Do see Love and Friendship. It’s one of the best film adaptations of an Austen novel, perhaps even the very best. Yes, of Stillman’s five films, it’s the one I’d rank the lowest, but that’s saying very little given the very high quality of all five. What my ranking mostly reflects is that as an adaptation of another’s literary work, it is an atypical film for Stillman, and one in which he has less opportunity to provide what we most value from his works: sharp observation of contemporary social mores and ideas.
Interpreting the film quickly brings one up against the odd fact that while its title is that of a very early Austen novel Love and Friendship, it is actually an adaptation of another such, Lady Susan. One thus eventually realizes that there are three works to interpret in tandem:
A) The Whit Stillman film, Love and Friendship.
B) The early, never-published-in-her-lifetime, Jane Austen novel Lady Susan.
C) The Whit Stillman ”novelization” of his film, Love and Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated. On the pattern of his novelization of The Last Days of Disco, we can expect this to be a largely distinct work. Given descriptions of it, it sounds like it also utilizes a lesser character to give a different, and comically suspect, perspective on the action.
You also realize there is a fourth work you probably don’t need to worry about, the very early, never-published-in-her-lifetime Jane Austen novel Love and Friendship. While I haven’t yet done anything more than skim it and read summaries of it, as far as I can tell so far it seems to have no relation to the film outside of its title.
Both Austen’s Love and Friendship and Lady Susan are brief epistolary novels; the first was written when she was but fifteen, and the latter likely at age twenty, or soon thereafter. They were not published during Austen’s lifetime (1775-1817), but in 1871. If Lady Susan might have served Austen as a literary experiment, it was one that resulted in an entirely finished work very much worth reading. Adam Thirwell of the New York Review of Books describes it—and now the spoilers arguably begin, dear readers–as “a quieter, English-country-house-version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses—where a ruthless woman is humiliated.” It is plain that we are meant to be intrigued by Lady Susan, but it is even plainer that she is a villain. While there are some important Austen-like things to note about her attractiveness, if you aren’t seeing that she is in no sense the work’s heroine, you just aren’t getting the main point of Lady Susan. You’re over-thinking it, and too readily excusing your own delight in the literary imitation of villainy.
One suspects from Stillman’s very title for his novelization, that both there and in the film itself, he is willing to further string along decadent literary types into entertaining the idea that her character can be in some sense be vindicated, but that’s his own kind of complex joke upon them. Maybe once I read his novelization I’ll have second thoughts, but I’m betting that the way Stillman’s publicity campaign for the film has succeeded in getting quite a few reviewers trying to half-vindicate Lady Susan themselves is fairly parallel to the way he once lulled sophisticates into gushing over the sub-textual “ironies” of Barcelona the better to keep them from noticing its blatant vindication of Americanism and shaming of anti-Americanism in the main text. See Mark Henrie’s brilliant essay in this star-studded volume for more on that Stillmanian pattern.
Any film adaptation of Lady Susan would have to be rather flexible, given its epistolary form. Thus, scenes and dialog are invented by Stillman to convey what was merely described in the letters, or what was communicated between the characters by means of them. While he is largely faithful to the plot and characterization, there are some interesting additions, twists, and new emphases. Still, he took a majority of the screenplay’s phrasing verbatim from the letters, and given the brevity of the work, he did not have to submit to the usual film-adaptation curse of selective editing, compressing, etc.
All in all, it is a brilliant screenplay: reading Lady Susan will deepen your appreciation of the film, but it will likely also convince you that the film is even better. No-one can top Miss Austen in her prime–every single film adaptation is a lesser work of art by far than the respective major Austen novel—but one of our greatest film directors and screen-writers at the height of his powers proves that he is up to topping the younger Jane. Or would “topping off” be the better expression? The fleshing-out of the fool-character Sir James Martin is the obvious example of the improvement Stillman provides, but there are others.
Now I have not yet read Stillman’s novelization, which, as you may see from this fine post at The Imaginative Conservative by Christopher Morrissey, adds a third angle of comparison, but having compared the film with Lady Susan, the following interpretive questions appear to me to be important ones to ask. They represent my initial stabs at interpretation, and I welcome whatever help readers can give. I should note that our main goal here is interpreting the film. Many more spoilers follow.
