came to London to study with Jacqueline du Pré. Since then, she has performed with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic throughout Europe, America and Asia.
Her first two contemporary novels were published by Orion Publishing/Hachette, and her first play (Beating Time) was put on at the Lewisham Theatre. After spending some years working as a ghost writer, her Kirkus-starred, Chanticleer Cygnus Prize-longlisted Last Star Standing was published by Unbound Publishing under her pen name (Spaulding Taylor) in February, 2021.
Three months later, Susan: A Jane Austen Prequel was published, with its sequel planned for Jan 2022. Winner of the Global Book Award's gold medal (historical) and longlisted for the Goethe Award, Publishers Weekly rates it 10/10 for the current BookLife Award ("Pitch-perfect: this Jane Austenesque novel echoes the master herself").