Jane Austen’s epistolary novella Lady Susan has always occupied a somewhat uncomfortable and often overlooked place in the thoroughly – sometimes exhaustively – scrutinized Austen canon. Written in the mid-1790s, around the same time as the first, now lost but likely also epistolary, drafts of Sense and Sensibility (née Elinor and Marianne) and Pride and Prejudice (née First Impressions), Lady Susan is an odd artifact. Neither a work of Austen’s youth nor of her adulthood, Lady Susan is a liminal text, lacking the romping spirit of Austen’s juvenilia and the stylistic maturity of her later omnisciently-narrated novels. And yet…not unlike its eponymous widow, Lady Susan is a story that ought to retreat quietly into the background, but which instead insists upon getting her/its way.
The novella has been somewhat less proactive than its unexpectedly compelling anti-heroine, Lady Susan Vernon. First published in 1871, Lady Susan patiently waited for someone to come along and pay it proper homage. Thankfully, that someone was Whit Stillman, a self-professed Austen fan, and writer-director of (until now) contemporary yet Austenian comedies of manners. Blasphemous though it might be for me to say, Stillman’s adaptation of Lady Susan – which somewhat confusingly takes its title from Austen’s more youthful epistolary novella – is quite possibly an improvement on its source material.
Love and Friendship reunites Stillman’s Last Days of Disco co-stars, Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevingy, playing Susan and her confidant Alicia Johnson, respectively. I’ve always suspected that Austen had a soft spot for her scheming, widowed protagonist; I think her novella celebrates Lady Susan’s conniving ways, even as it criticizes the system that forces her to use such subterfuge. Stillman certainly believes in Austen’s tacit appreciation of Lady Susan, making his own explicit. And Kate Beckinsale brings the character to life in splendid fashion (I mean that both metaphorically and literally – her costumes are gorgeous, not least because of the way the film plays with the sometimes suspect stages of her mourning wear).
Brilliant, beautiful, and self-centered, Beckinsale’s Lady Susan manages to charm even as she schemes. It seems appropriate that the only other Austen character Beckinsale has played is Emma Woodhouse, who is famously Austen’s least likeable heroine. Beckinsale has a knack for infusing these tricky characters with a captivating blend of wit and allure – if anything, she is more delightful as Susan than she was as Emma. Perhaps spending a large part of the last decade playing a brooding vampire warrior in the Underworld series had Beckinsale itching to show off her impeccable comic timing. Or perhaps, like the fictional Lady Susan, Beckinsale is only getting better with age. Whatever the cause, Beckinsale’s performance in Love and Friendship is understatedly hilarious and generally superb.
Despite its revised title, Love and Friendship spends little time celebrating either, although the scenes between Beckinsale and Sevingy imply that a certain amount of genuine friendship – based though it may be on a healthy dose of cattiness and female indignation – exists between the two characters. (The film also hints at the true recipient of Lady Susan’s love – or at least her desire). But Beckinsale’s Susan seems motivated primarily by love and friendship to herself, at least in part because if she doesn’t look out for herself, no one will. A widow in straightened circumstances, she is largely dependent on others (although one of the characters does suggest that she has brought this upon herself with her profligate spending), a situation she is determined to rectify.
More than any other Austen adaptation, Love and Friendship highlights the many ways in which Austen is far more than the author of courtship tales. In this film, romance lingers complacently in the distant background. The only scene at a ball – that mainstay of flirtation and courtship in Austen adaptations – comes off as winkingly obligatory and deliberately joyless. As with all Austen’s stories, this is one at least in part about innovating within the form of society’s rules – and while Beckinsale’s Lady Susan clearly takes pleasure in besting her society frenemies at their own game, there are times, as in the dutiful country dance outing, when she is clearly going through the motions.
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away because even though it largely hews to Austen’s story, Whitman’s adaptation also supplements it, particularly in the delightful, quietly raunchy way he fleshes out Lady Susan’s conjugal ending. As someone who took offense with the way Joe Wright’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice played fast and loose with Austen’s writing, purposelessly rewriting key dialogues, I have to admit that some of the best lines and plot points in Love and Friendship might be Stillman’s. I’m not sure whether Sevingy simply couldn’t master an English accent, but the decision to make her an American in constant fear of exile to her home state of Connecticut is a running gag that never gets old. The film is full of these sort of subtle delights, as well as witty one liners and comic exchanges. And it comes in at a trim 90 minutes, which is a feat almost no filmmaker seems capable of managing these days. Not unlike Austen – whose famously demurring claim that she worked best on a “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory” has often been read as a subtly ironic celebration of her finely-honed creative abilities – Stillman seems to shine within these restraints. Even though he has the rare advantage of having to flesh out an Austen story, rather than trim it for running time, he nevertheless makes the absolute most of each minute. Love and Friendship is a delight from start to finish, and it gives me cautious hope for the future of Austen adaptations (which Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had largely slaughtered in a grisly fashion).