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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Resolving the apparent contradictions of Austen’s Lady Susan (& Stillman’s Love and Friendship)

For those of you who haven’t yet seen Love and Friendship (Whit Stillman’s brilliant film adaptation---but with a confusing new title---of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan); or for those who’ve seen it, but were puzzled and/or troubled by the seeming irreconcilable contradictions between its subversive anti-romantic themes, on the one hand, and the sophisticated positive romance most people see in Jane Austen’s six novels and the film adaptations thereof, on the other, here’s some background for you to consider, that I hope will help reconcile those apparent contradictions. I’ve previously written several times about the deliberate, subversively feminist, wish-fulfilment fantasy aspects I see in Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, and here are my current thoughts, which have evolved during the past six months, after rereading Austen’s novella, and seeing Stillman’s film twice.

How is it that the aspiring novelist JA decided to make a conscienceless female rake, who revels in her effortless ability to manipulate others, but especially men, the heroine of a novella? And how did Austen also manage to make Lady Susan so irresistibly witty, daring, and entertaining, that we actually fall under her spell, and somehow forget to recoil in disgust at her machinations? For those of you who’ve only seen Kate Beckinsale’s brilliant, indeed award-worthy, performance as Lady Susan in Stillman’s film, and haven’t read Austen’s novella… …rest assured that pretty much all those amazing zingers that Beckinsale delivers so perfectly were, almost word for word, Jane Austen’s own – so the film is not anachronistic, it doesn’t impose a modern sensibility on a late 18th century woman, it’s faithful to the sociopathic brilliance of JA’s own heroine.

I think that part of what makes many readers (and viewers), like myself, lack sympathy for the victims of Lady Susan's guile --- especially the male victims--- is that Lady Susan manages to turn what is ordinarily a kind of death sentence for middle-aged women in that era --becoming a widow without money--into opportunity for herself --- sorta like a self-serving Robin Hood. I see Lady Susan as a kind of “Austenstein” monster, a female Nemesis sicced on the male-dominated world Jane Austen grew up in, as poetic justice for the abuse and oppression of all women, both married and single, in that world.

While Lady Susan doesn’t resemble any of the heroines of Austen’s six novels, it’s often been noted that she is a lot like Mary Crawford, the enigmatic siren of Mansfield Park. I’m firmly in the camp of those who see Mary C. as a sympathetic character, a courageous whistle-blower who tries to warn the heroine Fanny Price against the abusive hypocrisy of the Bertram family. I also see a resemblance between Lady Susan and another seemingly negative Austen character not often compared to her --- Lucy Steele in Sense & Sensibility --- whose married name, as I pointed out in 2005, is LUCY FERRARS aka "Lucifer!

How so? After all, Lady Susan is well educated, with impeccable social graces, whereas Lucy seems an uneducated social climber. The deeper similarity I see between the two, is that Lady Susan, like Lucy, is a woman without scruples, who gets her way by using her own superior, nearly Satanic psychological acumen to exert influence over others - and she particularly rises to the challenge when someone dares to stand in her path and attempt to thwart her. In particular, they both boldly invade a respectable, wealthy family, and wreak havoc in it, the way a skilled borderline personality can do (apropos my friend Christine Shih’s claims that borderline personality was a key theme in Austen’s writing).

I see Lucy doing exactly the same as Lady Susan, once she "invades" the Ferrars family in S&S -- in particular, in the way I see Lucy as holding Edward on a string, and neutralizing sad clueless Elinor by making Elinor her "confidante"; while Lucy does her real work behind the scenes on Robert Ferrars, setting up the mousetrap on the Ferrars family. And then, when the time is just right, Lucy’s secret is "accidentally" revealed by her sister, and the trap is sprung on Mrs. Ferrars, who unwittingly does Lucy's bidding by disinheriting Edward, and making Robert her vested heir—whereupon Mrs. Ferrars has no way to squirm out of that trap. 

