Love and Friendship
Produced by Westerly Films
Written and directed by Whit Stillman
from Jane Austen’s Lady Susan
Distributed by Roadside Attractions
and Amazon Studios
Whit Stillman’s new film, Love and Friendship, is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s epistolary novella Lady Susan, an early and somewhat unfinished work she wrote when she was all of 19. Stillman has taken the liberty of adding an ending and developing some characters, but nowhere do his additions seem at all at odds with the original’s intentions. He was obviously under Austen’s full sway when he reshaped the narrative into his screenplay. The results could hardly be more at one with the original’s theme, characterization, and steadily ironic wit.
Austen’s story focuses on an impossible woman named Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), making her way in the world at the end of the 18th century. She’s a widow in her mid-30’s who rejoices in the freedom fate has bestowed on her while bemoaning the lack of funds that came with her liberation. Having recklessly wasted her husband’s estate while he was among the living, she’s reduced to preying on her family and friends to make up for the deficit. This she does with wholly unapologetic aplomb. She appears at various households uninvited to sponge off of their largesse. Into her one-sided bargains, she indulges her appetite for male attention not only for sex but for the sheer pleasure of bending inferior wills to her own formidable one. She takes it as axiomatic that men are distinctly her inferiors. This is so not because they all lack intelligence but because, whether clever or not, they cannot resist her unparalleled beauty and charm. She plays them for what they’re worth (in several cases, that’s not much), enjoying every moment of her game. In short, she is, as one admirer puts it, England’s “most accomplished coquette.”
She’s also capable of cracking the whip when occasion arises. In one scene, she’s walking with Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), her friend and confidante, when a man we’ve not seen previously appears, coming from the other direction. As he’s about to pass our heroine, he pauses and calls her by name. Susan instantly takes black umbrage. “How dare you address me, Sir! Begone, Sir! Or I will arrange to have you whipped!”
Entirely discomfited, the poor fellow turns and walks hurriedly away. Alicia asks wonderingly, “Had you never seen him before?”
Susan suavely replies, “Oh, no, I know him well. I would never speak to a stranger that way.”
The moment is Stillman’s wholly excusable invention in his reimagining of the novella. It perfectly renders Susan’s bullying nature. She is selectively cruel. Should the mood take her, she freely gives the back of her hand to those of her acquaintances who find themselves within her reach. When among strangers, however, she’s circumspect. She’s not about to risk her reputation in the larger world. And just who is this young man she finds so offensive—a former suitor, an impudent rogue, a pestering creditor of one of her many unpaid bills? We never learn, nor need we. He has but one purpose, and that’s to illustrate Susan’s character as at once willfully peremptory and cautiously self-regarding.
Susan knows how to handle everyone who comes her way, including family members and her own innocent daughter. It’s the restraints of polite society that allow her to behave as she does. She is a woman, a widow, and an aristocrat. She’s also exceedingly beautiful. Given these criteria, she’s armed against her society. Her peers feel themselves unable to speak against her excesses, at least publicly. Fully realizing this, Susan takes exuberant advantage of her assets.
Beckinsale is perfectly cast as Susan. She’s sleekly beautiful under a seemingly impenetrable patina of gloss that matches her manner and speech. No one can touch her—unless, that is, she wants to be touched. She’s never at a loss for words and relishes every opportunity to wield them, sweetly or ruthlessly, to get what she wants. When detected by her wealthy and much younger lover to have visited another man privately, she exclaims to Alicia, “Facts are such horrid things!” Shortly afterward, she meets her young man and smooths away this particular horror. She explains that he has misconstrued her actions entirely. She was in a locked room with the other fellow at the behest of his wife, who had implored her to persuade the straying oaf to return home. She delivers her lie so sweetly, so convincingly, that she instantly crushes her lover’s doubts.
Alone with Alicia, however, she positively chortles as she lauds her own ability to “govern” men so thoroughly. When Alicia bemoans that her own husband is not so easily gulled, Susan glibly responds that it’s unfortunate he’s “too old to be governable and too young to die.”
Some feminist critics have bestowed on Susan high regard for getting round male dominance so wittily in an age during which women seemed to have so little power. But there’s little reason to suppose Austen would have agreed with this judgment. As a committed ironist and natural conservative, she certainly would have agreed with Samuel Johnson, who pronounced his approval of the 18th century’s legally encoded inequities between the sexes: “Nature has given women so much power that the law has very wisely given them little.” Susan is the very embodiment of this aperçu.
