Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Love and Friendship

Before she wrote "The Six", Jane Austen penned Lady Susan, a slender epistolary novel of 41 letters and a brief Conclusion. Lady Susan is different from Austen's other heroines. In other novels Lady Susan's daughter Frederica might have been the main character; Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is the best example of what Austen could do when she chose to flesh out a girl in Frederica's situation. But in this, her first adult work, Austen chose to tell the story of the villain of the piece.

Lady Susan Vernon is a Bad Actor. Beautiful, persuasive, resourceful, unprincipled, she's an advanced practitioner of the art of "gaslighting". She has an explanation for every rumor about her behavior, any negative appearance, and she gives them so very charmingly and with such authority that it's hard to contradict her. Her main objective is to do what she likes, and she's willing to sacrifice the happiness of her daughter if she herself can be well taken care of. She never admits defeat. Her moral and tactical flexibility is astounding.

Lady Susan, a recent widow, comes to stay with her brother-in-law and his family, having summarily left her last visiting situation after attracting all the men and alienating all the women. Catherine Vernon, her sister-in-law, mistrusts her based not just on rumors but her own experience, and her fears grow as she sees her brother Reginald, formerly wary of Lady Susan's reputation, fall under her spell. Lady Susan intends for her young daughter Frederica to marry Sir James Martin, a fellow as idiotic as he is rich, despite the gentle Frederica's horror at the match. Lady Susan juggles an increasing number of balls to keep all her schemes afloat, aided by a friend in London, her faithful correspondent Mrs. Alicia Johnson, but eventually the besotted Reginald has evidence enough that the lady is not as blameless as she protests herself to be, and Lady Susan must retrench in such a way that finally frees her daughter to marry whom she pleases. Through it all Lady Susan remains essentially unchanged. She has no moment of moral awakening, no stand on principle against the opinion of the world; in fact, she delights in standing on unprinciple against the opinion of the world. She leaves unhappiness and discontent in her wake, but the combined force of a happy family renders her powers neutral at best. Where there are moral cracks, Susan is able to take hold like a vine; where there is a strong and united facade, she peels herself off and seeks looser soil.

Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, Damsels in Distress) has fleshed out the episodes of Lady Susan in his new movie Love and Friendship, which Darwin and I saw on Friday evening. It's exceedingly enjoyable. Whitman has an affinity for Austen and her sly observational humor, and he has a broad canvas to work with, since the novel itself consists more of the outlines of action than clearly delineated scenes. I think he did a quite creditable job. The story is told faithfully and with wit, other than a slight twist at the end which is not in Austen, but perhaps not out of keeping with the story and characters as Austen has presented them.

Kate Beckinsale is exquisite as Lady Susan. She never misses a beat, and she glides across the screen with the absolute poise of a lady of a certain age and experience. The wheels in her head are always turning, especially on the few occasions when she's being thwarted. Darwin would have preferred that she'd looked a bit older, like her friend and yes-woman Mrs. Johnson (played as an American by the underutilized Chloƫ Sevigny), but I was pleased to subscribe to the idea that a woman of 37 can be as flawless as all that. Lady Susan, unlike many of Austen's other villains, does not suffer the pangs of conscience because she barely has a conscience. (Her closest analog in this regard, is, I think, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, if Lady Catherine were charming and a sexual predator who had to fight for security.) Yet for all that, she is not particularly happy, and by the end she has lost the power to manipulate the people who know her for the liar she is.

Lady Susan is so memorable in her manipulation that we keep hearing her words in the mouths of other characters. Every other character in the movie is more religious than she is, and yet it is her Biblical allusions that others keep quoting, or misquoting. (I found it ironic that Lady Susan is the only one who knows the order of the commandments.) And as she is a master of words, her words take root even as they twist the truth. A scene involving Frederica consulting the parish curate about the correct interpretation of the commandment to honor one's father and mother is Stillman's, not Austen's, and yet I thought well done, and a fine character moment.

Several moments in the film were laugh-out-loud funny, mostly involving Sir James Martin and his pristine cluelessness. Sir James is the prototype of Mr. Collins or Mr. Elton, but he has almost no dialogue in the book. Stillman has penned some inspired silliness for Sir James, and actor Tom Bennett never lets it flag. Also marvelously done was a scene in which Catherine and Reginald's father reads a letter to their mother, not omitting the punctuation. (We see few enough happily married older couples in Austen that I found this moment rather poignant.)

In Austen, the main stumbling block to personal and romantic happiness is the moral obstacles in her characters' paths. Once those are cleared away, she assumes that two intelligent lovers of good will will be able to handle any other smaller impediments themselves without her having to draw all the lines for us. Here, as in any Austen novel, the main point of the story is not romantic resolution, but moral resolution. In Lady Susan, the main part of the action is finished once Lady Susan's character is finally exposed to young Reginald and he breaks with her, with the Conclusion pulling together the loose ends in a fairly cursory way. Stillman picks up on this, I think; we never even see a kiss from our young lovers. But as Virtue is practically the antepenultimate word, I think that he understands Austen's point better than most of her cinematic interpreters.

1 comment:

Brandon said...

I too was struck by the fact that Lady Susan's words kept spreading beyond her; that was a touch of inspiration, and more than almost anything suggests just how powerful her manipulation is -- she's so good at it, it practically works on its own.