How is it possible to improve on Jane Austen?
What a wit, Whit Stillman is. No, this isn’t the beginning of another rap song. Stillman’s new film Love & Friendship is based on Jane Austen’s little-known novella, Lady Susan. It’s believed to be one of her earliest “mature” works, written when she was only nineteen or twenty. The film is visually lovely, clever and funny, but as for the Austen story on which it’s based?
When I first heard there was going to be a movie based on Lady Susan, I thought, Oh no! Don’t do that to Jane and her millions of fans around the globe who believe her body of work to be perfect. A few years earlier I’d been introduced to the novella after a writer friend who knew I loved Austen gifted me a book of three of her least-known works. (Lady Susan was first published 54 years after her death, included in the back of an ‘Aunt Jane’ memoir written by a nephew.) My excitement turned to confusion when I couldn’t get past the first few pages. For starters it was written as a series of letters. I’ve read and liked some novels that do this–most recently one about Virginia Woolf, her sister and the Bloomsbury crowd (Vanessa and Her Sister), but Lady Susan didn’t do it for me. And yet my beloved Jane was the author. Jane! Fearing I was missing something, I consulted the introduction to my Penguin Classics Edition, written by a British author/scholar I respect. She pretty much said the novella was unsatisfactory–that the epistolary novel, even though popular in the eighteenth century, didn’t suit Jane’s talents.
Whit Stillman, in a recent interview with the New York Times, confessed that his first brush with Jane Austen didn’t leave him star-struck. He read Northanger Abbey in college. Thoroughly unimpressed, he told anyone who’d listen she was over-rated. A few years out of school he read Pride & Prejudice at his sister’s urging and became a huge Austen devotee. Her writing style influenced his first film–Metropolitan was an Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay. He started thinking about taking on the Austen novella as early as 2004. Other directors had made movies of Austen’s novels, but Lady Susan, he said, “gave me the opportunity to dramatize what was in the archaic form that didn’t suit her genius.”
So who is this Lady Susan? Today we’d call her a Cougar. A good-looking older woman (thirty-five in the story) who’s not shy about coming on to younger men. Except Lady Susan lives circa 1800. She’s ten months a widow and almost penniless, having run through most of her husband’s money before he died. While she searches for a rich new husband–and one for her only child, a daughter she calls “the greatest simpleton on earth”–she creates havoc among the families she chooses to visit. Along the way, we see charming houses, pastoral settings, and pretty people in period costumes–in other words, the charms of a Downton Abbey on a smaller scale. The film zips merrily along, and the ending alone is worth the price of admission. While it’s Austen’s ending, it’s taken one giant step further with a delicious twist a la writer/director Stillman.
How did Whit Stillman, a 64-year-old man, improve on Jane Austen? For starters, he gives us the wonderful settings and scenery we don’t see in the novella. He also fleshes out one of the ‘gentleman suitor’ characters by giving him some outrageously funny dialogue. (A number of critics have said the actor playing Sir James Martin nearly steals the movie.) Last but not least, the twisted ending portrays Lady Susan in a new light. I left the theatre thinking: any woman who could wrap up her affairs and her daughter’s in such an ingenious way can’t be completely heartless, can she? In Austen’s original, Lady Susan is a world-class schemer with no scruples. Witty and beautiful, yes, but her heart is as cold as an arctic freeze. Jane never tried to have the novella published, even though she revised it at least once. (The ending is awkward. Jane abandons the letter format and resorts to a “Conclusion,” told by an omniscient narrator.) Instead she went on the create much more endearing protagonists–flawed yet charming women who were intelligent and capable of change.
Stillman seems to innately understand Austen’s sensibilities about manners, class and money. His mother was a Philadelphia debutante, and his great-great grandfather on his dad’s side founded Brownville, Texas. He came from old money, but apparently the money was mostly gone by his generation. Still, he went to private school and graduated from Harvard, like his father, even though there seemed to be bumps along the way, particularly after his parents divorced. He’s been making his own way since college, but he’s a respected filmmaker and not rich. Stillman’s been called the WASP Woody Allen for his small body of work (Metropolitan, Barcelona, Last Days of Disco, Damsels in Distress are the other films).
After seeing the film there’s a new book on my reading list: Love & Friendship (In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated), a novel written by none other than Whit Stillman. It was published in May, in conjunction with the movie’s release, and features yet another twist: a narrator not seen or heard in the film.
Thank you, Whit Stillman, for bringing fresh life to Jane Austen. Only after seeing your film was I able to reread Lady Susan and see that she really has good bones, after all.