We went to see the new Jane Austen movie that just came out. Oh, you hadn’t heard about it? You’re wondering what it is – another Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, maybe Northanger Abbey? Nope, nope and nope. It’s Love and Friendship. What, you don’t know that one? Well, neither does anyone else. That’s because it’s made after an unpublished novella called Lady Susan. Oh, you’ve never read that one either? Yeah, neither had I, until this morning.
Actually, “Love and Friendship” is a legitimate Austen title – it belongs to one of her other pieces of juvenilia, and they cribbed it for this Lady Susan adaptation. Except that Austen spelled it “Love and Freindship” (she seems to have had a bit of a problem with the “i before e except after c” rule). And no, I haven’t read that one yet either; it’s on the TBR pile.
Lady Susan is also a very early work (although not quite “juvenilia”), from ca. 1794 when Austen was 18, before she even wrote the earliest version of S&S and P&P. There’s good reasons it never got published – apart from being short (60 pages in the edition I have), compared to her finished works it’s quite crude and unsophisticated. This being Austen, of course her crude & unsophisticated teenage pieces still beat other writers’ works to flinders, but it’s noticeably simpler and more satirical than anything she wrote later. It’s also an epistolary novel, i.e. it’s told in letters, not narration, a form that Austen abandoned entirely later on.
To give you a brief synopsis (Spoiler Warning!), the novel is about the eponymous Lady Susan Vernon, who is, to put it quite frankly, a bitch of the first water. Lady Susan, a widow, goes to stay with her brother-in-law and his family, where she proceeds to make her sister-in-law’s brother, Reginald De Courcy, fall in love with her against his better judgement, while still keeping the married Mr Mannering on one string and the dimwitted Sir James Martin on another. Actually, the latter she intends to force on her daughter Frederica, a shy girl who is terrified of her and can’t stand Sir James. We learn about all this primarily through Lady Susan’s letters to her friend Alicia, and those of Mrs Vernon (the sister-in-law) to her mother Mrs De Courcy. Lady Susan is a manipulative, immoral deceiver, mean as can be to her poor daughter (who, of course, is also in love with Reginald De Courcy). Fortunately for the upright and honourable folk in the story, Lady Susan is found out, her machinations are stopped, and the tale ends with the promise of a happily-ever-after for all deserving parties.
If the storyline of “Shy girl is bullied by an authority figure, has an unwanted suitor thrust on her, and is in love with an honourable man while having to watch him fall prey to a seductress” sounds familiar, it’s because Austen recycled it later on. In fact, Lady Susan is a Proto-Mansfield Park. But here, the characters are flat as pancakes, and we see the story not through the eyes of the put-upon young girl, but those of the wicked woman who, in this version, is both bully and seductress. There are elements of this story in several of Austen’s later characters and storylines. Lady Susan’s two-faced-ness and lying letters crop back up in Isabella Thorpe of Northanger, her charm and beauty as well as deception of an honest man in Mansfield‘s Mary Crawford, her bullying in Mrs Norris. Frederica Vernon is not unlike Fanny Price; Reginald like Edmond. There’s even a very slight touch of her manipulativeness in Emma.
The latter comparison might not have occurred to me were it not for the fact that Kate Beckinsale played Emma back in 1996 – and now she’s brought Lady Susan to life on the screen. The movie is some lovely eye candy for lovers of period drama. Quite appropriately, it’s set in the late 18th century, with poufed-up hairdos with single curls trailing over white shoulders; tightlaced, busked and panniered silk dresses in all colours of the rainbow; and swirling many-caped greatcoats that accentuate the broad shoulders of the manly and handsome gentlemen (So manly! So swirly! So great-coated!).
The translation from epistolary novel to film is fairly successful. The screen writers introduce a couple of extra characters for Lady Susan to monologue at instead of putting those lines in a letter, or have the characters actually meet and talk to one another instead of communicating the same information in writing. However, in a few spots the attempts to stay as faithful to the text of the novella as possible makes for, quite frankly, somewhat boring viewing. It might be that I’m extra-tired today, but I found myself getting sleepy in places through yet another monologue (which has to be a first – I never fall asleep in the movie theatre, it’s usually far too exciting). But this is a minor complaint.
The changes that the film makers do make to the plot seem reasonable – some events are moved around or arranged differently to make for a better flow on screen; some characters and happenings are added to the story for the sake of exposition. There is one notable instance towards the end of the film where an event is made up of whole cloth that is a little flash of brilliance on the part of the film makers – and I’m not going to tell you what it is, because I enjoyed it so much I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s a case of “It’s not in the book, but it should be.”
And that’s not sacrilege, presuming to improve on Austen – she obviously felt herself that Lady Susan could be better, because she did. Improve the story, that is, by taking some of its elements and working them into her later, published works, while leaving Lady Susan in the drawer. It was just the warm-up – but it’s an Austen nonetheless.
Life, the Universe, and Lady Susan turned into Love and Friendship. Oh, if you want to know what that little bit at the end is, go read the book, and then watch the movie. It’s worth it.