“Austensibly an Adaptation”
In 1995 and 1996, a post-modern cult of Jane Austen developed around a number of audio-visual adaptations of the early nineteenth-century British novelist’s works, including Ang Lee’s of Sense and Sensibility (1811), starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet; a television miniseries of Pride and Prejudice (1813), starring Colin Firth; and three versions of Emma (1815), a feature film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, a made-for-TV movie starring Kate Beckinsale, and a modernization directed by Amy Heckerling, Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone as a precocious Beverly Hills High School gadfly. While Austen is still as rightfully beloved as ever, the dust from this mediated cultural explosion has settled in the subsequent twenty years.
This history serves as the backdrop for thinking about Love and Friendship (2016), Whit Stillman’s new film, an adaptation of an early novella, Lady Susan, written by Austen in 1794, but only first published posthumously, in 1871. In his first film, Metropolitan (1990), Stillman, a privileged son of one of John F. Kennedy’s Harvard University classmates, explored his peer group, Upper East Side Manhattan debutantes in a way that distinctly invoked Austen’s wit and irony about the similarly upper-crust in 1800’s British. Stillman’s new film presses even further, turning Austen’s droll societal observations into a full-blown satirical assault on the Jane Austen industry itself. Love and Friendship verges on what I have called elsewhere a deconstructive adaptation.
One wonders why Austen did not publish Lady Susan in her lifetime. It is a stunning exposé of Susan, a vile woman who seeks to marry men for their money. Susan has terrorized her daughter, Frederica, attempting to marry her off to the “silly” Sir James Martin, whom she does not love.
As the story opens, Susan has been forced to flee London because she had taken up with Mr. Manwaring, much to the chagrin of the man’s wife. With nowhere else to go, Susan moves in with her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon, scandalizing his wife, Catherine and her parents, Sir Reginald and Lady de Courcy. Susan sets her sights on Catherine’s brother, Reginald the younger. However, because of the vigilance of the de Courcy family, even the master manipulator Susan cannot win. Despite her skillful maneuvering, Susan ends up marrying the ridiculous Sir James, and her daughter gets the reward of Reginald.
With the exception of a last page third-person omniscient conclusion, Austen chooses the epistolary form to tell Susan’s story. In a series of letters, we come to experience social contradictions because each letter only tells part of the story, from one person’s particular point of view. We become seduced by Lady Susan’s matter-of-fact presentation of her self-interest, supported by her equally vile friend, Alicia Johnson, who has also married a middle-aged man for his money. The two villains lament marrying the wrong aged men, too old to manipulate, too young to die. Only when we read the letters between the de Courcy women do we fully sense the reasonable counterarguments to Susan’s positions.
The epistolary novel presents obvious problems for the process of adaptation to film. While Robert Bresson makes letter writing cinematically fascinating in Diary of a Country Priest (1951), unless one is such a great master of cinematography, rendering people read letters lacks the necessary action that film seems to demand. The greatest film adaptation of an epistolary novel heretofore is Dangerous Liaisons, Stephen Frears’ 1988 film version of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 French source. In that film, the Marquise (Glenn Close) and Valmont (John Malkovich) plot to maximize their libidinal pleasure while destroying the lives of as many young people as they can. In one scene, Valmont in bed composes a false love letter written on the bare behind of a prostitute. Frears’ film thus makes the penning of the letters part of the visual spectacle of the characters’ lives.
Stillman finds a different solution for rendering the epistolary novel a cinematic delight, this one without violating the mannered habitus of Jane Austen. Love and Friendship is obsessed with language, writing, and reading. Subtitles and intertitles abound in the film, often increasing the wry irony of Austen into full-blown comedy. Each character is introduced via a subtitle, both helping us understand and remember the complex web of interaction for the many personages, but also providing the opportunity for satire.
Susan brings a woman, Mrs. Cross to live with her at her brother-in-law’s estate. The subtitle tells us that her job is to “help pack and unpack,” indeed the only actions we see Mrs. Cross undertake during the film. Immediately afterward, Susan continues the film’s comedy: Unable to afford her daughter, Frederica’s schooling, Susan decides the fees are too high, and that it would be ridiculous for her to pay them. She explains drolly, “so, in a sense, it’s an economy.”
