The title puzzled us.
Most of the world saw nothing remarkable about indie director Whit Stillman’s decision to adapt Lady Susan, a relatively obscure epistolary novella by Jane Austen, into a movie called Love & Friendship.
But to us Janeites—Austen’s most devoted, not to say obsessive, fans—the change of title was a big deal. Not that we were wedded to “Lady Susan,” a title chosen decades after Austen’s death by the nephew who first published her manuscript. No, our problem was that Stillman’s title reminded us, distractingly, of another relatively obscure epistolary novella by Jane Austen, Love and Freindship (misspelling in the original).
Lady Susan, a cynical story about a predatory widow’s romantic scheming, dates from the mid-1790s, when Austen was approaching twenty; Love and Freindship, a madcap satire of the sentimental novel, was written a few years earlier, when she was a formidably accomplished fourteen-year-old. What could Stillman mean by appropriating the earlier title for a film based on the later work? we Janeites wondered. Was he planning to meld the two stories? Underlining a point about Austen’s oeuvre? Trying to make Janeite heads explode?
Here, the non-Janeite sighs. Again with the pedantic obsessiveness! What humorless purists!
We Janeites are used to those exasperated sighs. We’re often caricatured as fussy, tea-drinking spinsters who stop knitting only long enough to brush cat hair off the antimacassar and shriek in horror at any suggestion that our cherished author wrote about sex. I myself have no cats or antimacassars, but I cannot deny that I have blogged—repeatedly!—about the appalling phenomenon of online lists of “Best Jane Austen Quotes” that include lines from Jane Austen movies. So, yes—I cop to a purist streak. The pop-culture Austenmania that kicked off in 1995, when the BBC released its now-iconic, Colin-Firth-in-a-wet-shirt adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, sometimes threatens to bury the books Austen actually wrote under an avalanche of souvenir fridge magnets, dishtowels, and tote bags.
For those of us who passionately love the books, it’s hard not to protest occasionally, even as we power the Austenmania machine by buying the tote bags and seeing the movies—including Love & Friendship, which, judging from the commentary on Austen sites, the fandom likes very much. For along with our streaks of purism, most of the Janeites I know have streaks of playfulness—sometimes wide enough to encompass Jane Austen Fan Fiction (aka JAFF), with its bodice-ripping Pride and Prejudice sequels, its modern-dress updates of Austen plots, even its zombie mashups.
Presumably, Stillman hoped to appeal to this crowd with his new book Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated, a movie tie-in that novelizes his screenplay into not-very-successful JAFF. (I much prefer an earlier riff on Austen’s novella, Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, by the mother-daughter team of Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway.)
Stillman’s conceit is to take Jane Austen’s story, in its screenplay version, and imagine it narrated by a character of his own creation—a pretentious fool named Rufus Martin-Colonna, Lady Susan’s nephew-by-marriage. The book consists largely of the dialogue from Stillman’s movie, with the stage directions converted into descriptions of who is entering which room or sitting on what sofa. Periodically, Rufus interpolates his own (invariably unconvincing) exculpatory analyses of Lady Susan’s manipulative behavior—her most cold-blooded remarks are merely jokes shared with friends!—or provides pompous and unhelpful footnotes (a reference to spectacles compels Rufus to explain that reading glasses “as we now know them, with attachments passing over the ears, were an English invention of the last century”). Stillman’s story runs for about 150 pages; the rest of the book consists of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, reprinted in its entirety, along with Rufus’s indignant commentary on the work of the “Spinster Authoress.”
Judging from the enthusiastic online reviews, other Janeites found all this more diverting than I did. Perhaps because I had just seen Stillman’s film, the main story struck me as tedious, while Rufus’s interpolations felt like a one-note joke, not very funny to begin with, extended to tiresome length.
Although Stillman’s film is clever and his novel less so, in one respect the book is a more faithful adaptation of Austen’s original. Rufus’s commentary creates interpretative space between the reader and the characters, and the risible defense of Lady Susan that he inserts in that space succeeds, paradoxically, in underlining her deceitfulness. Lacking a similar distancing device, Stillman’s film sentimentalizes Austen’s novella—even while poaching some of Austen’s best lines. Austen’s Lady Susan steals another woman’s husband, captivates a younger man, corresponds with a corrupt confidante, and tries to bully her teenage daughter into marrying a wealthy idiot, but her fundamental craving is not for love and friendship, or even for money and sex. Rather, Austen draws an incisive portrait of a woman’s will to power. “There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit,” Susan writes to her friend. And again: “I have made him sensible of my power.” And yet again: “My desire of dominion was never more decided.”
Although heterosexual romance is the field on which she enacts her power plays, Susan’s real opponents are other women—her suspicious sister-in-law, her paramour’s wife, and her own young daughter. Of the forty-one letters that make up the novella, only eight involve a male correspondent, and in only two of those cases is he writing to another man. Austen’s women jockey among themselves for status and power. Men may be the prizes, but they’re not the point.
Stillman doesn’t ignore this side of Austen’s book, but he softens Austen’s bite. As Lady Susan, the actress Kate Beckinsale is as witty and entertaining as Austen’s protagonist, but considerably more appealing—not so much a mesmerizing villain in the mold of Milton’s Satan as a woman cast adrift and living by her wits. Of course, Austen understood the irony of her protagonist’s situation: The power-hungry Susan lacks access to most of the levers of power her society grants women—a dependable male protector, a reliable income, even a home. But Stillman’s screenplay courts our sympathy by highlighting this problem. “We don’t live—we visit,” his Susan tells her daughter. “We are entirely at the mercy of our friends and relations.”
Stillman’s film also makes clear judgments about matters that Austen fruitfully left ambiguous. In Austen’s novella, Lady Susan’s daughter, Frederica, writes only one letter of her own; we see her almost entirely through others’ eyes. By the end of the story, she has won over her rich relatives and will marry a handsome heir. We’re left to wonder: Is she an artless girl whose virtue has been rewarded? Or a schemer who has learned so much at the feet of the master that she’s played the game more successfully than her master ever did?
Stillman comes down firmly on the side of virtue rewarded, ending his film on Frederica’s blissful wedding day. The cynical verdict he puts in Lady Susan’s mouth (“My daughter has shown herself to be cunning and manipulative—I couldn’t be more pleased”) reads as the sour grapes of a woman fundamentally incapable of understanding true goodness. Austen is more equivocal .
In an interview promoting the book, Stillman explained the change of title. Turns out he thought the abstract nouns made for a stronger—and more marketable—choice. I can’t argue with his marketing savvy—a month after its release, Love & Friendship had already become Stillman’s most successful film—but I also can’t help feeling that we Janeites were onto something when we wondered about the aptness of the new title. Austen’s Lady Susan isn’t about love or friendship; it’s about power. Austen is richer than the adaptations of her work, more complicated—more interesting.
But then, she always is. Which is all we Janeites were ever trying to say.
Deborah Yaffe is the author of Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom. She blogs at www.deborahyaffe.com and can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/amongthejaneites/ and on Twitter @DeborahYaffe.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.