By Gabriella Edelstein and Claudette Palomares
First Letter: ‘The chief joy of Stillman’s work is his shimmering dialogue’
by Claudette Palomares
Second Letter: ‘I wonder, how would Austen have voted in the referendum?’
by Gabriella Edelstein
Third Letter: ‘The best adaptations are the ones in which the director has distilled the distinct pleasures of Jane Austen‘
by Claudette Palomares
Fourth Letter: ‘Our current vision of Austen as the love-plot-lady-novelist has much to do with Hollywood rebranding, and English tourism.’
by Gabriella Edelstein
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My dear Gabriella,
Last month, you and I had the distinct pleasure of seeing the Australian premiere of Whit Stillman’s newest film Love & Friendship at the closing night of the Sydney Film Festival. Of course I needn’t tell you what it’s about, but for the edification of others who might read this, Love & Friendship is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan, written in 1794 but not published until 1871. The novel centres on the eponymous Lady Susan Vernon, described in the novel as “the most accomplished flirt in all of England.” Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is a handsome widow who seeks her fortune—and the elevation of her decidedly-less-than-brilliant daughter Frederica—by manipulating the ladies and gentlemen who have the sorry misfortune of straying into her path.
For many years I have nurtured a keen interest in the works of Whit Stillman, which are notably brief in number. Indeed, Love & Friendship marks Stillman’s fifth film in a twenty-five-year career. The chief joy of Stillman’s work is his shimmering dialogue, which for me has always been a perfect soufflé of writers that I love: Woody Allen meets Phillip Barry (Holiday, The Philadelphia Story) meets Wes Anderson meets Oscar Wilde meets Jane Austen, as well a wry cadence that is all of Stillman’s own. Indeed, in many ways, all of Stillman’s films are contemporary riffs on the Austen prototype comedy of manners (Stillman’s first film, Metropolitan, is generally considered a loose adaptation of Mansfield Park). There is usually a moment of physical altercation in any one of his films, yet the true violence of a Stillman film is always rooted in verbal parry or social malady. Indeed, in a Stillman film, the wound that is slowest to heal is the perforative jab of a cruel remark.
In such a way, Love & Friendship feels like the apotheosis of Stillman’s career: a coming home of sorts. It is this mode—a Jane Austen period drama—that seems exactly the right metier for a director of Stillman’s talents and sensibility. Stillman is also a fascinating figure because he is a filmmaker that has been championed as—and accused of being—a politically conservative artist in an industry known for dye-in-the-wool social liberalism. In an intriguing profile on the director: “Whit Stillman and the Song of the Preppy”, the New York Times described Stillman as: “the knight-errant of sneered-at bourgeois values. He extols the overlooked merits of convention and the hidden virtues of the status quo.” Indeed, any meditative work on Stillman’s legacy as a director has always referred to Stillman’s seeming longstanding interest in the discreet charm (and despair) of the WASPishly situated.
It is true that—but for two characters in Damsels in Distress—Stillman’s films are universally white and exclusively set in privileged circles of upper middle class America. Stillman has his own appellation for this group, which he introduced in Metropolitan as the “urban haute bourgeoisie” or, as it is fondly known, UHB. His characters speak in rarefied, arcane ways, their voices seemingly steeped in money and good breeding. Conservative critics have seen Stillman’s films as a lament for more civilised times, films that could only come from a sympathetic voice. Yet I am not so sure. What do you think of this thesis? In your opinion does Love & Friendship confirm this view, or challenge it? I eagerly await your reply.
I am decidedly grateful for your engaging missive. In preparation for my response, I occupied myself with some of Jane Austen’s letters. She wrote a line to her sister Cassandra which I found quite amusing and am of the belief you will appreciate, “I am very much flattered by your commendation of my last letter, for I write only for fame, and without any view to pecuniary emolument.” This is a curious line, perhaps bespeaking Austen’s foreknowledge that the letter will be read in the future. Or, here there is only an amusing irony – we both know of Austen’s fiscal plights.
