Postmodern Conservative

More on Whit Stillman’s LOVE & FRIENDSHIP

There were two questions I posed but left undiscussed in the previous post that we’ll begin with.  I additionally now have an answer to the problems raised by the film’s title. 

Male Irrelevance

5.)  What is going on with the character of Reginald in the film, and what does this say about the place of males in it? 

As discussed previously, the film is not based upon her very early epistolary novel Love and Friendship, but upon her early epistolary novel Lady Susan.  One distinctive thing about the latter is that, more than in any other of her works, men influence none of the action.  There is even a sense that the very quality of their character has a merely passive role in relation to the plot.

Take Reginald.  He is too subject to pride, symbolized in the film by our brief sighting of a peacock when he and his father meet, but it is important to notice that his character is basically decent.  This is slightly more obvious in the book—we get matter-of-fact mentions of his virtue from his mother and sister, and in his first letter, when he still accepts the stories he’s heard about Lady Susan’s behavior, his being intrigued with her is mixed with his being properly judgmental:  with respect to the rumor that while at Langford she seduced Mrs. Manwaring’s husband, he says “…she does not confine herself to that sort of honest flirtation which satisfies most people, but aspires to the more delicious gratification of making a whole family miserable.” 

However, she convinces him these reports are false, and had such avowals and other deceptions of hers not been by chance revealed to him, he would have married her.  He had no “spider sense” concerning her character.  His decency was a factor which the flow of the action took into account, but which he did not himself employ in any manner which directed the action.

In Lady Susan the battlefield of the Husband-Hunt admittedly involves men, but is entirely commanded by women.  The key letters are between women.  It is only Reginald’s sister and mother on one hand, and Lady Susan and her friend Alicia Johnson on the other, who know how likely Reginald is to fall to Lady Susan’s wiles.  He can’t see it himself even when confronted by his father about his growing attachment to her, and his reassurances to his father are enough to satisfy him that his son is not in danger.  That is how blind both of them are—and the father was never to have known about it all in the first place, as daughter and mother worried it could impact his health.  Through a chance reading of a letter meant for his wife, he stumbles into glimpsing the love-battlefield that the letters exchanged between the women reveal; and they find ways, after his hapless attempt at fatherly intervention, to keep him from learning anything more about it.  Once the real action is completed, they will come to him and report the news:  either something like “Reginald is married to Lady Susan, and we must make the best of that sad situation,” or, “Reginald is engaged to be married to the fine Miss ______, and he seeks your approval which we are certain you ought to bestow.”

In one sense, Stillman plays up this conceit in the film, most interestingly by giving slightly more attention to the Charles Vernon character, the husband who will happily do whatever his wife (Reginald’s sister Catherine) asks concerning the household and social relations.  Like Reginald’s father he is unaware of Reginald’s danger; unlike him, he has a too-charitable view of Lady Susan.  Still, he really is a good chap, and it is he who utters the line about love’s partaking of the “divine.”  His is a decency that, to properly flourish, must be married-off correctly.  In his case, divinity arranged things well. 

Or, was it the females that did that?  “Artlessness will never do in love matters…” Susan writes at one point.  We even learn that there was some effort back in the day on the part of none other than herself to prevent Charles Vernon’s marriage to Catherine!  The one he is so docilely happy in!  Other women, including of course Catherine, presumably fought Lady Susan on that.  And now, largely the same group of women are fighting another beneath-the-male-radar battle with her to keep Reginald from marrying her. 

But in another sense, Stillman plays down the idea of male irrelevance because he brings Reginald’s character more into the center of things.  This might have been necessary given the difficulties inherent in adapting the epistolary novel.  The screenplay’s greatest alteration of the novel’s plot occurs right at the climax, giving us more direct dialogue between Reginald and Susan, and likely because the novel’s action at that point would have been inadequately dramatic if conveyed via film.  By this alteration, Stillman also gives us more of a sense of Reginald’s thinking.  This does not, however, make us think more highly of (his) Reginald. 

