The Many Faces of Lady Susan Vernon

Lady SusanLady Susan by Jane Austen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

and Love and Friendship by Whit Stillman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was very excited to see that there was a new Jane Austen movie coming out. The film, Love and Friendship, was based on the Whit Stillman book, Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated, which was in turn based upon the Jane Austen novel, Lady Susan. Since I hadn’t read either of the two books, I decided it would be interesting to read them both before seeing the movie so I could see how the different versions compared with each other.

ABOUT THE BOOKS: Lady Susan, in its original form, is a short novel, told mostly through letters, which follows the schemes and manipulations of the titular Lady Susan. Love and Friendship by Stillman is a longer book in which Lady Susan’s nephew attempts to re-frame the story in such a way as to vindicate his aunt from the vile slanders of the DeCourcy family and their lackey, “the Spinster Authoress.”

MY THOUGHTS: I am sure this will come as no surprise but, of the three versions, my favorite was the original Jane Austen novel. The story was witty and irreverent and had more than a touch of Oscar Wilde-esque style and wit to it. As a heroine (or anti-heroine), Lady Susan is delightfully wicked and unrepentantly schemes, connives, and seduces her way through polite society. My only complaint was that Jane Austen ended the novel rather abruptly. Rather than continue telling her story as it happened in letters between the characters, Austen opts to sum up what happens next in a short epilogue. Jane Austen never submitted Lady Susan for publication. It was published by her family after her death without the extra polish and editing that she gave to her better known works, which may account for the less than perfect ending, but, as far as I am concerned, being so enjoyable that you wish it was longer is certainly one of the better faults a book could have have.

The Whit Stillman book, Love and Friendship, on the other hand, was less delightful. First of all, I have a feminist issues with the book. The original is a story about a woman who doesn’t feel the need to be likeable or to conform to society’s expectations of what a woman / widow / mother should be. Lady Susan owns her life choices, her sexuality, and has no shame in doing whatever she needs to do to get her way. She doesn’t care about morality, reputation, duty, or shame, and only cares what people think of her when she needs to manipulate them into doing what she wants. In fact, she gets away with the most blatant misbehavior partially because she is so confident in her cleverness and powers of persuasion and knows that she can spin almost anything to her advantage. Her letters to her American friend, Mrs. Johnson, in which she drops all pretenses and actually shows pride in her powers of manipulation, are downright hilarious and a lot of fun to read. Yet Stillman decided that this woman needed a man (the alleged nephew) to tell her story and restore Lady Susan to respectability and likeability by explaining away everything that makes her interesting. To be fair, Stillman made the nephew such a blockhead that the original wit and wickedness of the story still shines through but the layer of whitewash the narrator applies to “vindicate” Lady Susan is totally unnecessary and comes across as peevish and tedious. The narrator’s constant digs at Jane Austen (aka the Spinster Authoress) was clearly supposed to be humorous and clever but was just plain annoying instead and very little of the filler content and extra scenes he tacked on to make his book longer really added anything to the story other than length.

The only time Love and Friendship comes close to holding its own with Lady Susan is at the end. While Jane Austen’s Regency era morality demanded that the wicked Lady Susan get her comeuppance at the end of the book, Whit Stillman is able to frame things in such a way that Lady Susan gets to have her cake and eat it too. If only Stillman had ended his book there, I might have come away with a more favorable impression of Love and Friendship but while Jane Austen’s book ended too quickly, Stillman’s meanders on for another chapter with his insufferable narrator.

The film version of Love and Friendship seems to split the difference between Stillman’s book and Jane Austen’s novel. The vindicating nephew is nowhere to be seen – thank goodness – but the excess padding Stillman added to the story dragged and the overall tone of the film was much blander than the original novel – with much of Lady Susan’s spice and sharpness smoothed away.

Overall, I am grateful for Whit Stillman and his book, Love and Friendship, for giving me a reason to discover a hidden gem of the Jane Austen canon but, in the future, I will be reserving all my love and friendship for Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, rather than waste any more of my time on either of Stillman’s adaptations.

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