Back in the 1990s, American cinema was flooded with adaptations of Jane Austen novels. Some of them, like the Gwyneth Paltrow vanity project Emma, were pretty bad. Others, like the 1995 BBC adaptation of Persuasion, were competently done but boring. Still others, like Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, were entertaining in and of themselves, but bore only a superficial relationship to Jane Austen’s writings. Perhaps the most representative, the 1995 British miniseries where Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy is imagined as a viral hunk and Elizabeth Bennett is motivated more by lust then by money, gets to the root of the problem. In spite of the current inability of Anglo Americans to see the marriage of two good-looking, and wealthy, people under thirty as anything other than a love match, Jane Austen didn’t write romance novels. She wrote satire, critiques, albeit from the right, on the petty gentry of late Eighteenth Century England. Elizabeth Bennett didn’t care about Mr. Darcy’s square jaw or rugged body. She wanted to marry him for his “huge tracts of land.”
Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship Love & Friendship is not a great film. It’s the kind of wispy little costume drama you wish the BBC, or even HBO, would make more often. Nevertheless, it does capture the spirit of Jane Austen’s novels in a way so many more ambitious films don’t. Based Lady Susan – an unpublished manuscript written in 1794 – Love & Friendship liberates Jane Austen, not only from the kind of big budget, Merchant Ivory production that would entomb her soul in elaborately designed sets Royal Shakespeare Company acting, but from “alternative” adaptations that miss the point altogether. Whit Stillman, who broke onto film in 1990 with Metropolitan – think of it as Hal Hartley meets the Preppy Handbook – understands the essential cynicism at the heart of upper-middle-class “romance.” Metropolitan was a fun movie because Stillman’s young Manhattan WASPs were more interested in reveling in their own verbal cleverness than they were in getting hitched for life. If Last Days of Disco was a disappointment, it’s mainly because he put his cynicism on a leash, and tried to fool himself into believing that upper-East-Side yuppies could ever get more excited by sex than by their trust funds. In Love & Friendship, he’s not only acknowledged the reality that “love,” both in the world of the American upper-class and in the world of Jane Austen, is mainly about money. He’s made it fun.
Like any English major, I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s canonical novels. Not being a specialist, I’ve never read Lady Susan, but I’ll have to correct that mistake. While Jane Austen’s unfinished and unpublished first novel might not rank with Emma or Pride and Prejudice, its heroine — to be more accurate its anti-heroine – looks forward to William Makepeace Thackeray and Becky Sharp. Lady Susan Vernon, a penniless thirty-something widow with a sixteen-year-old daughter is no dewy eyed twenty-year-old looking for a rich husband. Rather, she’s Elizabeth Bennett a decade later, a clever, accomplished woman who failed to marry the richest man in England, and who now has to work her way back into the upper-class by virtue of nothing but her charm and sex-appeal. She’s also refreshingly free of the illusion that a happy marriage is a love match. On the contrary, Love & Friendship opens with Lady Vernon and her daughter Frederica being expelled from the Manwaring Estate because she’s seduced Lord Manwaring into an adulterous relationship. Lady Vernon is no French Troubadour poet, but she is aware that romance more often disrupts established social hierarchies as it reinforces them. If the canonical Jane Austen is a conservative, the nineteen-year old Jane Austen was a budding radical.
Unfortunately for Lady Vernon, she’s also homeless. Like Blanche DuBois, she and her daughter depend upon the “kindness of strangers,” although thankfully the strangers in Love and Friendship are much nicer than the strangers in A Streetcar Named Desire. Her next stop is the “Churchill Estate,” which is owned by her sister-in-law Catherine Vernon and her amiable husband Charles Vernon. Catherine Vernon, played by Emma Greenwall, would just as soon her sister-in-law out into the street. Lady Susan knows she’s on thin ice, but she also knows she’s protected by two things, convention – you don’t just toss a “lady” out in the street – and the fact that men, to put it crudely, often think with the wrong head. Catherine Vernon’s younger brother Reginald DeCourcy, a naive young hunk played by Xavier Samuels, has heard all about the notorious Lady Susan, and like any would-be groupie he’s not going to pass up the chance to meet the rock star now occupying the guest room. Before long, Susan has Reginald DeCourcy wrapped around her little finger. She’s also presented with an added complication when her sixteen-year-old daughter Frederica gets expelled from her boarding school, and shows up – along with a very rich but unwanted suitor named Sir James Martin – at the Churchill Estate, bringing all the drama, and opportunity, that usually entails.