The film’s highlight is when we first meet Reginald the elder and Lady de Courcy. Their daughter, Catherine has written her mother a letter warning of the danger Reginald the younger faces with Susan living in the same house. Because Mrs. de Courcy’s eyes are bad, she asks her husband to read her daughter’s letter to her out loud. The father’s eyesight is little better: he has to squint at the letter through his glasses to make out the words.
He begins reading the letter silently, now and again summarizing. Mrs. de Courcy demands that he read the entire thing verbatim, explaining that the sense of the letter will be found not in synopsis, but in her daughter’s voice. Hilariously, Mr. de Courcy begins reading the letter, including the punctuation marks out loud. To emphasize the importance of language, Stillman doubles our encounter, with supertitles covering most of the bottom two-thirds of the screen with the actual text of Catherine’s letter, including the punctuation marks.
Mrs. de Courcy gets annoyed with her husband, explaining that she would like to hear, “just the words, please.” Frustrated, Mrs. de Courcy comically insists that her eyes have magically cleared up. The film’s narration continues in the joking mode, posting only the one word, “long” rather than the entire sentences of the letter we received on the screen previously.
Stillman ends the scene with a meditation on the gendering of letter writing. After processing the danger Susan poses to Reginald, Mrs. De Courcy insists she must write back to her daughter immediately, in order to help. Mr. de Courcy has had enough with the language of women: he insists he will go visit the estate in person. Of course, the subsequent conversation he has with his son goes terribly; the naïve Reginald insists upon Susan’s honor, thus proving that Mr. de Courcy’s belief in straight-talk is misguided. We will need the rest of the film for people to write letters and talk through complex social relations for things to work out in propriety’s favor.
Unlike in Austen’s novella, where the “silly” Sir James Martin serves as an unseen foil (and merely the punishment that Susan will be meted out at the end), he is the film’s most cinematically engaging character. His social incompetence is expressed through the film’s continuation of the epistolary metaphor. His introductory subtitle lists him as Frederica’s “unintended.” He barges onto the estate unannounced. He explains innocently, “I forgot to write.” In Jane Austen’s world of letters, a character who simply shows up places unannounced, as Mr. de Courcy did earlier, simply cannot prevail.
Stillman doubles down on his comic focus on Sir James, rendering him an impossible dolt. James explains to everyone that he could not readily find the mansion, because he saw a church but not a hill. The name of the estate is Churchill (one compound word). Sir James slowly figures it out, reasoning that Churchill was a famous general, an observation even more resonant in 2016, with Winston Churchill’s importance to Britain in the 20th century intervening between the film and the time of Jane Austen.
James’ idiocy continues to the end of the film. Having married Susan, he comes back to the estate to celebrate the marriage of Reginald and Frederica. James again repeats his confusion of the church and the hill. It makes one pause to consider whether James is mentally ill or has a severe learning disability. However, the film flits along such that we do not have time to ponder such grave matters.
James’ blockheadedness is Susan’s punishment for daring to take power in a patriarchal society. The film quickly continues with a speech given by Reginald to highlight his joy at marrying Frederica. As he talks of her “m-i-e-n,” he pauses to explain that he doesn’t suggest “m-e-a-n,” and at this point the supertitles return, to suggest the difference between spoken and written language. That is to say, the film theorizes its status as an adaptation, moving from the world of Jane Austen, of the written word, to that of Whit Stillman, of film’s reliance on actors speaking language out loud.
Stillman withholds his final barb until the end of the credits. One of the last written messages on the screen before it goes dark is: “Buy the Love and Friendship novel, in which Lady Susan will be completely vindicated.” That is to say, even within our current world, a place of book tie-ins with movie releases, Stillman’s film is still exploring the implications of Austen’s ironic mode.
Perhaps Austen did not publish Lady Susan in her lifetime because her invention’s viciousness violated the celebrations of romance in her accomplished novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps the punishment of the adulteress, marrying a silly man, was not strong enough, a problem “fixed” in Mansfield Park (1814), where Maria is banished “to another country.” Whatever Austen’s reasons, Stillman returns to her unpublished text to discover how importantly cinematic it could become in 2016.
Stillman’s film allows us to pause to wonder if Susan should be punished in the first place. What choice did she really have? Without the means to support herself, is finding the right man according to social strictures, on his terms alone, the properly ethical solution? Stillman’s film from 2016 ends with the possibility that the correct outcome is Susan’s “complete vindication.” Whatever our feminist inclinations on that point, what is clear is that by rendering a fully comic version of Jane Austen, Love and Friendship has completely vindicated the cinema of adaptation.