And just in case her contemporary readers lacked eyes and discernment, her fiction here and elsewhere took care to include faithful husbands and wives who, even if not especially bright, are nevertheless reasonably happy in their unions. Susan’s brother-in-law Charles (Justin Edwards), for one, makes it his business to honor his wife, coming close to uxoriousness in his efforts to satisfy her wishes. He may be a little slow on the uptake, but he has the wisdom to respect moral tradition.
Susan seems a forerunner of Evelyn Waugh’s enchantresses—for example, Margot Beste-Chetwynde (pronounced beast-cheating for the good reason that she’s a heartless Circe with the power to transform men into helpless, bellowing beasts) in Decline and Fall. Like Margot, Susan is so energetically amoral that men find it nearly impossible not to fall under her spell. She exists beyond traditional moral rules, yet knows precisely how and when to invoke these same rules to her purposes. When Frederica (Morfydd Clark), her sweet but inexperienced daughter, refuses to go along with her plan that she marry Sir James, a wealthy dunce of a lord, she sits the girl down and asks if she remembers the Fourth Commandment. The young woman is too ensnared by her allegiance to biblical convention to know just what to say to this seemingly insuperable appeal to biblical authority. When Susan later detects some reproach in her sister-in-law Catherine (Emma Greenwell) for pushing Frederica on the matter, she allows that James is not a Solomon. Astonished that Susan would dare to invoke Scripture in this way, Catherine falls silent. Pretending to think Catherine is ignorant of the ancient king, Susan airily explains, “The wise king in the Bible . . . the one who had the idea of dividing the infant disputed by two mothers in half, or in two—I can’t recall the exact wording.” Susan so misconstrues the story that she seems to think Solomon seriously intended to slice the infant in two—which, in a way, is just what she’s trying to do to her daughter by demanding she sunder her true feelings from her practical need to settle herself on a fortune.
As for Sir James, his lack of knowledge and understanding is utterly stupefying. Upon discovering there are only ten commandments, not twelve as he had supposed, James giggles delightedly. The problem now, he reflects giddily, is which two to dispose of. He thinks it should be two of the “shalt nots.” After all, he reasons sensibly, they merely forbid what everyone already knows to be wrong.
Tom Bennett plays Sir James, and he’s one of the film’s delights. I can’t remember when I’ve seen a fool so hilariously played. He wears an unvarying goofy smile, his lips parted just enough to reveal a mouth full of ungainly teeth. He giggles, he chortles, he stammers, he wobbles from foot to foolish foot. He’s what Austen’s contemporaries called a rattle; we would call him a ninny. His only appeal is his fortune.
Lady Susan can be read as a treatise on the permanent war between men and women in which men, given their proclivities, do not shine, with the possible exception of one gentleman, Lord Mainwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin), whom Susan declares “divinely attractive.” With no means of his own, this preening popinjay is satisfied to live on his wife’s vast fortune while enjoying Susan’s favors on the side.
Recently, a woman friend told me she doesn’t like Austen because her fiction seems single-mindedly devoted to retailing stories about brainless young middle-class women on the hunt for suitable husbands with suitable wealth behind them. If this were true, it might be thought a literary limitation. But it isn’t. Certainly, not in Lady Susan, nor in Austen’s other novels in which, to prove themselves, young women must carefully use their intelligence and taste to distinguish which men will make good matches and which will not. This is the central concern of Pride and Prejudice, and Austen carries it off with a splendid show of wit and judgment. In Austen’s hands, the marriage market became a formidable test of character.
A recent essay argues that Lady Susan was influenced by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Maybe it was, although Austen was only 17 when Vindication was published, and 19 when she wrote the novella. Given her conservative outlook, she was not likely to have thought that the thorny and complexly argued Vindication was a helpful primer on how to realize female ambitions. If anything, Wollstonecraft’s revolutionary ideas would have seemed extravagantly dangerous to Austen, who, from what we know about her, was committed to working within the restraints of things as they were rather than straining to reshape the world according to an airy vision of what it should be. It may be regrettable that women didn’t have the opportunity to become MP’s or join men in the corporate boardrooms of Austen’s time. They’d likely have made excellent contributions to the public and private governance of the commonweal. They could hardly have done worse than many of the men at the helm. I don’t think, however, it’s helpful to regret what’s past and done.