Love and Friendship-or Not

When I first heard a Jane Austen movie called Love and Friendship was being made, I was thrilled. Love and Friendship is the title of a short novel Austen wrote as a teenager,[1]Actually, she titled it Love and Freindship, but I don’t feel obliged to replicate her typos. which was only published after her death when she was famous and there were people who wanted to read every last thing she wrote. It’s actually my favorite thing by her. It’s pretty different from the typical Austen work, being much more over the top in its humor, and focusing largely on negative characters. The romantic tropes it satirizes are still very familiar today and it’s hilarious. Check it out if you can. So, naturally, I was highly annoyed to learn that it was actually based on another novella by Austen, which was only published after her death, Lady Susan. (I guess screenwriter/director Whit Stillman just thought Love and Friendship was the catchier title.) While I hadn’t read Lady Susan at the time, from what I’d heard, it wasn’t nearly as much fun as L & F. But now that I have read it, I have to say it’s a relatively great book, albeit one that, not surprisingly given how it was published, still feels like a rough draft. And Love and Friendship (2016) is a relatively great movie too.

Like the literary Love and Friendship, Lady Susan is rather atypical of Austen’s books but for somewhat opposite reasons. Both have negatively portrayed protagonists, but while Love and Friendship is possibly the silliest thing she ever wrote, Lady Susan is the darkest and most dramatic. The title character is probably the most melodramatic villain in Austen outside of Mansfield Park.[2]I don’t mean that as a criticism, I assure you. I love me some good melodrama! How many Jane Austen stories feature a mother and daughter as romantic rivals? Actually, how many stories in general feature that? It begins with Lady Susan Vernon (here portrayed by Kate Beckinsale) being kicked out of Langford, the estate where she’s been staying since her husband’s death, for seducing two unavailable men. She goes to stay with her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wife, Catherine (Emma Greenwell.) She intends to bag Catherine’s brother, Reginald DeCourcy (Samuel Xavier) for her husband and realizes the way to do this is through affecting sincere humility rather than being her usual flirtatious self. Meanwhile, she keeps her daughter, Fredericka (Morfydd Clark) at a miserable boarding school, the better to make her desperate enough to marry the moronic Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett.)

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Lady Susan and Fredericka

After reviewing Kate Beckinsale’s performance as the lead in one of the 1996 movie adaptations of Emma, I was intrigued to see her, years later, play an Austen character who could be described as Emma Woodhouse on steroids. Both are charming, vivacious, witty, beautiful, manipulative control freaks, but while Emma has a conscience and eventually repents, Lady Susan is rotten to the core, a villain you love to hate, worse than Emma ever was. You’ll remember that I wanted to like Beckinsale as Emma, but I felt that her somewhat obvious evilness overwhelmed her charm. That’s no problem here. Watching Beckinsale, it’s no mystery why so many characters are charmed/fooled by Lady Susan, but neither is it a mystery whether we’re supposed to root for her. If anything, I wish Beckinsale had brought a little more of the edge she did to Emma in some of Lady Susan’s scenes, ironically enough.[3]Heh. Irony. Jane Austen. So perfect. But better that than the viewers thinking Reginald as stupid as Sir James for falling for her.

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Reginald DeCourcy and Lady Susan
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While Lady Susan is the juiciest role in the movie, there are other fun ones and the whole cast is great or at least good, even the ones in the less fun roles. I do wish that Greenwell made more of an impression as Catherine, since she’s arguably the heroine. But it’s not like she’s bad at all.

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Whit Stillman is a great fit for Jane Austen. You’d swear that some of his original dialogue was from the book. (“What a mistake you made marrying Mr. Johnson,” Lady Susan says sympathetically to her sidekick, Alicia (Chloe Sevigny), “too old to be governable, too young to die.”) In fact, without discounting the many great screenplays that have been adapted from Austen, I think he does a better job of capturing her style than any of them.[4]Mind you, this doesn’t mean I consider the movie a better piece of storytelling than any of them. One of the only things that feels off about is that Sir James Martin feels like too broad of a caricature. Of course, by “feels off” I mean that this feels inaccurate to Austen’s writing style. As a piece of comedic characterization in its own right, he’s great fun!

