In 1871, Jane Austen's nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh published a 2nd edition of his biography of his aunt, including fragments of unfinished works and one previously unpublished brief Epistolary Novel. The untitled text is theorized to have been completed around 1805. Austen-Leigh titled it Lady Susan, and the eponymous Rich Bitch is to her story what Heathcliff is to Wuthering Heights — a conniving, selfish, amoral Villain Protagonist who causes misery and strife for everyone who comes in contact with her, except with no Freudian Excuse and zero redeeming qualities.
7 months prior to the writing of the novel's first letter, 35-year-old Lady Susan Vernon's husband died. She spent the last three of those months with the Mainwarings, but she finds herself no longer welcome after starting an affair with Mr. Mainwaring and ruining the engagement between their niece Miss Mainwaring and the wealthy but slow-witted Sir James Martin. Her goal, however, isn't to marry Sir James herself but to have him marry her 16-year-old daughter Frederica. Although the conflict revolves around her greatest enemy — her mother — instead of her, Frederica breaks crucial rules of etiquette (particularly regarding interaction between men and women) like Marianne Dashwood, dares to show attraction to a man before he shows attraction to her like Catherine Moreland, is persecuted by a Wicked Stepmother-esque guardian like Fanny Price, is the Black Sheep of her family and criticized for her quietness and self-control like Elinor Dashwood and Anne Elliot, and is no dashing beauty (like her mother) who effortlessly charms men at first sight but is misjudged and dismissed as insignificant and undesirable in every way by her future husband until he learns the error of his first impressions like Elizabeth Bennet was, and most importantly, is determined to Marry for Love like any Jane Austen heroine.
As punishment for refusing to marry Sir James, Lady Susan sends her daughter to Miss Summers' Boarding School until she changes her mind. As she is not patient enough to wait for Mrs. Mainwaring to die and free Mr. Mainwaring to marry her, Lady Susan removes herself to her husband's brother's estate of Churchhill, to the extreme displeasure of his wife Catherine, who, unlike her husband Charles, has not forgotten how Lady Susan tried to sabotage their marriage and prevented Charles from purchasing the family estate Vernon Castle from his brother. While at Churchhill, Lady Susan forms a second goal — to seduce Catherine's brother Reginald de Courcy. In a matter of weeks, Lady Susan has him completely duped and wrapped around her finger. She doesn't find him nearly as satisfying as the slavish, worshipful Mr. Mainwaring and isn't terribly excited about marrying him unless his father dies, increasing his fortune, but conquering his initial dislike of her is just too much fun!
Lady Susan eventually puts her first plan into action and writes to Frederica of her pending Arranged Marriage to Sir James. Well, as we know, there's only one thing a girl can do in this situation — run away. Miss Summers refuses to readmit the girl into her school, so the Vernons bring her to stay with them. Catherine soon notices, to her delight, that her niece is falling in love with Reginald and hopes that she could be the means of freeing him from his blind devotion to Lady Susan. When Sir James shows up and the truth about Lady Susan's intentions, her reprehensible treatment of her daughter, and Frederica's abhorrence for the marriage come out, it looks like Reginald's eyes will be opened at last. Alas, Lady Susan is able to smooth things over with Reginald — which throughly pleases her — but at the cost of getting rid of Sir James and temporarily setting aside her first Evil Plan, which does not please her. Her best friend and sidekick-of-sorts, Alicia Johnson (whose husband was Mrs. Mainwaring's guardian), advises Lady Susan to leave Churchhill at the same time Reginald does, eventually marry him, come to London and either renew or finally end her affair with Mainwaring, and leave Frederica behind with the Vernons where she won't bother her. Lady Susan follows her friend's plan.
The novel provides examples of:
- Accomplice by Inaction: With the exception of Catherine Vernon, everyone lets Lady Susan hurt and abuse her poor woobtastic daughter, because they are blinded by the mother's charm and filmsy justification, being subjects of her manipulation and sometimes even her Unwitting Pawn. They are mostly forgiven by Frederica and Catherine in the end.
- Bittersweet Ending: Frederica is freed from her mother and eventually marries Reginald, but Alicia and Lady Susan plan to goad Mrs. Mainwaring's nerves into killing her as quickly as possible, and Lady Susan's schemes against the marriage of Sir James and Miss Mainwaring succeed.
- Bookworm: Frederica
- Calling the Old Man Out: Catherine briefly calls Lady Susan out for her mistreatment of her daughter in Letter 24.
