Based on a posthumously published novel by Jane Austen, the movie Love and Friendship is not your typical screen adaptation of a Austen story. In fact there is almost no story; rather, a series of situations created by the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon’s efforts to secure husbands for herself and her protesting daughter. Director Whit Stillman makes a clever and often hilarious comedy of this unscrupulous woman’s exploits, winking at the real harm she causes – something that Austen presumably does not. (I have read a detailed plot summary, but not the whole book.)
The title of Austen’s novella, probably written when she was about 18 or 19, is actually Lady Susan, but Stillman has used the title of an earlier work (written when she was 14 or 15!) because, he says, film distributors hate people’s names for titles. Both were written as an exchange of letters between key characters – the epistolary style Austen used for first versions of other novels as well – but Lady Susan (so named when it was eventually published in 1871) is a completely different piece of work.
Austen’s book seems to spring from the idea that villains are more interesting than good people. If her heroine, Emma, was one “whom no one but myself will much like”, partly because of her conceited and disastrous efforts at matchmaking, Lady Susan is an anti-heroine whose plotting is of an entirely different order, and whom Austen clearly despises, even as she uses her to drive the action.
The fortune-hunting widow has Emma’s conceit in spades, but none of her potential for reform or basic goodwill. She is as morally corrupt as a novel of the period and polite society can dare to show (she is not Moll Flanders) and ready to destroy the happiness of anyone, even her own daughter, to get what she wants (romance and money) but Stillman, with Kate Beckinsale throwing herself into the role, makes her vices so scintillating and the virtues of others so feeble or ridiculous that she comes out of it a comic heroine.
Lady Susan, even the Austen original, is excessively pretty, charming and brilliant. But consider her actions. We first meet her through her reputation for seducing men, one married, whose wife is driven half-insane with grief, the other a wealthy simpleton whom she wants for her 16-year-old daughter Frederica. She is cold and manipulative towards this rather sweet girl, bullying her with “the Fourth Commandment” into going along with the marriage to Sir James. Meanwhile she engages the affections of another young man, mainly to amuse herself, taking advantage of her kindly in-laws. She lies like a flatfish about all of this – except to her partner in scheming, Alicia.
Can all be forgiven or winked at because Kate Beckinsale makes such a good job of playing this elegant, verbally agile and sharp-witted siren?
There are, of course, some genuinely comical moments. One of these occurs when Sir James Martin – “Frederica’s Unintended” as one of the film’s satirical captions announces – arrives unexpectedly at Churchill, the DeCourcy family’s estate where Lady Susan and Frederica are staying, and insists on making conversation that gets sillier as he goes on. Inquiring of his young love interest what book she is reading he is told it is poetry, by William Cowper. Sir James, played brilliantly by Tom Bennett, expresses delight that Cowper wrote “poetry and verse”. In another sequence he refers to the 12 Commandments and, when corrected asks which two one could leave out.
There are also echoes of other Austen works which fans will recognise. Before becoming besotted with her himself, the son and heir of Churchill refers loftily to Lady Susan’s “reputation as the most accomplished flirt in all England” (actually, “coquette” in the original) evoking Elizabeth Bennet’s description of her silly sister Lydia as the “most determined“ of such women.
“How ungentlemanly,” declares Lady Susan to her accomplice on another occasion, reminding us of Lizzie Bennet’s indignant refusal of Darcy’s first proposal. Stillman, by the way, is an Austen fan from Harvard days and also very knowledgeable about the period in which she wrote.
And there’s a hint of real romance at the end.
But Pride and Prejudice this movie certainly is not. Is it, apart from the plot, even Jane Austen? While it bears the marks of her wit, it lacks the underlying moral vision that makes her best-known novels show virtue ultimately triumphing over ignorance, stupidity and vice.
It is not crass – it is as proper as P&P when it comes to physical contact – but playing marriage mainly for laughs will not appeal to many Austen fans. It’s a bit of fun for a sophisticated contemporary audience not looking for anything more.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.