The Reginald of the novel is clueless about Susan’s key love-machinations, but other than that he is understood to be a basically admirable man.  The loss of his love for her due to the discovery of her true character is immediate and automatic—once he learns the true facts about Susan, that’s that.  By contrast, the Reginald of the film does not immediately decide to break off with Susan once the (extremely-high) likelihood of her treachery and adultery has been revealed.  Incredibly, we see him hesitate, and still pursue his desire to marry her.  Some of this might be unavoidable due to the plot-changes, but I think it most of all comes about out of Stillman’s desire for us to see in Reginald, what we normally see in a female Austen character:  the process of un-deception, where it only gradually dawns on the character how wrong she has been.  So while we thus learn more about and feel more for Stillman’s Reginald than Austen’s, we also regard him as more pathetic.  Their secret engagement actually has to be broken off by her.  Until that moment he seems to think they can talk it out, that is, that some semi-passable explanation for her behavior can be found. 

Reginald’s Fascination

6.) Why does Reginald’s basic virtue and fine cultivation not keep him from falling for Susan? 

A simple answer would be that, in love-matters, men, even the best of men, are largely clueless.  It is up to the women to arrange things right.  But while Austen is ready to play with such an idea in Lady Susan, we ought not to think that’s her final word on the subject.  Judging from her mature novels, I think she’d say that while to some extent this idea is true in the new era of more democratic courtship that all her books are dealing with (that is, an era where parent-arranged marriages are no longer the rule), it is only largely true when the respective male characters have somehow failed. 

And even the younger Austen provides one key hint about the character failing of her Reginald, one that applies to Stillman’s also, that passes so quickly in the film dialogue that you might miss it.  In his very first letter, Reginald says he is excited to hear that Lady Susan will be staying with his sister, because, given her reputation as a great flirt and the most accomplished coquette in England, it will be delightful to engage her in conversation, primarily to witness and detect her deceptions.  “By all that I can gather, Lady Susan possesses a degree of captivating Deceit which must be very pleasing to witness and detect.” 

But of course, he is incapable of detecting her deceits when she employs them upon him, and quickly becomes convinced that while sophisticated and flirtatious, yes, she is innocent of the wrongs attributed to her.  She, he comes to think, is a victim of her machinations undertaken largely for the benefit of others being misunderstood, and of an envy of her overall excellence.  In this way, her deceptions work upon his very devotion to educated virtue as a means for making him fall for her.  He loves the idea of a charming woman of superior intelligence, who is often misunderstood as wicked due to her detractors’ jealousy and simplicity.  He proudly loves the idea that only souls as elevated as his can properly appreciate such a woman.

But notice that he first falls into this trap because of his openness to the pleasures of unravelling deceit.  In this, he reminds me of a certain common type of academic in our day, the one who takes inordinate pleasure, perhaps in a deconstructionist or a Straussian mode, in discovering and savoring the deceptions of the greatest minds.  Because the devotion to the highest, whether it be correct politics or correct philosophy, is assumed, the allures of “captivating Deceit” may be relished, this type thinks, without fundamental danger to one’s own virtue. 

The twenty-year old Jane, however, saw the error in that assumption.  She was alert to key patterns of intellectual and sophisticated life she was encountering in the world of belles-lettres.  And I cannot but notice that in Stillman’s film, Lady Susan’s only real friend, Mrs. Johnson, who seems to be connoisseur of the types of deceptions in love affairs that she more enjoys observing in Susan’s life than practicing in her own, wears in a couple of scenes outfits that seem rather reminiscent of the academic’s gown.

