Whit Stilman’s Love and Friendship (actually Lady Susan) follows the narrative of Austen’s original rather neatly and although many reviews seem to be, often ignorantly, telling us that this is Austen with teeth or some such, what I don’t think they realise is that Austen already has teeth. The film is great, but it is great because it is so faithful to tone.
Jane Austen probably wrote Lady Susan when she was about eighteen, already aware that her hyper intelligence may not stand her in good stead as a woman, but long before the much sadder points in her life, when she was also to fantasise about being able to intellectually and physically subject herself to the whim of the man intended to be her superior (Mansfield Park).
Where in Mansfield Park the Lady Susan character (Mary Crawford) is sidelined and punished, in Lady Susan she is celebrated. I once read that Lady Susan is a fantasy of female power in a world where legally speaking women had none. This power is in the most part manifested in the original text by the fact that the story is told through letters, a medium really only upper class women engaged in, and since the women control the letter form, they do in fact control the boundaries of this reality. Whenever men get involved, their letters are short and stilted and ineffective. I would argue that to a degree this reality is also an idealised version of a very real subculture that did exist.
Stillman’s adaptation celebrates this power. Taking the text off the page necessarily removes it from the female form in which it is written and therefore extends the realm of female power. The men in the film are useless and defunct, from the wonderfully silly Sir James Martin (my new crush), to the priggish and apparently clever Reginald de Courcy and in particular to the ‘very handsome’ Mr Mainwaring who, although he appears in several scenes, has no lines, not one.
As in the original text, this is a battle between two women, Lady Susan Vernon and her sister in law Catherine Vernon. Catherine has her mother in her court and Lady Susan has her friend Alicia in hers. Throughout the film, these two vie for power, over Catherine’s brother, Reginald, over Lady Susan’s daughter, Frederica, and arguably over a position as matriarch of the family.
The film is great and so are the actors. I can’t quite be bothered going into all that review stuff as everybody else has already done so (particularly as Edinburgh got the film so bloody late), but safe to say Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin made me cry with laughter. And the ending, in particular, is very interesting. The original text finishes with Austen getting slightly bored and making fun of her own narrative form. Stillman’s adaptation has stuck very closely to the spirit of the text, ignoring the potentially problematic tone of the final passage, which is arguably written in the voice of Catherine Vernon anyway. And most importantly, this film has steered clear of any attempt to romanticise the story.
As most people who know me know, I have an axe to grind where it comes to Jane Austen and I’ve been grinding it for the better part of the last seven years. Jane Austen is one of the most, if not the most famous female author in the world. And yet over the course of a series of progressively shittier adaptations made by people who in some cases don’t even seem to have read the source text (Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice), a great comedian and social satirist has been pigeon-holed as a romance writer. Now there’s nothing wrong with romance, I very much enjoy a good rom com (and quite frequently a very crap one). But the fact is that this genre has been sidelined as one that is trivial and silly ever since Austen herself wrote and idle upper class young women got kicks from reading saucy French novels.
Of course if you actually look at Austen’s works, only Pride and Prejudice can reasonably be described as a romance and that romance is running alongside a lot of social commentary and out and out comedy. In particular, look at Sense and Sensibility, where Elinor marries Edward the bland (a far cry from Hugh Grant / Dan Stevens) and Marianne gets Brandon the old. As a rom com alone, Sense and Sensibility fails since the major love affair of the text remains unfulfilled.
Dickens wrote romances into every book, but nobody refers to him as a romance writer. The name Allan Woodcourt – or I suppose Woodcourt – hasn’t been adopted as a catch-all for everything women desire and everything that is irritating about the romance genre (Bleak House, in case you’re wondering). Because Dickens doesn’t represent a threat because he is a man and therefore its ok for him to be a writer and we don’t need to undermine and diminish him.
So what if we make Austen adaptations that don’t conform to that stereotype? What if we write fan fiction that doesn’t include shit fantasies about pseudo-romances with a misunderstanding of Mr Darcy? What if someone decides to adapt texts Austen wrote that do not conform to this? What kind of writer do we call her then? And that’s where Love and Friendship comes in. It might not seem groundbreaking that there is yet another period drama out there getting some attention and some critical acclaim, but trust me this film is rocking my fucking world.
And Whit, if you’re reading this, I have an adaptation of the actual Love and Friendship that we can start work on any day. Although the title might be a problem.