Sometimes you know. You just know. Instinctively and naturally, you avoid certain people.
It’s usually because of something they’ve done; some past act that makes you uncomfortable or something they’ve said (perhaps even in jest). Whatever the case, something just doesn’t sit quite right with you.
They show up and instinctively an internal sensor goes up — invisibly orbiting your head — and you make a mental note, a mental warning: AVOID! AVOID!
I think one of the chief likable traits one finds in a favorite Jane Austen character is the gift of discernment. We all respect good discernment. I believe it’s why we love Elizabeth Bennet so much. Because, she has…the gift.
It’s really only when she fails to use that gift that she gets in trouble (believing Wickham’s nonsense about Darcy). And let’s face it, Austen’s narrative misdirection throws us all off course, so we can’t blame Lizzie for being fooled.
In the story of Lady Susan (a story written in a series of letters by Austen early in her career before she even wrote Elinor and Marianne which would later become Sense and Sensibility), we see the gift of discernment is very much present in the character of Mrs. Vernon who, in my opinion, is the real heroine of the story. Yes, she can smell a rat a mile away. Lady Susan tries to act the part of good girl, but Mrs. V sees right through it.
Mrs. Vernon also recognizes that her own brother is as gullible as they come and warns her mother (just as Lizzie warned Mr. Bennet about Lydia’s flirtatious misgivings) about the widow and snake charmer, Lady Susan.
She wishes that Reginald could sense the same. AVOID! AVOID!
There are fine traces and early echoes of several Austen characters in the book. Lady Susan, I see as a mixture of Mary Crawford and Mrs. Norris from Mansfield Park in her unfair treatment of poor Frederica.
And in Frederica, how can one not think of Fanny Price?
Reginald? Edmund Bertram comes to mind as he’s so easily swayed. Sorry, I know a lot of readers love Edmund, but he’s weak (plus, he doesn’t deserve Fanny’s love, but that’s an entirely different story). Reginald, however, like Edmund does have a kind heart. It is obvious that he is moved by Frederica’s gentle and unaffected appeal and genuinely wants to reach out and help.
But, it is Mrs. Vernon who moves the story and gets it right from the get-go. She knows. She warns. She doesn’t judge (there’s a big difference) and she avoids.
Discernment is indeed her gift.