I concur that Love & Friendship was a most agreeable diversion, although this perspective was not held by the Janeites (who are rumoured to have been so overcome by vexation that they departed the cinema). I am curious about the thesis you proffered concerning Whit Stillman – namely that he is a channel for conservative values. Indeed, writing in this pseudo-archaic style perhaps could bespeak my own conservatism, but one so familiar with me would know that to be a doubtful conjecture. My contention is that the discourse of what constitutes conservatism is somewhat restrained by the critics’ inability to define what “conservatism” is in relation to Stillman. Indeed, there is a capital difference between the desire for the traditional and the wild spite of, say, some nationalist radio hosts. Perhaps, though, in a post-Brexit world, any wish for old-fashioned values is reproached. (I wonder, how would Austen have voted in the referendum? Possibly she would have sanctioned Leave as to maintain England as an idealised unspoiled island. It is my conjecture that she would vote Stay, as undoubtedly her novels are concerned with freedom of movement between counties and classes.) Her experiments in social mobility reveal, at least to me, that Austen was not the conservative figure of quaint drawing rooms touted by English tourism.
Stillman’s conservatism has been coupled with his interest in morality. Namely, that to be an upright citizen one must follow a moral code of ‘beauty, truth, and good’, as the earnest curate of Love & Friendship advises the confounded Frederica. Indeed, the film ends with an address by Reginald describing his new wife in terms of fairness, both moral and aesthetic. Admittedly, Stillman’s adherence to old world notions of whiteness as metonym for beauty and goodness seems somewhat outdated. I agree with your contention that Stillman’s films are overwhelmed by the presence of WASPs, and furthermore, noticing this does beg the question whether there will ever be an Austen adaptation in period style that includes people of colour. I can defend Stillman, however, by positing that his moral trinity of ‘beauty, truth, and good’ is somewhat undermined by his usual ardent admiration for and privileging of entirely unprincipled characters. In the final scene which I hitherto mentioned, the camera pans from Reginald and Frederica to Lady Susan, now engaged in an unholy trinity that should be considered most unseemly for a woman of her status. The audience’s appreciation of this, and Stillman’s admiration for Lady Susan’s imprudence, undermines some arguments about his reputation as a conservative.
Now, Claudette, I am curious: do believe that Love & Friendship constitutes a happy adaptation of Austen’s novella, Lady Susan?
Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) and Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) in Love & Friendship (Dir: Whit Stillman, 2016)
Many thanks for this delightful piece of prosody. To answer your question, I do think that Love & Friendship is not merely a serviceable adaptation of Lady Susan, but a very good one. In particular, I find it a skilful Jane Austen adaptation, which is of itself a genre, and veritable cottage industry.
Dialogue, I think, is the primary reason to why Austen is so beloved by adaptors, because hers seems effortless and—for want of a better word—perfect. I also think adaptors relish her work in part because of their distinct paucity of visual instruction. What do we know of Elizabeth Bennet’s aspect but her pretty brown eyes? Or of Darcy? (Even less.) Far from limiting, I think Austen’s brevity on visual detail allows the director and the adaptor the room to apply to their own instincts, and imagination. While I think that my favourite adaptations are the ones that feel most acutely true to the novel it is adapting, namely Ang Lee’s painterly Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Roger Michell’s autumnal Persuasion (1995), the best adaptations are the ones in which the director has distilled the distinct pleasures of Jane Austen, and has infused them with their own original ideas and creative powers. This is why I posit that Clueless by Amy Heckerling—with its ingenious appropriation and acutely witty voice—might be the best Jane Austen adaptation of all.
This is also the reason why I would highlight Stillman’s Love & Friendship as a particularly skilful adaptation of note. Unlike other adaptors, Stillman—in tackling the epistolary Lady Susan—did not have the benefit of scenes and dialogue to build upon. The letters in Lady Susan are trenchantly witty and studded with priceless syllogisms, but of themselves, do not allow for straightforward adaptation. What Stillman has had to do in order for Love & Friendship to work as a compelling piece of film, was to cobble the un-cinematic (epistles) into the smoothly cinematic (dialogue), creating new scenes, injecting them with Austen’s wittiest words, while adding his own interstitial pieces, all with the hope that they might seem to the viewer, a seamless whole. This Stillman has done extremely well. I think even the keenest of Janeites would be hard pressed to distinguish Jane Austen’s words from Stillman’s invention on a sentence to sentence level. I find that Stillman has also provided some new original and delightful entries to the cinematic vocabulary of Jane Austen adaptation. I recall particularly of the way in which the film opens, with the title cards of each of the players (“Lord Manwaring: A divinely attractive man“), or the way in which the written text of various letters are inscribed on the screen. I also enjoyed how Stillman plays with the meter of a scene, luxuriating in a silly joke for several minutes (Sir James Martin’s buffoonish introduction), which feels more akin to a Judd Apatow film than period drama. These gestures seem to me extremely fresh, and provide an extremely good argument for adapting Austen at a time when many might say that a new Jane Austen adaptation has never seemed less necessary, or more superfluous.
