Q&A with Love & Friendship Writer/Director/Author Whit Stillman

Love and Friendship Wit Stillman 2016 x 200Austen 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. Continue reading

Jane Austen for Dummies, by Joan Klingel Ray – A Review

JANE AUSTEN FOR DUMMIES, OR SMARTIES?  

Image of cover of Jane Austen for Dummies, (2006)Ok, who wants to be called a dummy, or heaven forbid, admit that you are a dummy? Show of hands please. Well, not me, and certainly not any of those accomplished, well educated, and urbane literati who call themselves Janeites! Right? So, Jane Austen for Dummies? Let’s be kind folks. Would Jane approve?

As a bookseller, I have seen the amazing rise in popularity of the Dummies book series over the last decade that has fueled Wiley Publishing into a mighty empire. There are now Dummies books available on every imaginable subject from Beekeeping for Dummies to Napoleon for Dummies; the list of titles is staggering.

When Jane Austen for Dummies hit the book stores in 2006, I was repulsed. The words in the title are a diametric polar vertex; complete opposites to my feelings of what MY Jane Austen stood for. As Lizzy Bennet said when she heard that Charlotte Lucas was engaged to Mr. Collins, “impossible”.

Among my merry Internet travels, I ran across this great article entitled, Jane Austen, Yadda, Yadda, Yadda, in which the book Jane Austen for Dummies is sandwiched in as an example of how the recent Austen mania has teetered off the edge of decorum.

“In addition, when constructing our soundbites, we ought not to forget the sheer breadth of today’s Austen craze; it’s more than just films and television adaptations we’re in for. New books have appeared, too, like Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict (2007) and Jane Austen for Dummies (2006). Though I worry that these books make reading her fiction sound like something done at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for slow learners, surely it’s not too late for some well-placed damage control?”

Ouch. I was a bit suspicious as the author, Prof. Devoney Looser, had lumped Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict into the mix. I had read it. In my opinion, it was not insulting to the memory of Miss Austen. Quite the contrary. Pastiche’s can be the closest form of a complement around. So was my first impression of Jane Austen for Dummies correct?

As I finished reading the article, I noticed that the author of Jane Austen for Dummies, Joan Klingel Ray, PhD, had posted a comment responding to the mention of her book in such an unprudential light, – and she was really going after the slight full force.

“But as the author of JANE AUSTEN FOR DUMMIES, I take issue with her grouping my book with CONFESSIONS OF A JANE AUSTEN ADDICT, which like other books of that ilk tap into Austen’s name recognition to sell fiction, dating guides, courtesy guides, etc.”

Ok Dr. Klingel Ray. I know that you are a past president of The Jane Austen Society of North America (2000-2006), and I curtsy reverently, but that condescension of another author’s work, and the genre in general was just mean, and not worthy of your rank and education. This seems to be turning into a kicking match that Caroline Bingley would be pleased to join in.

“Had Professor Looser even skimmed JANE AUSTEN FOR DUMMIES, she would have seen that, like other books in the “Dummies” series, JANE AUSTEN FOR DUMMIES is written to introduce interested persons to a subject-in this case, Jane Austen-in a straightforward, accessible way. Specifically, JANE AUSTEN FOR DUMMIES explains to today’s readers of Austen’s fiction the cultural background of the novels that Austen, of course, assumed, her original readers-her contemporaries-would have immediately understood, but which may baffle today’s readers.”

She continues, at length, to elaborate the charms and practicalities of Jane Austen for Dummies, and concludes…

“So rather than preciously worrying about damage control, Professor Looser might read and then give the university employee a copy of JANE AUSTEN FOR DUMMIES, designed for those who wish to be Austen-Smarties, but need just a little extra information about Austen and her times to become so. In fact, if Professor Looser sends me the university employee’s name and school address, I will send him an autographed copy of the book.”

Ooo, Jane Austen academic cat fight!

The next day at work, intrigued by the brouhaha, I track down Jane Austen for Dummies, and you know, Dr. Klingel Ray was right. Anyone who reads this book will become a Jane Austen Smarty, which is much more agreeable to my sensibilities than being a dummy any day! It is a fun and fact filled volume, great for an introduction to Jane Austen, a brush up, or further research sources. Deeply readable, it truly demystifies our authoress, and adds to her charms. Thanks Dr. Klingel Ray. Now if you could sallie forth and gently nod to all of those Austenesque writers who did not intend to rip-off Jane Austen, there could be harmony and plenty in the Jane Austen community.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Regency Stars

  • Listen to a podcast interview of Dr. Klingel Ray as she speaks further on Jane Austen, her works and society.

Here is an excerpt from the book that I felt quite apt for the temper of this post.

Image of excerpt from Jane Austen for Dummies, (2006)