Yesterday, I finally had the chance to sit down and read Whit Stillman's short novelization of his film adaptation of Austen's equally short novella Lady Susan, and I have a few comments:
First, I enjoyed the basic premise of the novelization, which is that
the narrator is a new character made up by Stillman, who is the nephew
of Sir James Martin, the rich fool who abruptly marries Lady Susan at
the end of Austen's story. Sir James's said nephew, writing in first
person, purports to enlighten the reader about Jane Austen's
"slanderous" misrepresentation of Lady Susan Vernon's marvelous
character. The "true" story thus unfolded by the nephew closely tracks
the screenplay of Stillman's film (if there are differences, I did not
detect them, but I didn't compare them closely enough to be sure). The
nephew's version of things, in a nutshell, is that Lady Susan is a good
person who has been misunderstood by jealous and mean-spirited people
who don't "get" what an amazing person Lady Susan really is.
In very brief illustration, this is from the first paragraph of the
narration by the nephew: "They who bear false-witness against the
innocent and blameless are rightly condemned. What, though, of they who
bear false-witness against those whose histories are not 'spotless'?
...Such was the case of the DeCourcy family of Parklands, Kent, who
disguised their prideful arrogance...under the cloak of moral nicety and
correct....the De Courcys did not conduct their soiling 'vendettas'
themselves but through the sycophants & hangers-on of their circle, in
this case the spinster Authoress notorious for her poison-pen fictions
hidden under the lambskin of Anonymity." You get the picture, I am sure.
What I find most interesting in Stillman's authorial stance is that it
implicitly raises what remains for me the most important and intriguing
question: did Jane Austen present Lady Susan as a character she intended
to be seen by her readers as a heroine, a villain, or both? As I've
previously written about this, most recently here....
"Resolving the seeming contradictions of Austen’s Lady Susan (&
Stillman’s Love&Friendship)" http://tinyurl.com/zfwzsw4
...my answer is "both", but on different levels of understanding.
Except at the very end, there is no authorial commentary in Austen's
novella, just the text of the letters exchanged by Lady Susan and a
handful of the other major characters. The penultimate paragraph of that
hasty authorial summing up of the tale of Lady Susan perfectly
illustrates Austen's witty, teasingly uncommitted description of her
protagonist: "Whether Lady Susan was or was not happy in her second
Choice [i.e. to marry Sir James Martin instead of Reginald DeCourcy]
---I do not see how 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 & her
And so we readers of Austen are mostly on our own in assessing Lady
Susan's epistolary justifications of her own extraordinary behavior, as
well as her bosom friend Alicia Johnson's sympathetic responses, as well
as her sister-in-law's very negative, suspicious views of Lady Susan,
etc etc -- we must decide what judgment to render on Lady Susan, and my
view, in a nutshell, is that Austen means us to understand that she is a
charming sociopath who is also a kind of superhero Nemesis force of
nature sent by the gods to punish men for abusing women in general. So
her character is a very spicy combination of good and evil.
Overall, reading Stillman's novelization had one principal effect on me
-- it raised my desire to rewatch his excellent film (which I predicted
after my first viewing of same will become part of the highest tier in
the pantheon of rewatchable Austen film adaptations). The lines of
epistolary dialog written by Austen, as well as those added by Stillman,
most spectacularly come alive when spoken by the extraordinary Kate
Beckinsale (as well as by her excellent supporting players). And, as I
noted back in January, Stillman shows impeccable taste and discretion in
his film adaptation, filling in Austen's blanks (mostly re Sir James
Martin and Mr. Manwaring) but otherwise letting Austen's amazing words
speak for themselves.
And finally, for those considering buying Stillman's book, be aware that
he wisely included the full text of Austen's novella as an appendix, so
you can have the whole shebang in one volume to peruse one after the other.
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