What are your feelings on this matter? I am very keen to hear your thoughts. As you mentioned, while critical assessment has been very positive, there have been some quarters that have been less favourable to the film as a whole, mainly from a certain cachet of Janeites usually devoted to period drama. Do you have any comment as to why a Janeite, or a usual fan of Austen adaptation might find Love & Friendship wanting? I would love to hear your thoughts about Janeite culture. In my introduction to our podcast, I mentioned that there is probably no English writer more adored, more beloved, and more fetishized than Jane Austen. Indeed, apart from Shakespearean acolytes, is there a group more cult-like, more expansive, yet so singular, as the Janeites? Or am I being monstrously prejudiced? Most of all, I would love to know—in your opinion—what exactly constitutes a perfect Jane Austen adaptation?
Your obedient servant,
Upon reflection I believe there are three necessities for an accomplished Austen adaptation: firstly, devotion to the text; secondly, a sense of irony; and thirdly, a vision. By “devotion to the text” I do not necessarily mean a verbatim repetition of what is printed in the original book (although this definitely works, as proved by the 1995 Pride and Prejudice), but the adaptor should have an understanding of what the text “means”. This is then levelled out by the adaptor’s particular vision of new meanings that can be taken from an old story. And of course a proper Austen adaptation needs a good deal of self-aware, ironic wit. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries YouTube series is keenly knowledgeable of the ins-and-outs of Pride and Prejudice but reimagines it through a medium that Austen probably couldn’t have conceived of. Also it’s downright chucklesome. I agree with you that Clueless is probably the most original (if not the best) Austen adaptation, and I think this is because it has a sense of humour (and is not afraid to turn that on itself). I truly believe that Austen was more interested in wit than the marriage plot, and this is perfectly embodied in Love & Friendship. Maybe that is the reason why the Janeites haven’t come flocking.
Perhaps there is more to unpack here about the Janeites than our quick condemnation. I, like you, am ready to utter something similar to Cher’s “As if!” whenever I hear opinions that were birthed in the Cult of Austen. My eyes are set to the roll position. You are right to call us out on this when you ask whether we are merely being prejudiced, for, the Academics vs. Janeites binary does reveal something about the place of Austen in our culture.
The term ‘Janeite’ has been around since the late nineteenth century, but over the last fifty years it’s become somewhat of a pejorative. To be a Janeite is, in not so many words, an Austen fangirl. It connotes a love of Austen that verges on idolatry; they are a group who have been compared to a cult for their reproductions of an Anglophilic Austen-world. This usually happens within a very feminine space, a cosy, warm and civilised arena for tea-taking, jam-spreading and scone-nibbling. To criticise the Janeites is to criticise a group of women for indulging in a safe space of pastel colours, untouched by the prejudices of the outside world. It’s a type of community building, not dissimilar to Trekkies, or even the men who dress up every year for the Hemingway Look-Alike Society (they affectionately call Hemingway “Papa”). Who are we to tell other women what they should or should not do, what they should or should not like, that they shouldn’t go to balls or put cream and jam on their scone in the wrong order? Ironically enough, the first group of Janeites were, in fact, men. Publishers, the intelligentsia, and WWI soldiers all indulged in a love of Austen for her particular genius; she was not yet marketed as a distinctly feminine author. Our current vision of Austen as the love-plot-lady-novelist has much to do with Hollywood rebranding, and English tourism.
But, I wonder, does taking on an (idealised version) of the past mean accepting the concomitant darker aspects of that historical moment? Can one wear empire waistline dresses and also forget the cruelty of the British Empire? Even Austen points to slavery as a means of aristocratic wealth in Mansfield Park, but this historical reality is quite easily erased when comparing the comparative virtues of Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen. When we deride the Janeites for being a girlish fan club, we forget about dissecting the systems that Janeite culture plays into: specifically, patriarchy and imperialism.
Does Stillman operate within this culture? Perhaps. But I take solace that at least his film isn’t half as interested in reproducing Austen-mania than revelling in her original wit.
Love & Friendship is currently screening in cinemas across Australia.
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