1.) Is some significant hint being supplied by the letter-reading scene? What Mark Henrie showed us with his “Text and Subtext in Barcelona” essay, after all, is that an apparently simple joke about “subtext” was a major key to interpreting the whole film. Could this scene likewise give us interpretive guidance? There is a similarity, after all, between what Stillman is doing as a dramatic re-interpreter of a novel of letters, and what the elder De Courcy character—who in this scene looks a bit like Stillman!–is doing in a scene where he reads a letter aloud to his wife. In purely-Stillman-provided dialogue, he makes a fuss of initially reading the letter with the announcement of each punctuation mark, but this is daft and annoying, and so his wife insists upon regular reading style. Some comment about what Stillman thinks he is up to seems present in that. His film functions as a reading of the letters, in which the precise Austenian “punctuation” and form, features which might open up multiple interpretations, and at times close off certain ones, is not observable. But greater fidelity to the text would be as ham-handed as announcing each punctuation mark.
2.) What is going on with the mentions of America? Stillman makes a minor alteration to Lady Susan’s main friend, Mrs. Johnson, by having her be an American expatriate. This permits a couple of passing jokes about America, or rather, about daft 1790s-era British snobbery towards America. Still, Armond White has convinced me that one of the jokes (“America—a nation of ingrates. Only by having children can one begin to understand such dynamics.”) points also to a truth about contemporary American society, and perhaps about any overly-sophisticated society in which the likes of Lady Susan can flourish. After all, this theme of the importance of gratitude is also mentioned in an otherwise odd, and likewise entirely Stillman-provided, speech from the curate.
3.) What is going on with the mentions of Biblical religion? Austen in one letter has Lady Susan drop an apparently merely proverbial reference to King Solomon, and as far as I’ve noticed, that is it in terms of religion in Lady Susan. But when watching Stillman’s adaptation prior to reading it, I thought, “Wow, there’s much more mention of religion here than in any of Austen’s other novels, even more than in Mansfield Park!” Well, I was wrong–it’s all from Stillman.
There are three ways in which Stillman does this. First, through Lady Susan’s abuse of the fifth commandment, “Honor thy father and mother” to better control her daughter, and through a hilarious mistake by the Sir James Martin character about the very number of the commandments, we are asked to consider the status of the biblical commandments in this modern British society of Austen’s day. (As the curate points out, there is a slightly different ordering of the Ten Commandments by Catholics and Lutherans, as opposed to that of the Eastern Orthodox and most non-Lutheran Protestants—Lady Susan calls it the fourth, in the Catholic style.) Two commandments besides the fifth are mentioned: “thou shalt not commit false witness” (ninth), and “thou shalt remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”(fourth). Both appear to be increasingly ignored: the thoroughly conventional Sir James character muses about how capital it would be to replace church attendance with hunting, and obviously, Lady Susan violates the commandment against false witness on a regular basis. And as mentioned, there is a scene where the curate joyfully, if obtusely, dilates on the deeper meaning of the fifth commandment as being a command to be grateful for the goodness of the world that God and our forebears have brought us into.
Second, in the film Lady Susan mentions Solomon in I think three different instances, but always with a little explanation of what the reference points to. The explanation is apparently needed, even by some of the more conservative and conventional characters. Biblical illiteracy is already afoot in modern society, Stillman is saying, and of course, he is slyly poking fun at its wider spread in our day, acting as if he cannot possibly mention a figure like Solomon in a motion picture without spelling out the reference.
Third, there are two scenes in which a more naïve character makes a matter-of-fact reference to Christianity’s assumed truth to a more sophisticated character. The first of these is when Frederica, Lady Susan’s sweet but oppressed daughter, is found leaving the chapel (where she consulted the curate about the extent of the 5th commandment’s authority) and she runs into Reginald, the main male love-interest of the film. He asks her why she has been in church, and she says, “Well, it is our religion.” To this, he replies that it is not one of the ordinary prayer or service times. Going to church more than at scheduled times is odd to him. The second scene involves Reginald and Susan. Reginald gives a matter-of-fact explanation for why his somewhat elderly father does not dread nor dwell upon his death: he is a Christian, and thus believes in eternal life. Susan, who mainly raised the subject of his father’s mortality to probe into how soon he might inherit the family fortune if she were to marry him, replies to this with something like, “Oh, yes–thank heaven for our religion,” but obviously, merely as a nicety of conversation.