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Ironically, I feel like the very things that make Lady Susan different from your average Austen novel are what allow Love and Friendship to capture the feel of her writing better than other adaptations. Generally, modern Austen-inspired screenplays, including some of the great ones, feel obligated to be more explicitly feminist and egalitarian than their source material. And all of them are forced to come across as more romantic. Of course, romances are major parts of Austen’s plots, and other positive relationships are too, but she underwrites them compared to the comedic or satirical parts or the explorations of psychology/morality. She rarely includes a romantic proposal in its entirety as opposed to summarizing it, and that applies even more strongly to teary, joyful acceptances.[5]Persuasion is the exception that proves the rule. Of course, you can’t just imply such critical dialogues in movies, and to not include romance would be even more untrue to the stories. It’s a real catch 22 situation.

Lady Susan/Love and Friendship features one, count it, one positive romance[6]Not counting the happy marriages of Charles and Catherine and Catherine and Reginald’s parents (James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave), neither of which is ever in jeopardy., but it’s really an afterthought. There are also enough sympathetic characters to keep it from being simply unpleasant, but they’re mostly on the sidelines of the narrative. Wit and a cynical, though not misanthropic, view of human nature and society aren’t just a side dish to a love story here. They’re pretty much the movie’s main course. And far from trying to update the material for modern audiences, it arguably goes too far in the opposite direction, bombarding the viewer with period cultural references and coming across as more dated than the book was. That’s the other thing that feels not perfectly Austenian about the writing.

I was slightly shocked/titillated to find that rather than being more feminist than Lady Susan, the 2016 Love and Friendship arguably comes across as anti-feminist. Many modern feminists fear that sexy, flirtatious, good-looking women are demonized by society. Lady Susan claims to suffer from this, and other characters are quite willing to believe this and defend her. The movie actually makes a bigger deal of this than the book does. In the end, the message is clear: she really is as evil as her reputation makes her out to be. It’s pretty common for a film set in this time period to have a female character lament her lack of financial security and how her only choice is to marry a rich guy. How many of those speeches are given by a horrible villainess in the context of either browbeating her poor abused daughter or manipulating a dupe into seeing her as a tragic victim?[7]I guess it’s fairly standard to have such a speech be a mother giving her daughter the hard facts of life, but most of those mothers are more sympathetic than Lady Susan, not that that’s … Continue reading When Alicia Johnson’s husband (Stephen Fry) threatens to punish her for helping Lady Susan, rather than be disgusted by the patriarchy, the audience is expected to cheer. If all this sounds horrifyingly misogynistic to you, consider yourself warned. For what it’s worth, the movie also features a negative male character who pontificates that for a man to cheat on his spouse is natural while for a woman, it’s impossible, though the implication is more that he’s being naive about women than that he’s being too easy on men.[8]Realistically speaking, of course, he’s being both.

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Alicia Johnson

Love and Friendship (2016) also arguably comes across as anti-Christian in a way the literary Lady Susan wasn’t. In a scene where she bullies her daughter, Lady Susan specifically invokes the Biblical commandment to honor one’s parents. (This is original to the adaptation as the book didn’t contain any actual dialogue between Lady Susan and Fredericka.) Later Fredericka consults an amiable but rather oblivious curate (Conor MacNeill) about the application of this commandment. The advice he gives isn’t obviously terrible-he doesn’t tell her that, yes, it is her duty to marry Sir James-but it’s utterly irrelevant to her situation.[9]Though he does unknowingly reveal in his speech that Lady Susan is not the devout Anglican as which she poses. How true this is to the spirit of Austen is debatable. She certainly created even more negative clerical characters than this in Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice and Mr. Elton from Emma. But she condemned them more for their character defects than their religious views, about which, indeed, the books say little. And her oeuvre also includes some positive clerics, most notably Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey and Edmund Bertram of Mansfield Park. Again, if this part of the film sounds offensive to you, consider yourself warned. And, again, for what it’s worth, a few of the positive characters also make biblical allusions, one of which is to compare Lady Susan to “the serpent in Eden’s garden.”