- Canon Foreigner: Mrs. Cross, Lady Susan's companion, in Love & Friendship.
- The Ditz: Sir James. The adaptation takes this Up to Eleven.
- Exact Words: Lady Susan forbids Frederica from telling her aunt and uncle about her hatred of Sir James or asking them for help... but she never forbade her from turning to Reginald de Courcy for help.
- Since Mr. Johnson forbids Lady Susan from staying in his house during his pending trip to Bath, Alicia finds accommodations for her friend nearby and plans for them to spend all their time together, "for I consider my promise to Mr. Johnson as comprehending only (at least in his absence) your not sleeping in the house."
- Gone Horribly Right: Lady Susan wanted to tell Reginald to keep his distance for awhile in a way that would make him love her all the more. She succeeded so well that he showed up at her house in town right before her other boyfriend was due to arrive.
- Have a Gay Old Time: Sir James has been "making love" to Maria Mainwaring, Lady Susan suspects her daughter of "making love" to Reginald, and of course there is a lot of "intercourse" going on.
- Hero with Bad Publicity: Frederica, thanks to her mother.
- Hidden Depths: Frederica's rebellious streak.
- Hooked Up Afterwards: Frederica and Reginald; Lady Susan and Sir James.
- Hope Spot: Letter 23.Catherine Vernon: (in Letter 24) Little did I imagine, my dear Mother, when I sent off my last letter, that the delightful perturbation of spirits I was then in would undergo so speedy, so melancholy a reverse.
- I Love You Because I Can't Control You: Lady Susan's initial attraction to Reginald.Lady Susan: There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predetermined to dislike acknowledge one's superiority.
- Kick the Dog: Which comes across as particularly vicious when the proverbial "dog" is your own daughter.
- Lemony Narrator in The Conclusion:"This correspondence, by a meeting between some of the parties, and a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post Office revenue, be continued any longer."
- Loving a Shadow: Reginald
- Malicious Slander: Lady Susan spreads this about Frederica and manages to make Reginald believe that the entire world is spreading this about her.
- Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: Lady Susan's own plans ultimately lead to their own failure.
- Not So Different/Foils: Lady Susan and her daughter both prove to be willing to twist Exact Words and defy propriety to get what they want.
- Oedipus Complex: Gender Flipped with Frederica's and Lady Susan's rivalry over Reginald de Courcy.
- Only Sane Man: Catherine is the only who can see Lady Susan for the hypocrite she is, while her brother and husband are wholly taken in.
- Opposites Attract: The universally-agreeable and accommodating Charles Vernon and his more practical, discerning wife Catherine.
- Parental Abandonment: The Conclusion explains that Lady Susan ultimately sent her daughter to stay with the Vernons and gradually just ceased to write to her.
- Parental Marriage Veto: Lady Susan's dictatorship over her daughter's love life aside, Reginald also gets a letter from his father highly advising him against marrying Lady Susan. As Catherine and her mother could have told him, it does no good.
- Playing Hard to Get: After returning to London, Lady Susan writes to Reginald that, as much as she loves him and as much as it pains her to fulfill her duty, she's only been widowed ten months, and etiquette requires they not get engaged too soon, so they better make the honorable sacrifice and see less of each other for awhile. See Gone Horribly Right.
- Reverse Psychology: Lady Susan's reluctance to allow Frederica to return to Churchhill."Mrs. Vernon was then convinced of what she had only suspected before, that she might have spared herself all the trouble of urging a removal which Lady Susan had doubtless resolved on from the first."
- Runaway Fiancée: Frederica — this being Jane Austen, Reality Ensues, and she gets caught on the road.
- Shipper on Deck: Catherine and her parents ship Reginald with Frederica, not least of all because she's not Lady Susan.
- The Voiceless: In the film, Lord Mainwaring appears on screen, but has no lines. He is the Foil to Sir James, who never stops babbling.
- What Does He See In Her?: Catherine Vernon can't for the life of her figure out how Reginald could let himself be duped by Lady Susan.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Charles Vernon
- Wrong Genre Savvy: Reginald, you have the heroine and the Rich Bitch completely mixed up, as well as who is spreading Malicious Slander about whom!
- Your Cheating Heart: Lady Susan's affair with Mr. Mainwaring. In the film, she continues the affair after her marriage, although Sir James is too slow on the uptake to figure that out.