Stillman loves to highlight themes with the use of a repeated phrase, and so obviously, he is quite interested in the way in which Christianity is said to be, but really is not, the shared religion of Austen’s society. Notice also that in the first of the two scenes where this “our religion” problem is highlighted, Reginald has the more sophisticated and distanced attitude towards Christianity, and yet in the second, he is in precisely the opposite position. His stance towards Christian faith is between the simple acceptance of Frederica the young daughter, and the reputation-preserving pretense of belief employed by Lady Susan the wizened mother.
4.) Should the odd titling of the film guide our interpretation? I think we can understand why Stillman wouldn’t title it Lady Susan. Because that book is largely unknown, adopting its title would do no real marketing work; and, it sounds a bit stuffy. But why invite confusion by giving it the title of another early Austen work, Love and Friendship? Is that merely a ploy to get scholarly types like yours truly digging further, whereby we come to better realize that Stillman’s version of Lady Susan has a real claim to be an original work? Or perhaps it simply sounds better?
We should note that the title of Lady Susan was not given by Austen herself, but by its 1871 publisher. However, the title of Love and Friendship was her own. It is found in the three-volume Juvenilia manuscript preserved by her family, in which the titles of the various works are apparently in Austen’s hand. Why does this matter? Well, at least with Lady Susan, one could argue that the correct title ought to be up-for-grabs, properly to be bestowed by the Austenian who best understands the work. So there is special license to re-title in this instance. But of all titles, why choose one Austen already had applied to another work?
That seems wrong somehow, or at least odd, but I suppose we should nonetheless ask if there is a serious case, based on the correct interpretation of the work called Lady Susan, or perhaps, at least, on the correct interpretation of Stillman’s version of it, for saying that it is a work about “love and friendship,” just as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were properly advertised as works about those qualities. This possibility points us toward thinking about how both “love” and “friendship” are presented in the work, and how the key characters understand them. But these are most prominent in Lady Susan through the ways loving and friendly feelings are feigned by Susan, or through how she artfully gets the targets of her seduction campaigns to feel love for her. The central love of the novel, the one which the proud but decent Reginald comes to have for Lady Susan, is revealed to have been nearly entirely founded upon false premises. And the one (non-familial) friendship that is center-stage, hers and Mrs. Johnson’s, appears primarily based upon their being fellow connoisseurs of the arts of deception in matters of love and husband-hunting.
There is, I suspect, rewarding food for thought here, particularly given the way the apparently minor Charles Vernon character at one point says that “the heart is an instrument that partakes of the divine,” and thus, that we cannot fathom its ways. (This line is another Stillman addition, with the intriguing but so far to me fruitless clue provided that it is a citation from Rousseau. Anyone know where in Rousseau, or in another author, the quote really comes from? Or has it been invented?) That notion of love ought to be compared with a) the one Lady Susan articulates, and b) the one Reginald abides by when finally brought to see the truth about Susan. As for a), Lady Susan says she despises a lover who doesn’t both aggressively pursue and unquestioningly worship his beloved. As for b), Reginald shows, despite some hesitation in the film, that he cannot love a woman he doesn’t regard as a basically good person. This sort of love of course leads one to seek out the truth about the beloved, but Lady Susan’s preferred sort of lover will refrain from every questioning—the love she craves must remain purely “dissipation-seeking” and worshipful.
Still, if one can plumb the work for early Austenian insights about the ways of love and friendship, and further appreciate how these are refined and reflected upon by Stillman, is it really the case that this is the main theme of the novel? Or even of the film? The title remains, I think, a problem. I’m tempted to resign myself to the idea that it was chosen mainly for marketing purposes.
In one more post, I’ll provide a couple more questions paired with tentative answers. Here they are in barest form:
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?
6.) Why does Reginald’s basic virtue and fine cultivation not keep him from falling for Susan?
I hope to answer this last question in tandem with one I have already showed my hand upon, the “Can Lady Susan Be Vindicated?” question. That is not that interesting a question, outside of the fact that Stillman has successfully gotten many to carelessly think that they know that it is the key question, and that no-one can answer it for certain.
If you’ve seen the film, do tell us what you think, and if this (and the following post) are not enough for you, don’t neglect the trio of Christopher Morrissey posts at Imaginative Conservative, and note that the fine Austenprose blog tells us that a “Blog-tour” about the film, conducted through a whole host of Austen-friendly blogs, will commence June 13th.