Austen scholar Devoney Looser joins us today during the Love & Friendship Janeite Blog Tour to interview ‘Friend of Jane,’ writer/director/author Whit Stillman, whose new hit movie Love & Friendship, and its companion novel, are on the radar of every Janeite.
Welcome Ms. Looser and Mr. Stillman to Austenprose.com.
Devoney Looser: We Janeites know that you go way back as a Janeite yourself. (Would you label yourself that? I see you’ve copped elsewhere to “Jane Austen nut.”) You’ve admitted you were once dismissive of Austen’s novels as a young man—telling everyone you hated them—but that after college you did a 180, thanks to your sister. Anything more you’d like to tell us about that?
Whit Stillman: I prefer Austenite and I consider myself among the most fervent. Yes, there was a contretemps with Northanger Abbey when I was a depressed college sophomore entirely unfamiliar with the gothic novels she was mocking — but I was set straight not many years later.
DL: What made you decide that “Lady Susan” wasn’t the right title to present this film to an audience? (Most of Austenprose’s readers will be wise to the fact that Austen herself didn’t choose that title for her novella, first published in 1871.) I like your new title Love & Friendship very much, but clever Janeites will know you lifted it from a raucous Austen short story, from her juvenilia, Love & Freindship. What led you to make this switch in titles? (I do want to register one official complaint. You’ve now doomed those of us who teach Austen’s Love & Freindship to receiving crazy-wrong exam answers on that text from our worst students for years to come.)
WS: Perhaps it is irrational but I always hated the title “Lady Susan” and, as you mention, so far as we know it was not Jane Austen’s; the surviving manuscript carries no title (the original binding was chopped off) and she had used “Susan” as the working title for “Northanger Abbey.” The whole trajectory of Austen’s improved versions of her works was from weak titles, often character names (which I know many film distributors hate as film titles*) toward strong, resonant nouns — either qualities or place names. “Elinor and Marianne” became Sense and Sensibility, “First Impressions” became Pride and Prejudice, “Susan” became Northanger Abbey. Persuasion and Mansfield Park are similarly sonorous.
Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) keeps up appearances as the most accomplished coquette in England in Love & Friendship (2016), a new film adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella, Lady Susan.
Meanwhile I saw “Love and Friendship”** as an excellent Austenian title wasted on the early story. I also wanted to make the story about more than Susan Vernon which I think we finally did do. I had always admired how Warren Beatty, in remaking the classic film Here Comes Mr. Jordan, filched the much better title Heaven Can Wait from the same era. This was the first decision made when deciding to adapt the novel and I believe a positive one.
Which also relates to the controversy about calling Lady Susan an “unfinished” work. There is a distinction between “concluded” and “finished.” Certainly the draft of Lady Susan that Jane Austen left behind is “concluded.” But, from everything we know about how she worked on and transformed her drafts, it was not “finished.” S&S and P&P — the other novels she wrote in the period — she transformed from her early drafts in the epistolary form with weak titles. Lady Susan is a very odd case, in that while it contains much of Austen’s most brilliant comic writing, in form it is clearly something she would have transformed further before publication. The epistolary form was awkward for the story she seems to want to tell and the summary conclusion entirely perfunctory.
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*I was once on a film radio show in Barcelona with the leading local film distributor who went on a twenty minute rant against films with Anglo-Saxon character names as titles. I believe it was “Agnes Browne” which had set him off.
**I do not think so much should be made of her original spelling of “friendship.” It has charm as the title of a clearly juvenile story and might be kept for that purpose but should be corrected otherwise.
Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) in Love & Friendship rivals Austen’s Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice for the “Best Insufferable Fool” award.
DL: As readers of your companion novel Love & Friendship will soon find out, if they don’t know it already, you give us an alternative telling of Lady Susan, choosing to move the story from epistolary to a first-person narration. You have Sir James Martin’s nephew retelling the story in 1858, defending his uncle. The nephew is an incredibly engaging character, and there were points at which I laughed out loud (Imitation, flattery, battery, etc.) It was great fun, too, to see the delightful Sir James scenes from the film amplified in your novel. You do all of this in the guise of (humorously) defending Sir James, but along the way you deprecate not only Lady Susan but Jane Austen. Would you tell us more about why the nephew, why 1858, and why (tongue-in-cheek) at Austen’s expense? (I can’t help but think of the long line of Victorian men who fought over Austen’s literary worth.)
