An Epistolary Anti-Heroine: Jane Austen's Lady Susan Adapted to the Screen
Lady Susan is a novella written by Jane Austen when she was between eighteen and twenty years old, about fifteen years before the first published success of Sense and Sensibility. Rather than being a practice run for her mature novels, Lady Susan is vastly different from anything that she wrote before or after, centring upon a personally attractive but genuinely reprehensible anti-heroine. The titular character, Lady Susan, is reputed to have ruined her late husband through infidelity and extravagance. Recently widowed, she is now on the make to find husbands for herself and her teenage daughter, who is sometimes the victim, sometimes the rival of her ruthless mother. It's a comic set-up that owes much to the broad slapstick of Restoration drama. The novella has now been adapted to the screen by American director Whit Stillman under the name Love and Friendship. The title is borrowed from an earlier, but unrelated, parody of sentimental literature written by a teenaged Austen, but it's appropriate for this story too: both novella and film adaptation are about various types of interpersonal bonds, often pitting them against each other as characters use their social and family networks to achieve their aims.
Critical scholars of Austen point out that the novella's epistolary form gives the story two unique features. First, because a letter always exists within, and is representative of, a relationship, it creates a world where interdependence is more important than individuality. Second, in the absence of an external author's voice, the letters represent conflicting narratives, a “he said, she said” as characters vie to have their interpretation of events accepted (Kaplan 1987). Thus the main story arc is Lady Susan’s attempts to convince potential suitors of her virtues, while her sister-in-law counters with efforts to warn them of her true character.
Although these conversations, which in the original text occur in written form only, are dramatised by the film adaptation, it preserves the explicit focus on power derived through relationship. The de Courcys, who find themselves ranged against Lady Susan, are the model of a close, loving family, in which siblings, parents and children care sincerely for each other, frankly share their deepest worries, and close ranks despite internal disagreement. The latter half of the story centres on their efforts to fold Lady Susan's daughter Frederica into their midst. In response, the coldhearted Lady Susan begins to use access to Frederica as leverage against them —an ugly kind of custody dispute that unfolds far too often in twenty-first century families. This kind of sordid conflict is apparently timeless.
However, Lady Susan is far removed from the lone, rugged individualist pitted against the collective. As a correspondent, it follows that she must have an addressee, and the result is the wonderfully complex example of female friendship between Lady Susan and her co-conspirator Alicia Johnson, which, for me, provided a major part of the film's interest. Their friendship exists completely apart from any family connection—a fact that the film emphasises by making Mrs. Johnson an American immigrant, only tenuously linked to English society through her husband. This seems to render the relationship particularly threatening to a society based on a complex web of blood and marriage ties. I adore female friendships in movies, and since they are uncommon I always want to celebrate them. However, as Mrs. Johnson eggs Lady Susan on to ever more dishonest behaviour, the tension that comes from the portrayal of a female friendship as a force for harm is part of what makes this film so interesting.
Lady Susan soaks up Mrs. Johnson's admiration, and she in turn seems to provide an outlet for Mrs. Johnson's frustrations with her own marriage. The consequences for Mrs. Johnson may be dire, as her husband does his best to separate the two women. Again, the film raises the stakes compared with the novella —instead of the prospect of having to leave London for the countryside which appalls the shallow Mrs. Johnson in the original, her husband here uses the even more serious threat of taking her across the Atlantic to Connecticut, where, the viewer can deduce, she will be more securely under his control, cut off from the social connections that give her power. Lady Susan's disregard for her friend’s future seems callous and consistent with her own egotism, but there is no denying that Mrs. Johnson, a forceful personality in her own right, takes the risk willingly, out of a combination of sincere friendship and possibly the sense of power that she gains by participating in her friend's schemes.
Despite its strong and interesting characters, the novella does not provide quite enough story for a feature-length film. To fill out the cast, Stillman has invented a few minor figures, such as the young and enthusiastic curate at Churchill, and Mrs. Cross, an impoverished gentlewoman selfishly exploited by Lady Susan. They provide a few really delightful moments, but do not fulfill much of a function in the narrative. One of the film's charming affectations is the use of title-cards to introduce new characters when they appear, often to great comic effect, but the fact that the viewer notes their usefulness in keeping track of everyone shows that the additions are not sufficiently developed to be distinctive. It is perhaps for this reason that the script seems to drag a little until the appearance of Sir James (played by Tom Bennett), the rich but silly nobleman whom Lady Susan hopes to coerce her daughter into marrying. Bennett is a comic genius who exponentially increases the film’s humour, and the audience in our cinema was laughing loudly throughout his scenes.
Austen's novella ends by abandoning the epistolary form for a conclusion in third-person narration, apparently written some years after the earlier text. It feels a little hurried and unsatisfying. Using this somewhat problematic raw material, the film weaves together an ending that is very funny while remaining relatively understated. Frederica's character (played by Morfydd Clark) shines here: while she may been integrated into the ‘good’ side, the expression on her face shows that she is enough her mother's daughter to triumph over an enemy's less-happy fate. To me, this small detail rescues her character from the status of a uninteresting victim. At the same time, the story manages not to betray the irrepressible resourcefulness and optimism that make Lady Susan so attractive. “I never was more at ease, or better satisfied with myself and everything about me than at the present hour,” she declares in her final letter, with a bravado that seems hardly warranted after the collapse of all her plans — and the film’s (hinted) explanation for this contentment is out-and-out hilarious. While it does not make Lady Susan less unpleasant as a person, it is nevertheless refreshing given the bizarre prevalence of draconian consequences for such adventures in modern horror or disaster movies. Love and Friendship is a better film for rejecting that tired, offensive formula.
