Scheming women, stupid men, sex, money, power — Jane Austen’s juvenile work Lady Susan has all the elements which are to appear in her later novels.
This 1794 novella is in the form of letters exchanged between some of the characters, through which we trace the exploits of the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon as she engages in affairs with two men.
One is Mr Manwaring, a married man, and the other is Reginald, very much her junior. At the same time, she is attempting to marry off her daughter Frederica to the rich but dim Sir James Martin.
Lady Susan’s correspondence reveals her to be heartless, manipulative and amoral, qualities which give the reader a great deal of enjoyment while at the same time engendering an element of queasiness as we realize that this is a flawed woman with no redeeming qualities.
Finally, she has a kind of comeuppance in that she is abandoned by both lovers, the younger of whom, marries Frederica, while she herself settles for the definitely second-best Sir James.
Whit Stillman has taken the novella, given it the title Love And Friendship from another early Austen work, and worked it into an assured, sparkling film, with a blend of humour and satire that deftly weaves the spirit and the text of the original source material into a new creation.
The Lady Susan he presents is a captivating creature who relies on style and eloquence to enable her to negotiate the minefield of social positioning and financial security on which society is based. Helped, of course, by Kate Beckinsale’s wonderful acting, she is the epitome of self-determination who sets her steely gaze on what she wants and deploys her skills to remove opposition.
Austen’s Lady Susan is more monster than likeable maverick. Following the death of her husband she is offered hospitality at the Manwaring household, where she proceeds to dally with the master of the house and whip away the daughter’s suitor (yes, the Sir James who is to be her own destiny… aah) from under her nose, thinking that he would do just nicely for her own daughter.
She is abominably scathing about said daughter, even allowing for the licence afforded by the girl-to-girl correspondence in which she tells her wingwoman Alicia Johnson that Frederica is a simpleton, a tiresome, stupid girl with nothing to recommend her.
The final comment on Lady Susan’s relationship with her daughter is in the novella’s Conclusion, which departs from the epistolary format, almost as if Austen had had enough of Lady Susan and wanted to put her in her place.
With the biting tone which we recognize with a shiver of delight, we are told that, following Frederica’s final departure from her mother’s home, Lady Susan ‘in the course of two months ceased to write of her absence, and in the course of two more, to write to her at all’.
In the movie, we can laugh about it. There’s a split-second vignette that sums up the distance between Lady Susan and Frederica, when Frederica, having run away from school, pitches up at her aunt’s house, where Lady Susan is staying, and for one wonderful moment it seems as if Frederica might need to be introduced to her own mother.
Dense to the music
Other humorous inventions provide almost non-stop amusement and carry us along with the action. Sir James is turned into a terrific comic character who takes the art of denseness to a new high (just mention ‘tiny green balls’ to anyone who has seen the film). The entrances and exits of the lovers who visit Lady Susan in the Johnson abode in London are an entertaining echo of restoration comedy.
The biggest laugh of all is the Stillman-invented scene at the end. Lady Susan, who has only recently been seeing Manwaring and is now securely married to Sir James, is delighted to announce her pregnancy a nano-second after the nuptials have been finalised. The joke’s on you, Sir James — or is it on us?
Maybe we have been bewitched by the stylish bravura of this Lady Susan. We could make a case for her vicious behaviour. She needs to be financially secure. She is also entitled to want a husband who is more than just rich (too bad that didn’t work out, love).
We understand the position of women; we know they should not be dependent on the comfort of strangers. But in this instance we’re not talking, you know, destitution.
And there is the background which Stillman has sketched in so amusingly that we hardly realize it’s there — the mentions of Solomon, the riffs on the Ten Commandments, and the verse spoken at the wedding of Frederica and Reginald, in which the bridegroom speaks of ‘virtue, the charm that most adorns the fair’.
Style without grace is empty, we seem to hear. Have we been seduced by charm and glamour and a sharp cynicism? We are reminded of Mansfield Park, whose ‘virtuous’ heroine is often dismissed. In Whit Stillman’s 1990 movie Metropolitan, one of the characters asks what’s wrong with having a virtuous heroine. In Love and Friendship, the dazzling shower of clever lines may blind us to the destruction caused by disregarding not social norms, but private morality.
Austen is, among other things, a moralist and a social critic, and Stillman’s portrayal of Lady Susan reflects this sensibility.
You have to wish her well, though, although you fear a little for the new child. Lady Susan needs to be careful with that one. She does put one elegantly shod foot wrong. In a move to ingratiate herself with her sister-in-law, she comments on the child-parent likeness of one of her sister-in-law’s offspring. Watch it, Lady S. You were on safe ground on that occasion, but in certain toff circles, including yours, it’s advisable not to go down the ‘how like his father’ route. Some things are better left unsaid.
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