From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
Lady Susan is my favorite of Jane Austen’s minor works. A scheming widow who also happens to be “the most accomplished coquette in England,” Lady Susan Vernon is intelligent, attractive, and unscrupulous, agreeing with her immoral friend Alicia Johnson that “Facts are such horrid things!” (256) Her letters to Alicia detail her plans to snare wealthy husbands for both herself and her daughter Frederica while causing pain and suffering to those she deems detestable. As she includes her own daughter in this camp, calling her a “stupid girl,” she has no qualms in forcing Frederica to marry a decidedly silly man with a large fortune. Lady Susan is a terrible person, but a wonderful character. While the novella lacks the depth of later works, it is a wickedly funny short story in epistolary form; its tone is reminiscent of the snarky comments found in many of Austen’s letters.
Who better to capture Austen’s witty social commentary than filmmaker and writer Whit Stillman? His first film, Metropolitan, was one of my favorites from the 1990s, but I confess that I didn’t catch its similarities to Mansfield Park until many years later. Now Stillman has written a companion piece to his latest film Love & Friendship in straight narrative form. He introduces a new character to the story: Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, Lady Susan’s nephew. Rufus has penned his “true narrative of false-witness” to expose Austen’s supposed hatchet job on his aunt. His loyalties are made clear with the novel’s subtitle, “In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated (Concerning the Beautiful Lady Susan Vernon, Her Cunning Daughter & the Strange Antagonism of the DeCourcy Family).”
Readers familiar with Austen’s Lady Susan will notice an inversion of good and evil from the outset. Rufus has dedicated his novel to none other than the Prince of Wales, mimicking Austen’s dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent, but in a much more effusively toad-eating style. After two knowing winks from Stillman in two pages: consider yourself warned. Rufus is the quintessential unreliable narrator, writing his rebuttal of Austen’s version of events from debtors prison in Clerkenwell in 1858. The vindication of his maligned aunt, riddled with inconsistencies and bizarre logic, is peppered with tirades on a range of subjects: history, theology, and grammar. These make for some of the funniest passages in the novel.
As the reader has perhaps noticed, great care has been taken with the punctuation used in this account. For me, as regards literature, punctuation is what separates true greatness from the merely good—and certainly from the false. I would commend the reader to glance (no more) at the spinster’s mendacious account included as an appendix to this volume; even a cursory look will show gross carelessness of her attention to punctuation. Can someone so careless of the rules of punctuation—known to everyone and most apparent in the breach—be counted upon to strictly adhere to truth in the absence of such direct surveillance? I think not. (131)
With a list of principal characters, locations, and a genealogical table, Rufus seeks to present his defense of Lady Susan Vernon in an authoritative manner, while simultaneously revealing his agenda. In a list displaying his own mastery of the use punctuation, he describes Jane Austen as “The Spinster Authoress, a writer careless of both punctuation and truth, zealous only to do the bidding of her Aristocratic patrons.” The inclusion of Austen’s original story as an appendix, perfect for comparing scenes between the two versions, is another strength of Love & Friendship. Rufus begins the appendix by annotating the first fifteen letters, but his weak arguments further undermine his creditability. He then tries to save face by questioning the publisher’s motive for including the letters:
I cannot forget the troubling factum that Mr. Murray is also the publisher of this Lady’s final so-called “novels.” Could his true interest be to attract Readers to these other works by attaching her history to a superior volume? Such a conflict of motives is not unknown in the world of book-jobbers, though I make no accusation. I have therefore decided to refrain further comment on these letters, the malicious falseness of which should be self-evident. (202)
I was hard-pressed to find fault with Love & Friendship, apart from wishing that Stillman had chosen a different title for his reimagining. Austen did write another short story with this name, but I doubt many readers will be tripped up by the change, so it is a minor quibble rather than a serious issue.
Since many movie tie-ins offer little more than a printed version of the screenplay, Love & Friendship surprised and entertained me. Stillman’s playfully Austenesque sensibility delivers an imaginative interpretation of the story that Austen abandoned “to the great detriment of the Post office Revenue.” (273) His clever tribute to the original Lady Susan showcases tongue-in-cheek humor perfectly suited to this comedy of manners.
5 out of Stars
Award-winning writer-director-filmmaker Whit Stillman tours the blogosphere June 13 through June 24, 2016, to share his latest release, Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated. Thirteen popular book bloggers—card-carrying Jane Austen fans one and all—will feature interviews, book excerpts and reviews of this highly acclaimed novel. A fabulous giveaway contest, including hard copies of the book will be open to those who join the festivities.
- June 13 AustenBlog (Interview)
- June 14 The Calico Critic (Review)
- June 15 Diary of Eccentric (Excerpt)
- June 16 Laura’s Reviews (Review)
- June 17 My Jane Austen Book Club (Review)
- June 17 Confessions of a Book Addict (Excerpt)
- June 20 Austenesque Reviews (Review)
- June 20 Austenprose (Interview)
- June 21 So Little Time…So Much to Read (Excerpt)
- June 21 Luxury Reading (Review)
- June 22 Just Jane 1813 (Review)
- June 23 Savvy Verse & Wit (Excerpt)
- June 24 Austenprose (Review)
Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated, by Whit Stillman
Little, Brown and Company (2016)
Hardcover, eBook & Audio (288) pages
Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Cover image courtesy of Little, Brown and Company © 2016; text Tracy Hickman © 2016, Austenprose.com