Take that as you will.  It does seems clear that in both Austen’s and Stillman’s versions, Reginald must experience the confusion and humiliation of falling for Susan’s deceit before he can properly appreciate and fall in love with a simpler woman, and one sincerely dedicated to virtue, Susan’s daughter Frederica.  But why couldn’t he do this in the first place?  His failure to be adequately wary of Lady Susan is precisely the sort of thing that makes good women everywhere despair.  In that sense, Reginald is a less-complex representation of this disappointment in the well-bred, well-educated, and genuinely good man that Austen more powerfully expresses in Mansfield Park through her portrayal of Edmund, particularly through his being for so long blind to the virtuous merits of Fanny due to the false brilliance of Mary Crawford. 

Captivating Deceit

It makes sense that Stillman would be even more interested in exploring Reginald’s moral failure, and would want to more vividly paint his final descent into abject helplessness.  For his failure mirrors the way many of our apparently best-educated and cultivated men and women do slide into becoming intrigued observers, excusers, or even practitioners, of deceitful games employed in love and career. They begin by learning that some methods we might label “Machiavellian” must to some extent be employed in life.  Rhetoric, for example, is inevitable.  So is personal image.  At a high level, if they amazingly obtain a genuine liberal education in our corrupt colleges, they might learn this from certain characters in Shakespeare, let us say, from Henry V with respect to politics, and from Portia with respect to love-matters.  Also in love matters, notice the vindication of Fred’s false story about Ted in Stillman’s Barcelona. 

At the low and more typical level such lessons might be poorly taught, and in fact botched, by films like The Devil Wears Prada or Me and Orson Welles, films in which basically nice millennial-like characters are seduced by the sophisticated power games of top culture-shapers, but then, oh-so nicely yet unconvincingly, decide that such games—and such aspirations–are not for them.  Such works are incapable of threading the needle between the adult need for political and personal cunning on one hand, and rational devotion to the Good on the other—they offer either resignation to full Machiavellianism, or heroically groundless posturing against it in the name of “ideals,” ideals that philosophically considered are illegitimately constructed or borrowed.  And that is not the dichotomous choice that the student who really becomes a student learns from the finest minds who are alert to the need for some use of “Machiavellian” methods, say, from Xenophon, Aristotle, Cicero, Dante, Shakespeare, Lincoln, Aron, Strauss, and our Austen and Stillman also. 

Stillman and Austen highlight in all their works the perennial need for a sophistication whose tone and aims are not set by sophists. That is, they promote a sophistication that can defend virtue and cultivate the conditions for its practice, in part by being alert to the existence of the Lady Susans of the world, and, to some extent, by knowing the kinds of wiles employed by them.  There is warning against self-indulgent and self-blinding simplicity in that, undoubtedly, but in Austen’s Lady Susan and even more so in Whitman’s Love & Friendship, there is also a warning against coming to love the sophistication for its own sake. 

For if you’re beginning to fall into that, you might wind up like Reginald De Courcy, or worse yet, like Alicia Johnson.  And it goes without saying that most any of us who would try to wind up as masterfully deceptive as Lady Susan herself would not be able to pull it off with anything like her “success.”  (We’d get caught too often, and if we did not repent as a result, we’d wind up looking stupidly dogged in our shamelessness and ridiculously proud of our purported cleverness, as the increasingly common Obama-type in our politics does to anyone with eyes.)  But we rightly suspect that Jane could have pulled it off, had she been depraved enough to have wanted to.  She certainly had the “happy command of Language” that Catherine attributes to Susan and worries is “too often used I believe to make Black appear White.” 

And here is Whit, who I think in eliciting such delight among today’s sophisticates for the character of Lady Susan, is pulling off a delightfully sneaky confirmation of their basic corruption.  And of their inability to read.  Thematically considered, “Captivating Deceit” would have been the best title for his film, but such a title would have risked spoiling his own subtle and salutary deceit, that is, kept his film from captivating those who most deserve to be made an object lesson of.  Not that some of them can’t themselves learn from that lesson if brought to see it.

