02 October 2016

Lady Susan: Love and Friendship

Writing table, Jane Austen House Museum,
Chawton, Hampshire, U.K.
Writer and director Whit Stillman had a harder and an easier task, creating “Love and Friendship” than others who translate Jane Austen's works to screen.

Easier because
the epistolary novella allows the characters' attitudes and Austen's comic sensibility to emerge less guardedly than if the dialog took place in a drawing room.

Harder because the epistolary novella provides less detail from which to create scenes. The reader's imagination fills in details and character. 

Stillman preserves Austen's effect by cutting forward to each next event, to each next perspective, but translating the story onto the screen also means transposing the characters' letters into spoken conversation...with an occasional letter read aloud. So Lady Susan and her confidante, Mrs. Johnson, end up seeing more of each other in the movie.

Austen contrasts the artful, Lady Susan, with 
her sister-in-law, Mrs. Vernon, whose notions of propriety are more deeply rooted, who sees through Lady Susan's charm, and who has compassion for Lady Susan's daughter, Frederica. 

But in the movie, Frederica and Sir Reginald speak for themselves, and thus a bit of Austen's cultural commentary gets lost in Lady Susan's cosmopolitan amorality.

Mrs. Johnson is an American in the film, and Stillman's ending loses some of Austen's subtlety. But as Matt Zoller Seitz observed, “Most of the time, though, Austen-isms walk shoulder to shoulder with Stillman-isms so gracefully that it takes a moment to realize which author is likely speaking through these characters.”

The source material provides a glimpse of its author that can get lost in the romance of her other works, and Stillman deserves credit for getting a lot of that on screen.

“Whether Lady Susan was, or was not happy in her second choice—I do not see how can it can ever be ascertained—for who would take her assurance of it, on either side of the question? The world must judge from probability. She had nothing against her, but her husband, and her conscience.”

Saint Nicholas Church, Chawton, Hampshire, U.K.
burial place of Jane Austen's mother Cassandra and
sister Cassandra Elizabeth.

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