When I first saw the trailer for Love & Friendship, I thought it was a parody of a Jane Austen movie. The quippy dialogue, the ornate gowns, the strong female characters—it all seemed very Austen-esque. However, I thought a self-proclaimed Austen nerd like myself knew all there was to know about her and her books. Surely, I would have heard if Austen had written a novel about an adulterous women who broke up marriages and wreaked havoc everywhere she went.
This character seemed so unlike the beloved Lizzie Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. Clearly someone was tampering with the source material.
Imagine my surprise when I found this new film was based on Austen’s novella Lady Susan. One of her earliest works, but published only posthumously, it has been largely overlooked by the film and television industry until Whit Stillman’s adaptation hit the big screen just last week.
The heroine of the story, Lady Susan, played by Kate Beckinsale, is recently widowed, on the prowl, and currently residing with her in-laws. The latter being forced upon her after she is kicked-out of the home of a well-known couple, with accusations that she attempted to break up their marriage.
However, Lady Susan won’t be deterred from finding a husband for herself and for her daughter, Frederica. She already has someone in mind for the 16-year-old. The wealthy Sir James would be the perfect match, if he were not what Jane Austen would call “rather simple-minded.” That Frederica has already refused to marry him matters very little to her mother.
When Lady Susan isn’t busy pushing Frederica into marriage, she’s flirting with Reginald DeCourcy, her sister-in-law’s brother who is also visiting the Churchill Estate. Never mind that she still has her heart set on the very married Lord Mannering, who her friend Lady Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) is keeping an eye on, just in case his wife finally leaves him.
While marrying for money is a famous Austen trope, it’s usually one her heroines forego in pursuit of a lasting love, or settles for only as a last resort, like Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet, however, would never marry Darcy for his money. She spends most of the book despising him for being rich.
The pursuit of a man for anything besides true love is left to the minor, and often mocked, characters, not Austen’s main protagonists. However, Lady Susan is depicted as ruthlessly pursuing any man that would have her, and she enjoys every minute of it. She describes her friend Alicia’s husband as “too old to be governable, and too young to die.” She sees every man that crosses her path as an opportunity for advancement in society, and possibly money, too.
It’s fascinating to think of a story written in the late 18th-century being brought to life for the first time in 2016. One has to wonder why we haven’t been introduced to Lady Susan sooner? It seems that every other Austen novel has been reborn every few years by a different director who claims to have a fresh take.
We’ve come to know these iconic characters like Elizabeth Bennet as spunky and spirited, but never conniving or manipulative. However, Love & Friendship director Whit Stillman himself calls Austen’s early novella “a little bit evil” (see video below). Could it be the world wasn’t ready for Lady Susan until now?
Women you love to hate have been around for centuries. Think Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind) or Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair). Yet the concept of the anti-heroine, the idea that a female character doesn’t have to be a good person to be a compelling protagonist, has only recently begun to garner serious discussion. Books like Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train have sparked debate on whether female characters have to be likeable for their popularity to endure.
A quick Google search on “likability and female characters” will tell you the internet has answered with a resounding “no” (my favorite article about this comes from The Atlantic). Women don’t need to be angels to be strong characters. Women are allowed to be anything. We can be portrayed as complicated individuals with flaws, rather than the stereotypical mother, sister, girlfriend, manic pixie dream girl, or girl-next-door we so often see.
Lady Susan may have been first written in the 1700s, but it took until 2016 for the mainstream media to be introduced to her, proving once again that Jane Austen was far ahead of her time.
After watching Love & Friendship, I immediately turned to the original source material, wondering what liberties Stillman had taken with Austen’s novella. I loved the movie and laughed out loud several times, but I still had trouble believing that this husband-stealer was a direct product of Jane’s pen.
I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers for those who have not read/seen it, but I will say despite the novella having a more ambiguous ending, the characterization is spot-on. In fact, most of Lady Susan’s most scathing quotes, are taken directly from the original book. Remember when Lady Susan referred to her friend’s husband as “too old to be governable and too young to die”? Yep, that was pure Austen.
The overall plot of the movie stays true to the original story as well. Stillman creates a more concrete ending, where Austen seems to have given up and written a rushed epilogue. Any writer who’s ever struggled with their ending could forgive her though, especially since she wrote Lady Susan when she was only 18.
But what about Austen? Would she forgive Stillman for adding onto her ending? Would she laugh at his theatrical adaptation? I like to think she would.
We’ll never know why Austen chose not to pursue the publication of Lady Susan during her lifetime. Perhaps she knew characters like the Dashwood sisters from Sense and Sensibility (which she went on to write after Lady Susan) would be better received. Perhaps life experience lead her to eventually write characters with more of a moral compass. Perhaps she just forgot about her early writing endeavors as she consumed herself with creating the worlds of the Bennets, the Dashwoods, and the Woodhouses.
Whatever the reason, I truly believe Jane Austen would love that Whit Stillman revived her early work in all its comedic glory. Lady Susan is not a character to be clothed in a demure white gown and bathed in early morning sunlight. She was meant to be captured with bright colors, with sarcasm, and with a firm grasp on her own sexuality.
This is not your usual Jane Austen romance. Love & Friendship will reveal a side of Austen you didn’t know existed. It took over 200 years for her to be revealed, but Whit Stillman did it right.
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