I also see a continuation of JA’s grudging admiration for a transgressive female like Lady Susan, in JA’s famous and very candid comment to Martha Lloyd in her January 1812 letter:  "I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales's Letter. Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband -- but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself ``attached & affectionate' to a Man whom she must detest -- & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad -- I do not know what to do about it; but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. --"

In effect, Lady Susan is Austen’s vision of a woman like Princess Caroline, but on steroids. Indeed, JA might well have said about Lady Susan something like “if I must give up Lady Susan, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the patriarchal social system had not been totally rigged against women, and she could have attained personal fulfilment in an ethical way".

And finally, in case anyone thinks Jane Austen as she got older was no longer in tune with having a villainess as heroine of an Austen story, just remember what JA wrote in her next to last surviving letter, in May 1817, to her old dear friend Anne Sharp, only months before JA's death (and Diana Parker in Sanditon, the novel JA began writing just before she died, also resembles Lady Susan in her exertion of influence on several people at once, like a circus juggler with ten dishes twirling atop ten poles):
"Lady P. writing to you even from Paris for advice!-It is the Influence of Strength over Weakness indeed.-Galigai de Concini for ever & ever.-Adeiu.- “

"the influence of Strength over Weakness indeed"! That could very well be Lady Susan’s motto as well! I am thinking in particular about what Lady Susan writes to his bosom buddy Alicia Johnson about her current “mark”, Reginald de Courcy, that partakes of the same attitude:  “He is lively & seems clever, & when I have inspired him with greater respect for me than his sister's kind offices have implanted, he may be an agreable Flirt. There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predetermined to dislike, acknowledge one's superiority. I have disconcerted him already by my calm reserve; & it shall be my endeavour to humble the Pride of these self-important De Courcies still lower, to convince Mrs . Vernon that her sisterly cautions have been bestowed in vain, & to persuade Reginald that she has scandalously belied me. This project will serve at least to amuse me, &prevent my feeling so acutely this dreadful separation from You & all whom I love. Adeiu. Yours Ever S. Vernon.”
And Jane Austen herself, from the time she first picked up a quill pen as a teenaged author, to the day she died when she was too sick to even hold a pen, and despite her being a woman with little money, managed to use the enormous strength of her mind to achieve true immortality, and give inspiration to countless women oppressed by the patriarchy, who've read her novels, and derived strength and inspiration to be strong despite gender-based obstacles still placed in their path. Austen was herself a rebel, who dared to satirize the greatest and most powerful in her novels, because she knew her own extraordinary psychological powers. Even Don Juan was of interest to her, as she wrote in 1814, a decade or more after she created Lady Susan:  “I have seen nobody on the stage who has been a more interesting Character than that compound of Cruelty and Lust”.

Now here are links, with excerpts, from three excellent articles on Lady Susan I’ve collected recently:

First, a great review of the novella and film, with which I am in total agreement:
“True and false” by Preena Shrestha, Jul 16, 2016   
“…look closely, and you’ll realise that as much as [Austen] indulges in the frivolous trappings of that society, she is actually, with great subtlety, wit and flair, skewering them at the same time. These satirical jabs are never more evident than in her portrayals of the lives of women at a time when their desires and individualities were consistently suppressed by the rules of social decorum and the all-encompassing need to Find A Husband—constraints that her heroines were always quietly struggling against in some form or the other. In this regard, Austen was a woman beyond her time: her work wasn’t just a catalogue of the fashions and habits of her time, but more a dig into the human condition at large, into relationships and behaviours shaped by the competing forces of romance and pragmatism, self and society—universal themes all, and still relevant to this day. …there’s such a churning of emotional complexity and conflict under that shiny surface of propriety, and so much to be gleaned from not just what is said indirectly, but also what isn’t said at all.
…Over the course of [Love and Friendship], we watch as our heroine (or anti-heroine more like) expertly manipulates them, and others in the periphery, to carve out the most advantageous deal for herself, leaving behind the usual wreckage in her wake. You might not agree with everything Lady Susan says or does—she can be a selfish b***h of the first order at the best of times—but you also can’t help but marvel at how well she’s learned to navigate around the strictures placed on her by society. Options for women back then, widows even more so, were painfully limited after all, given that they generally could not inherit property and were discouraged from working—a premise that basically fueled six whole series of Downton Abbey—so that survival was contingent on making the right match. So while her power over men might not translate to power in the real sense, it’s satisfying to see that at least she’s not submitting quietly, and has no delusions about her situation. She uses what she has—her looks, her charms and that devious mind-to get what she wants, and there’s a certain delight in watching her bludgeon her way through the mores of such an oppressive society. She isn’t vain; she’s practical. The only time we ever glimpse any softness in Lady Susan would be when it comes to Mrs Johnson, as loyal and intimate a connection as could be; love and romance might have been brought down a couple of pegs in the film, but it doesn’t appear to have lost its faith in friendship.
Love & Friendship is the sort of thing I can see myself going back to time and again over the years in the tradition of other Austen films. Speaking of the lady herself, would she approve of Stillman’s adaptation had she been here to see it? I like to think she’d have been laughing out loud.” END QUOTE