Morfydd Clark, who plays Frederica, strikes just the right note of teenage angst and naivete. It’s also believable that the 43-year-old Beckinsale could seduce a much younger man. I’m not sure if she sold her soul to the devil or found some sort of magical youth potion, but unlike Sevigny, she hasn’t noticeably aged since The Last Days of Disco. In any event, the two women look close enough in age – the Gilmore Girls of Jane Austen – to imagine them passing men back and forth between each other. Chloë Sevigny, who plays Lady Susan’s American friend Alicia Johnson is a disappointment. I’m glad she doesn’t attempt a British accent, but her timing and body language seems to suggest that she wanted to. She would have been much better in the role of Catherine Vernon. Emma Greenwall is also pretty forgettable. Xavier Samuels is adequate as a naive young hunk, not much more. Lochlann O’Mearáin, who looks a bit like Colin Firth, and who plays Lord Manwaring, doesn’t have to do much more than stand around looking like a male model. Jenn Murray, who plays Lady Manwaring, overdoes the hysteria, but I suppose that’s the point. The character in the novel is to be so unbearable you can understand why her husband cheats on her. Justin Edwards is amiable enough as Charles Vernon.
The real star of the film, however, is an actor named Tom Bennett, who plays the bumbling Sir James Martin. Sir James, who has ten thousand pounds a year and a gigantic estate, and who’s positively obsessed with Frederica Vernon, is also an idiot. He’s exactly the kind of fabulously wealthy dupe any naive sixteen-year-old girl would reject and any cynical thirty-five year old woman would consider an opportunity. It’s honestly hard to stop laughing whenever Bennett is on screen, and Stillman strikes comic gold with his dim, and overly literal mind. “Churchill,” he says. “I was looking for a church and a hill and couldn’t find either.” When he finds out that there are only ten, and not twelve commandments – a running joke in Love & Friendship is how Anglicans don’t seem to read the Bible – he’s delighted. That’s two less commandments to obey. He decides to throw out the rule that you should honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. The rest of the commandments, injunctions not to kill or cover your neighbors wife, are just stating the obvious. He wasn’t planning to do any of that stuff anyway.
At the end of the film, it’s clear that the one commandment Sir James should probably take seriously is the Seventh. Lady Susan, who has claimed him, along with his ten thousand pounds a year, for herself after shuffling Reginald DeLancy off to Frederica, hasn’t the slightest intention of being faithful. That makes it all the more hilarious that the one original idea Sir James seems to have is a misogynistic theory that men are naturally inclined to cheat but women don’t have it in them. I suppose it’s fortunate Stillman ended the film here – and Austen didn’t bother finishing the novel – because this was not a marriage that could have possibly worked. Either Sir James would prove too dim to ever suspect that Lady Susan was cheating on him, a distinct possibility — and we’d just end up feeling sorry for him as she and Lord Manwaring drained him of his money – or he would. He’d challenge Lord Manwaring to a duel, and probably get himself killed. As for Reginald DeCourcy and Frederica Vernon, their marriage probably will work out. Reginald is a naive young man more in love with the concept of being in love than with Lady Susan herself. So why shouldn’t his affection, along with his own ten thousand pounds, go to an equally naive teenage girl with a charming singing voice and a penniless mother? Then again, their marriage would probably be too dull to be the subject of another novel.
If Love & Friendship, in spite of having a clearly feminist heroine, is not exactly a feminist novel, it probably has something to do with how the nineteen-year Jane Austen, and the sixty-four-year-old Whit Stillman, have constructed a sort of utopia that depends on the good nature and the indulgence of clueless rich men. Many books and PHD dissertations have been written to prove that Jane Austen wasn’t simply a conservative, that there’s a coded critique of class and of the slave trade running through her novels, but for me that’s never quite worked out. Jane Austen lived in and critiqued a bubble, the world of the English landed-gentry in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century. Most of her anger is reserved for inadequate men and women – Mr. and Mrs. Bennett – who don’t prepare their children to succeed in this narrow, sheltered world, not for the class system and the British Empire that made it possible. Even though Jane Austen was a contemporary of the French Revolution she barely seems to be aware of its existence. If the French had successfully invaded England, I’m fairly confident that Lady Susan would have just brushed up on her French and reveled in the idea that there were now rich, eligible men in two languages. We never see the Captain Wentworth of Persuasion at war. For Austen, the only significance to his having served in the British Navy is that he comes back to England with enough money to marry Anne Elliot.
In this sense, Whit Stillman, who makes movies about the antiquated WASP gentry of the northeast United States, is similar to Jane Austen. Stillman built his career dramatizing the lives of privileged Americans living in a a sheltered bubble, much more concerned with the mating rituals of the people living inside than in how the bubble got built. All of Austen’s and Stillman’s characters are in a sense children. I keep thinking of Steven Fry, the excellent actor who plays Chloë Sevigny’s much older husband “Mr. Johnson.” The gigantic Fry – he’s 6’5” – exudes an air of benevolent patriarchal authority that seems out of place in the rest of the film. He also keeps threatening to send Sevigny back to Connecticut, which in 1796 would have been a pretty rough place indeed. If Stillman had switched the roles of Fry and Justin Edwards, who plays Charles Vernon, Love and Friendship would have been a much better film. It would have brought home just how precarious Lady Vernon’s position in society really was, and would have made her triumph over the patriarchy that much more satisfying.