Was Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, based on Lady Elizabeth Berkeley, Margravine of Anspach?

Lady Susan is the title of one of Jane Austen’s early pieces, written about 1794.

The sophisticated anti-heroine Lady Susan Vernon boasts of her skills in flirting, adultery, and general scheming.

It’s thought Jane may have based the character on the notorious Lady Elizabeth. She must have at least known her reputation and maybe her works as she was a published author.

Daily Echo:

Lady Elizabeth Berkeley was born in December 1750 and in 1767 she married William, 6th Baron Craven, becoming known as Lady Betty Craven. Both Elizabeth and her husband indulged in affairs, notably Elizabeth’s scandalous liaison with the French ambassador, the Count of Guines, in 1773.

After thirteen years of marriage and seven children, Craven arranged a separation in 1780, giving Elizabeth a settlement of £1,500 a year. Only the youngest child Keppel stayed with her. She was to write movingly about women forced to leave their children behind to gain independence.

One of her next lovers was the young William Beckford, who shared Elizabeth’s love of music. In 1782 they collaborated on a musical entertainment performed to a high society audience in London.

Sometime in late 1783 she is said to have had had another affair, this time with Charles Greville. If that date is correct then Greville had Amy Lyon as his mistress at the same time, later to become Lady Hamilton and the mistress of Admiral Lord Nelson.

Daily Echo:

Taking her son Keppel with her, Elizabeth went to live near Versailles where she became romantically involved with Henry Vernon.

They toured Italy, Vienna, Warsaw and St. Petersburg where they were received by Catherine the Great. Elizabeth drove over frozen wastes in a sledge, rode with Cossack horsemen, dined with Tartar chieftains, and explored the sights of Istanbul.

In 1789 she published the story of her travels.

She also wrote to Christian Alexander, the Margrave (Prince) of Brandenburg-Ansbach-Bayreuth, whom she had met in France.

Daily Echo:

His obscure title belies his high-ranking connections. His mother was Friederike Luise, a niece of King George II, and so in 1750 his second cousin became King George III.

In 1787 Elizabeth successfully displaced the Margrave’s mistress.

In early 1791, after Alexander had sold his Margraviate for an annual stipend of 300,000 guilders, his wife died. Lord Craven politely followed suit in September and a month later Elizabeth and the Margrave married in Lisbon.

When in England the couple were known as the “Margrave and Margravine of Anspach”. While Elizabeth was snubbed by many society ladies and by King George III, they lived an opulent life.

Elizabeth stayed in Southampton intermittently from 1801 to 1810 and must surely have been in town when Jane Austen was in 1806-09.

Daily Echo:

However, she was the cream of the local society so they would have moved in very different circles.

She took a house on West Quay, and added the one next door, which together she named Anspach House. The area in front gained the name Anspach Place.

She also acquired the house next to the West Gate, though she never lived there. It is now The Pig in the Wall and carries an “Anspach Place” plaque.

In 1808 the Marquess of Lansdowne, who rebuilt Southampton Castle, was in a sailing accident. Elizabeth saw the incident and sent out her boats to rescue the party and her servants to prepare wine on the beach.

Daily Echo:

The Margrave died quite suddenly on January 5, 1806, leaving his wife a fortune of £150,000 – about £7million today.

She published her memoirs in 1826 and was living in her house in Naples when she died in 1828. She was buried in the English Cemetery there.

These days, Elizabeth is seen less as a scandalous figure, and more as a strong and independent woman from a time when society wives were expected to know and keep their place at all costs, and to never embarrass their husbands – even if separated.

Jack Wilson is a tour guide with SeeSouthampton.co.uk .