Shrestha’s comments about the “friendship” between Lady Susan and Mrs. Johnson made me wonder whether JA, in this “anti-romance”, in fact hid a genuine love affair in plain sight– one between these two naughty ladies, who remain faithful to each other, and, indeed, do all they can to be together!

Second, here’s a great, brief summary of the influence of Mary Wollstonecraft on Austen’s novella: “Jane Austen Vindicates the Rights of Women” by Sarah Skwire  June 2016
“JA’s Lady Susan is a wrecking ball in petticoats. JA's Lady Susan is a powerful adjunct to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. The main character of the new film Love and Friendship, drawn from JA’s novella Lady Susan, is a widowed mother of a marriageable daughter. She is also widely known as “the most accomplished Coquette in England.” She has a married lover. She seduces wealthy young men who are courting eligible young women, including her own daughter. She tries to force her daughter into marriage with a young man who would take a blue ribbon in Monty Python’s “Upper Class Twit of the Year” competition. She lies. She runs out on her debts. She is thoroughly reprehensible. And she is enormous fun to watch….Love and Friendship and Lady Susan are antidotes to the limiting vision of JA as “quaint and darling, doe-eyed and demure, parochial if not pastoral, and dizzily, swooningly romantic,” as novelist Robert Rodi put it. But I’m not interested in Lady Susan just because she’s one of the great antiheroines of English literature — up there with Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and Trollope’s Lizzie Eustace. I’m not interested just because she highlights Austen’s often overlooked sharp intelligence and acerbic wit. I’m interested because I am persuaded that in her creation of Lady Susan, Austen was drawing heavily on the work of one of the great early classical liberal feminists — Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792. Austen, it seems likely, composed Lady Susan around 1793 or 1794. Austen scholars agree that she must have read Wollstonecraft’s work. But reading A Vindication and    
Lady Susan together makes me think that Austen wasn’t just influenced by reading Wollstonecraft’s book; she seems to have used it as a template for the main character’s behavior. And that makes Lady Susan a lot more interesting. Wollstonecraft argues that the women of her time — and Austen’s time — were “weak, artificial beings, raised above the common wants and affections of their race, in a premature unnatural manner, [who] undermine the very foundation of virtue, and spread corruption through the whole mass of society.” Their corrupting influence, though, is not due to some sort of original sin handed down from Eve after the Garden of Eden. It is the result of the conscious and intentional educating of women out of natural virtue and into habituated weakness, dependence, and immorality. She continues: “Women are, in fact, so much degraded by mistaken notions of female excellence, that I do not mean to add a paradox when I assert, that this artificial weakness produces a propensity to tyrannize, and gives birth to cunning, the natural opponent of strength, which leads them to play off those contemptible infantine airs that undermine esteem even whilst they excite desire.” This is Lady Susan in a nutshell. Her tyrannical hold over her daughter’s future, her constant deceptions in matters large and small, and her pretended helplessness and innocence, which her male acquaintances interpret as charm — these are all hallmarks of her character. Even more apropos is Wollstonecraft’s description of women who have been educated in this fashion and who are then left, as is Lady Susan, widowed and with a family to care for: “But supposing, no very improbable conjecture, that a being only taught to please must still find her happiness in pleasing; — what an example of folly, not to say vice, will she be to her innocent daughters! The mother will be lost in the coquette, and, instead of making friends of her daughters, view them with eyes askance, for they are rivals — rivals more cruel than any other, for they invite a comparison, and drive her from the throne of beauty, who has never thought of a seat on the bench of reason.” Wollstonecraft adds that it doesn’t take a literary genius to imagine the “domestic miseries and petty vices” occasioned by such a mother.
A world without real education for women, a world without legal equality for women — this is a world that is rife with Lady Susans. But in Austen’s imagining of Lady Susan, we have precisely that — a literary genius turning her considerable talents (though in early days) to delineating a portrait of a woman who has become precisely what she has been educated to be. In that way, Lady Susan becomes a powerful adjunct to Wollstonecraft’s Vindication. A world without real education for women, a world without legal equality for women — this is a world that is rife with Lady Susans, grappling for power and money in the marriage market and in the gray market of sexual favors, because that is the only sphere open to women with ambition. While Austen’s and Wollstonecraft’s works are more than capable of standing on their own, taken together they provide a persuasive argument — philosophical and artistic — for the importance of women’s liberty and for the crippling effects of denying that liberty.”