Lady Susan/Love and Friendship is not exactly the Jane Austen that you might be used to from reading her mature novels, but it remains a vivid and delightful glimpse of the different direction that her writing could have taken.--Mary Thaler
Reference: Kaplan, D. 1987. "Female friendship and epistolary form: “Lady Susan” and the development of Jane Austen's fiction." Criticism, 29: 163–178.
A ghost has returned to set about dismantling the lives of Kate and Geoff Mercer, in director Andrew Haigh’s elegiac study of a couple forced to unwillingly confront the past. Kate, played by Charlotte Rampling, is a retired schoolteacher, still in possession of a stately, even slightly noble bearing, approaching forty-five years of marriage to Tom Courtenay’s chippy yet essentially comfortable Geoff. Now that their careers are done, their world these days is one of chats with the postman (an ex-pupil), walking the dog, a modest network of friends, and agreeable evening updates on how the Kierkegaard is progressing. All of it has been preferable, one senses early on, to addressing certain underlying issues. And then a letter arrives.
Forty-five years is a long time to be brushing things under the rug, and Haigh skewers the perennially doomed end game of such default (and, let’s face it, deeply English) reserve. Has it ever ended well? When the news comes that Katya, the girlfriend of Geoff’s youth and clearly the love of his life, has finally been found after her accidental death on a glacier in 1962, the issue is sensibly handled by Kate (who nonetheless, Rampling lets us know, has promptly begun to crumble inside). Talk is offered; space is given; understandings are voiced. All the right things. The kettle is switched on and that’s that. Except, of course, that it can’t be.
An Oscar nomination for Rampling and Silver Bear awards for both confirm the obvious: that the actors were positively made for the roles, which seem to have come along at precisely the right time in their careers. When the emotions and personalities of their characters begin to unstitch, the embers of earlier roles tend to reignite, particularly in Courtenay. Geoff, smoking again despite health concerns, begins to rebel with the self-defeating petulance of Colin Smith in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. As in many of Courtenay’s landmark roles, the chasm of class divide is never far away. Sure enough, long-simmered differences in the spouses’ status become more pronounced. 45 Years bears (possibly demands) repeated viewing for touches like this: it’s hard, in one go, to take in all the signals of this slow-mo detonation of pent-up feeling. (Rampling in particular is borderline unbearable at times, so adroit is her performance.) The sedate chess board of their marriage has become a pinball machine, veering wildly and incoherently between acts of blustering reassurance and painful admissions (Geoff, when pressed, admits that he would have married Katya in a heartbeat). Time, as it will, has kitted out their unattended demons in fairly impenetrable armour. A cautionary tale, perhaps.
Those who have read Graham Swift’s 1982 novel Waterland, his greatest of many fine works, will notice how the East Anglian setting of 45 Years matches it. The similarities continue. In Waterland, Tom and Mary Crick (like Kate and Geoff) have many decades of marriage under their belt and no children. The men in each case are haunted by a personal history that, no matter how well managed and harboured over the years, has refused to stay put. For people familiar with Swift’s masterpiece, connections will continually emerge, none stronger than the isolation of struggling characters against massive, bare and unforgiving landscapes.
“I can hardly be cross with something that happened before we existed,” says Kate. One feels that it has been her private mantra since the news broke, and possibly long before. And throughout all this there is the long-awaited party: a rather onerous (and five-year-delayed) celebration of the longevity of their marriage before a gathering of friends and family. While Geoff, in his own slightly tottering way, goes off the rails, Kate must continue to organise, selecting ever more affecting records from their younger days, to be played at the looming event. Moments like these are hugely profound in terms of writing and performance. An old song, once thought trivial, acquires monumental significance. Rampling, stealing the film away from Courtenay in tiny increments, conveys it in the merest of looks. The deployment of music, in fact, is a masterstroke device from Haigh. In a scene of high tragicomedy, Rampling’s Kate slaps down the radio for playing Gary Puckett’s Young Girl at an inopportune time.
45 Years manages to use well-worn tropes (the delivery of a portentous letter is, after all, the fulcrum) in nothing but an entirely convincing and moving way. Another, the harsh truth spoken by the mirror, continually stresses to Kate and Geoff the fact that Katya is frozen eternally in glorious youth. (In Geoff’s case, the same could be said for his personal happiness. One can only imagine how Kate, who gradually realises this, must feel.)
The party arrives, and the order of the day is good old English stoicism. With the air of loyal duty that we have come to expect, the pair perform their roles. Geoff’s stumbling attempt at a speech from the heart, a declaration of appreciation and love, feels horribly wrong, but his words are enough to give those gathered what they need on the day. Haigh opts for ambiguity at the film’s troubled conclusion, a dance to another of those golden oldies, and an absolute tour de force from Rampling. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes indeed.--Neil Jackson