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Friday, September 9, 2016

Whit Stillman's Novelization of Lady Susan/Love and Friendship

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 Conscience."

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.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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