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The curate

There’s one major reason I can’t recommend this movie as highly as I’d like to do and, ironically, it’s Jane Austen’s fault. You see a great analogy for the character of Lady Susan is Shakespeare’s Richard III in the play that bears that name. Both are villainous protagonists you love to hate.[10]I know I’ve used that phrase before, but it really does give you the idea. Both masterfully manipulate the people around them, posing as good people who are the victims of slander.[11]I’m very proud of myself for not saying “fake news.” I weary of political catchphrases whether they’re from the Right or the Left, and “fake news” arguably comes … Continue reading Both are highly entertaining in how frankly remorseless they are in their private correspondence/soliloquies and can leave readers/playgoers with a guilty admiration for their sheer competence-at first anyway. In his book, Shakespeare’s Political Drama, Alexander Leggatt argues that the audience goes through an emotional journey watching Richard III, going from being delighted by his brazen villainy to being disgusted by it. “It is in fact dangerous to feel secure with Richard,” he writes. “The illusion of complicity with (him) that (three of his victims) have in their different ways may reinforce our superiority over them, but it should also be warning…the cast of the early scenes fall into two categories-Richard and his dupes. Faced with this choice, we naturally go with Richard, especially since he is so frank with us. But it seems to Richard’s victims that he is being frank with them.” Much the same could be said of our relationship with Lady Susan.[12]Though it should be noted that there are characters in the early scenes of Lady Susan and Love and Friendship (2016) that do see through her. Disconcertingly, Reginald, who almost ends up being completely deceived by her, starts out expecting to be entertained by her villainy and pat himself on the back for seeing through her, unlike others, which is exactly the attitude the reader brings to the book! But Richard III functions as something of a revenge fantasy. We grow more and more appalled by Richard until the end when we cheer to see him defeated as he deserves. Lady Susan/Love and Friendship (2016) follows this pattern-right until the end.

And here, for once, the work is not atypical of Austen. While her writing makes it clear she had strong moral convictions, she was also too cynical to believe that wickedness is always punished in this world. The worst punishment her villains usually get is not ending up with the heroine (or the hero if the villain is female.) While Lady Susan is thwarted in what have been her main goals throughout the story, in the end she’s basically well off and contented. The reader/viewer can only take consolation in the fact that the two of her victims we care about the most are now free from her influence, no small relief admittedly. But Lady Susan is about the villain in a way few of Austen’s books are and, in particular, it’s about making us root for the villain’s downfall. The lack of it leaves the reader frustrated, especially since Lady Susan’s wickedness is so over the top, you can’t really just shrug your shoulders over it and say, “life’s not fair.” Rather than changing this, Love and Friendship actually makes it worse. In the book, Reginald breaks off with Lady Susan once he learns the full extent of her evil. He undergoes the same disillusionment here, but she’s now the one who preemptively breaks up with him, saying she loves him passionately but can’t marry a man who doesn’t trust her. The script makes it explicit that she doesn’t simply do this to save face, but to guilt him into changing his mind. Then she changes her own mind and, at another’s suggestion but of her own accord, turns her attentions to another man with lower standards. Presumably, this was done to make the climax more suspenseful, but it makes the resolution even more anticlimactic and means Lady Susan gets even less of the comeuppance up to which the story feels like it’s been building.

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While the movie on the whole is less than the sum of its parts-a cliched expression but an accurate one-it’s still well worth watching for Austen fans who feel like adaptations of her work are too touchy-feely and not blisteringly satirical enough. It may even win over a few-a very, very specific few-who have been previously dismissive of them.

I still say someone should make a movie of Love and Friendship though!

References

References
1 Actually, she titled it Love and Freindship, but I don’t feel obliged to replicate her typos.
2 I don’t mean that as a criticism, I assure you. I love me some good melodrama!
3 Heh. Irony. Jane Austen. So perfect.
4 Mind you, this doesn’t mean I consider the movie a better piece of storytelling than any of them.
5 Persuasion is the exception that proves the rule.
6 Not counting the happy marriages of Charles and Catherine and Catherine and Reginald’s parents (James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave), neither of which is ever in jeopardy.
7 I guess it’s fairly standard to have such a speech be a mother giving her daughter the hard facts of life, but most of those mothers are more sympathetic than Lady Susan, not that that’s a huge accomplishment.
8 Realistically speaking, of course, he’s being both.
9 Though he does unknowingly reveal in his speech that Lady Susan is not the devout Anglican as which she poses.
10 I know I’ve used that phrase before, but it really does give you the idea.
11 I’m very proud of myself for not saying “fake news.” I weary of political catchphrases whether they’re from the Right or the Left, and “fake news” arguably comes from both.
12 Though it should be noted that there are characters in the early scenes of Lady Susan and Love and Friendship (2016) that do see through her.
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