The Title

As for the title he did use, well, while in the last post I was dismayed and puzzled by the way it confusedly seemed to refer us back to the Austen “juvenilia” novel Love and Friendship while in fact being an adaptation of Lady Susan, I believe I now understand what he is up to.  Given what I’ve developed above, I can better see why Stillman would want us to think about the debased nature of the main “Love” and the main “Friendship” in the film.  Reginald’s love is entirely the work of Susan’s Art—and that art works by manipulating his pride and his over-sophisticated delight in “detecting deceit.”  The only non-familial friendship highlighted in the film, with one possible exception, is that of Lady Susan and Alicia Johnson. 

We haven’t yet considered this friendship, but let’s do so now.  A recourse to Aristotle’s schema of three types of friendship would have us ask whether it is a friendship for the sake of pleasure, utility, or virtue; and, it would quickly lead us to classify it among the first of these three categories.  But what do Alicia and Susan share pleasure in?  If Susan gets to enjoy her episodes of carnal “dissipation” with Manwaring, Alicia’s pleasures seem confined to taking vicarious delight in learning about, and providing advice concerning, her friend’s various intrigues.  (Perhaps she has had her own love-intrigues that we’re not told about—Lady Susan does grant her permission to flirt with Reginald, and with a confidence that she knows how.)  She and Lady Susan might mistake their discussions of the latter’s husband-hunt as an exercise of a kind of higher virtue, as it certainly does involve a refined type of skill, and they certainly do often speak with a kind of moralistic insistence about the propriety of the intrigues; but obviously, both Stillman and Austen ultimately regard it as a higher kind of vice.  Alicia and Susan have, in this deeper sense, also been captivated by deceit.

In both film and novel, the main activity of their friendship, the letter writing, ends with the story—they must cease corresponding (and meeting) lest Alicia be punished by her husband through his removal of her from London, in the film to Connecticut, in the novel merely to the countryside.  Alicia is thus shown to be willing to put the friendship on complete hold to avert the prospect of being removed from Society, and there is no question that Lady Susan would have done the same if faced with the same.  A bit cold, that, and just as Aristotle’s schema predicts about such friendships. 

So Love & Friendship does make thematic sense as a title.  But isn’t it still disloyal to Austen for Stillman to use it, since she had reserved it for another work?  (As indicated last time, the title for Lady Susan was not chosen by Austen—the re-titling problem here does not involve ditching that title, but only arises with the choice of the new one.)  Well, it turns out that Stillman has this problem covered.  For technically, he did change the title.  First of all, in his title, the “and” is replaced by an ampersand.  And that has to be a key reason why he adds that odd scene where the elder De Courcy, in reading a letter to his wife, insists upon reading its punctuation marks aloud.  Punctuation matters!  The ampersand matters!  I’m indebted to James Bowman for noticing this.

And that is not all, for one of the odd things about Austen’s Love and Friendship when transcribed into the three “juvenilia” notebooks–with the titles in Austen’s own hand–, is that its very title contained a misspelling, making it Love and Freindship, a “mistake” which most published editions of it correct.  Now how likely was Jane Austen to make such a mistake?  The misspelled title in fact highlights the juvenile and essentially farcical character of the work. But what matters to us is that Stillman can thus technically claim, and on two counts, that his title is his own.  Ingenious, and yes, I certainly have delighted in detecting that charming misdirection.

So in considering what turns out to be Stillman’s own title, we notice that it does not advertise the most obvious element of the work, the Machiavellianism-in-love-matters of Lady Susan, and refrains also from calling attention to the theme of “captivating deceit” that in a deeper way is also central.  There is really no need to advertise the former, and tactical reason to obscure the latter.  Stillman’s title, then, besides simply sounding good and most-cleverly signaling his own extensive knowledge of and yet ultimate independence from Austen, directs us to dwell upon the delusive nature of the love and the friendship portrayed, and upon how much easier it is to fall into these than most of us suspect.  That emphasis is useful, and is an aspect of what a number of reviews have noticed in general, that his film is one of the only Austen-adaptations properly purged of the typical association of her works with the sentimentally romantic.

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