WS: First, a blank error: the date for Rufus’ narrative should have been 1868 which will be corrected in future printings. The last phase of correction and copy-editing was omitted to get the novel out before the movie. I remember speaking with Little Brown’s marketing guru about its promotion, still assuming I would have another pass at the proofs for corrections, when he announced that the printed book would be available “next week” — meaning no last round of corrections. Look at the layout of the dedication to the Prince of Wales: it seems two styles were being considered — and in two styles it was left. So do rush out, or type quickly, to get the first printing collectors’ edition.
Second, there is nothing derogatory in my attitude toward Jane Austen, aka the Spinster Authoress (“Authoress” was her term). Rufus Martin-Colonna is a fool; in other words, a Martin. Nearly all his declarations are absurd, including the idiot-savant ones; none reflect my attitude to her libelous narrative.
Finally, Rufus writes retrospectively from a Victorian perspective about those he knew in his youth on the pretext that he is the last still alive to set the record straight to vindicate his lovely and charming Aunt Susan.
Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) and Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina) discuss literature in Metropolitan (1990), a loose adaptation of Austen’s Mansfield Park.
DL: You’ve famously created a snobbish character who says he prefers good literary criticism to literature (Metropolitan ), so here’s a literary critical question for you. There is a long tradition of seeing Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon as like a novelist spinning a tale. There’s that line in Austen’s version of Lady Susan that gets quoted by critics for that purpose: “Consideration and Esteem as surely follow command of Language, as Admiration waits on Beauty.” You chose, in your novel, to turn Jane Austen into a nameless writer-character, often mock-mockingly referred to as the “Spinster-Authoress.” Would you talk about that choice?
WS: That character in Metropolitan, Tom Townsend, is the self-proclaimed socialist (specifically, Fourierist), not one of the socialites; his orientation is political-opinionated rather than literary. But socialite or socialist, it is just a different set of prejudices. Regarding the line from Letter the Sixteenth, I would not give it that great significance. Not naming persons was characteristic of the Eighteenth Century, Rufus is a true child of that period. He is also the epitome of the unreliable narrator, everything he says either certainly or probably untrue.
DL: This is a personal question, as well as a Love & Friendship question, but I understand you live in Paris these days. Did you write the script or your novel while living in France, and does this matter? Some say Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) was a possible influence on Austen’s Lady Susan. What do you think? Might you describe the geographical literary influences on your film and on the novel? (This question of national borders seems especially intriguing as a result of your transforming Lady Susan’s best friend, Alicia Johnson, into an American who hilariously fears being sent back from England to Connecticut. Also in the novel—cough, cough—Corsica! General Paoli! Paoli’s nephew!)
WS: Yes it was written partly in Paris but also in low-end U.S. motels — and yet was not influenced by Lolita either. I don’t see any Les Liaisons Dangereuses influence on Austen. Two hundred years later, perhaps thanks to movie adaptations, these are the two epistolary novels we know; both have morally devious principal female characters but no connection otherwise.
Austen was said to have been a great admirer of Samuel Johnson; in college my friends and I were also, thanks to Professor Walter Jackson Bate’s great “Age of Johnson” course. Fanny Burney, whom Austen admired, was the daughter of Dr. Burney who was in Johnson’s Club. General Paoli, father of Corsican independence, was their hero and friend. Boswell himself wrote an influential book on Corsica. So it would seems correct that a young officer on General Paoli’s staff could have impressed and sedueced Sir James Martin’s sister Juliana. As I was far behind in delivering the manuscript I was not able to tell the full story of Giancarlo (later Jean-Charles) Colonna de Cesari-Rocca but hope to some day.
DL: You can absolutely skip this question if you don’t like it, but I’m curious. Your Wikipedia entry (sorry, sorry) says that you prefer to remain apolitical and not to comment on your past editorial work at a partisan periodical that shall remain nameless. Far be it from a Janeite to make someone talk politics, as we know from Northanger Abbey that it’s an easy step from politics to silence. But might you be willing to talk about the politics you see in Jane Austen? Do you think Austen’s fiction has an identifiable politics? How do you see the gender politics of Lady Susan?