And finally, for true wonks like me, here’s the first portion of a scholarly article that excavates the deeper scholarly roots of Austen’s Lady Susan: “Justice in Epistolary Matters: Revised Rights and Deconstructed Duties in Austen's  Lady Susan”  by Betsy Tontiplaphol  in Persuasions Online #27 (2006)
 “Jane Austen’s Lady Susan has been called a plotter, a flirt, and a villain, but none of these designations effectively accounts for the peculiarities—her linguistic industriousness, distaste for motherhood, and chameleon-like adaptability, to name but a few—that render her characterization so memorable. 
Brodie describes Lady Susan as a figure devoid of psychological depth; when measured against the “the psychological complexity of Anne Elliot,” Brodie argues, Susan represents “the stereotype of the Merry Widow”. 
Anderson, in contrast, reads Austen’s anti-heroine as nothing but psychology. Lady Susan, Anderson maintains, is a psychopath, a diagnosis that she supports with evidence of “superficial charm, adequate intelligence, absence of anxiety, insincerity, lack of remorse or shame, antisocial behavior, and poor judgment”.  What is Lady Susan?  A stock character, a case study, or something else entirely?  
As McKellar contends, her story “fits into the Austen canon no more neatly than Aesop’s bat fit in with the birds or with the beasts”, but such an observation, however fair, does little to resolve the myriad conflicts that face the reader struggling to decipher Susan’s—or, for that matter, Austen’s—motives and objectives.
It is strangely easy to overlook the fact that Lady Susan is, at a fundamental level, a trial novel, trial
 not only in the sense of “attempt” but trial also in the significant judicial sense.  The book is one of Austen’s early attempts at epistolary fiction; perhaps more important, however, is the fact that LS has at its center a woman on trial, a figure whose motives and actions are presented to and scrutinized by a jury composed of characters, readers, and ultimately a narrator.  Susan’s stated goal to have Reginald “doubt the justice of” his sister’s opinion and Mrs. Vernon’s complaint that Susan has “persuaded [Reginald] not merely to forget, but to justify her conduct” are only two of many instances in which the legal-contractual language of justice surfaces in Austen’s rhetoric. Indeed, careful attention to LS’s writing and behavior reveals her to be less a criminal than a would-be legislator.  Her abiding interest in her own rights and duties—and her obsession with manipulating the assumptions and language that define and distribute them—locates her within a theoretical tradition that ranges from John Locke to Mary WOLLSTONECRAFT and beyond …”

So, now go see Stillman’s film with all these thoughts in your mind, and I hope it will leave you less puzzled and/or disturbed, and even more entertained, by Austen’s subversive, way-ahead-of-its-time feminist genius, and Stillman’s remarkably fine and faithful adaptation thereof. 

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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