WS: I consider myself a Rockingham Whig but, when it comes to preferred Prime Ministers, it’s the Pitts.
DL: This is a literature super-nerd question. Your novel shows great familiarity with eighteenth and early nineteenth-century authors. Not just Austen, of course, but Richardson, Burney, Cowper, Scott, the Gentleman’s Magazine, (By the way, I think my favorite line from the film is Sir James’s about Cowper, the poet, and verse. Absolutely priceless. And I love the way you end the novel with Scott’s Marmion!) What are you reading these days from this period, and what would you recommend we Janeites read that we might not yet have come across?
WS: Yes this is my favorite period, Boswell’s Life of Johnson (unabridged edition) my favorite book and Pope’s Essay on Man my favorite poem. Lately I have mostly been reading history and biography: The Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff, An Empire on the Edge by Nick Bunker, Braddock’s Defeat by David L. Preston, Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick, George Whitefield by Arnold A. Dallimore, Andrew Jackson by H.W. Brands, Washington by Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, The Last Founding Father (Monroe) by Harlow Giles Unger, Henry Knox by Mark Puls, Nelson: Love and Fame by Edgar Vincent & Wellington by Elizabeth Longford.
DL: You’ve finally given Janeites an Austen adaptation with a deliciously villainous protagonist-heroine—an “older” heroine—and produced a rousing, funny, thoughtful novel of the story as well. Thank you! Is this the end of the road for you and Austen adaptations, film or print?
WS: Yes I do have another Austen project — in fact, it was originally considered my serious and “stronger” Austen idea, while this was the improbably slight one. Curiously just as the novel has been published in Britain by the successor firm to Jane Austen’s publisher, John Murray, our British distributor, Philip Knatchbull, is a descendent of the Jane Austen niece, Lady Knatchbull, to whom the manuscript of Lady Susan was originally entrusted (and who is believed to have worked on the book with her aunt).
Many thanks to Devoney Looser for her clever questions and to Mr. Stillman for sharing his insights and droll humor with us. I have seen the movie and read the book and I highly recommend them both. My only disappointment in the movie is that Chris Eigeman was not cast as Edward, the Head Footman!
AUTHOR BIO: Whit Stillman was born in Washington, D.C., and attended Harvard, where he was an editor of the Harvard Crimson before working in book and magazine publishing. He has written and directed five films, including the award-winning Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco, and Damsels in Distress, as well as the TV show The Cosmopolitans. His first novel, The Last Days of Disco, won the 2014 Prix Fitzgerald. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, Harper’s, The Guardian, Vogue, and other publications. Visit his unofficial website for updates on this latest Amazon series The Cosmopolitans, and follow him on Twitter as @WhitStillman and on Facebook.
INTERVIEWER BIO: Devoney Looser is Professor of English at Arizona State University, where teaches Jane Austen courses, including a new online seven-week master’s course. She’s the author of two books on British women’s literary history and the editor of Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism (1995) and The Cambridge Companion to Women’s Writings of the Romantic Period (2015). Her recent essays on Austen have appeared in the TLS, The Independent, The Atlantic, and Entertainment Weekly. She tweets from @devoneylooser and from her roller derby alter ego, @StoneColdJane. It was roller derby that led to her scoring her own square on the New York Times’s Janeiac Game and to being profiled as one of the quirky interview subjects (along with her Austen scholar husband, George Justice) in Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites (2013). Devoney’s book, The Making of Jane Austen, will be out next year from Johns Hopkins University Press.
This informative and humorous interview is part of the Love & Friendship Janeite Blog Tour circumnavigating the blogosphere June 13- 24, 2016 in celebration of the release of Mr. Stillman’s companion book to his movie of the same name. Learn more about Love & Friendship and enter a chance to win one of 3 hard cover copies of the book by leaving a comment at any or all of the blog stops on the tour through 11:59 pm PT, June 30, 2016. Winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments and announced here on July 1, 2016. Winners have until July 07, 2016 to claim their prize. Shipment is to US addresses. Good luck to all!
Book: Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated, by Whit Stillman
Genre: Georgian Fiction/Historical Fiction/Austenesque
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company (2016)
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Cover image courtesy of Little, Brown and Company © 2016; text Devoney Looser & Whit Stillman © 2016, Austenprose.com.