Whit Stillman, Meet Jane Austen

The Metropolitan filmmaker’s great new movie reveals he has less in common with the author than fans might expect.

Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in Love and Friendship.
Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in Love and Friendship.

Bernard Walsh/Amazon Studios

A Whit Stillman film of a Jane Austen novel: To fervent fans of the director of Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, this describes a union as devoutly wished for as the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Both artists’ comedies of manners, set among small communities of the (more or less) privileged, strike an exquisite balance between ironic worldliness and sincerity. Their concoctions feature intelligent, unshowy heroines. Both are inordinately fond of dancing.

Stillman worships Austen, and his new film Love and Friendship (opening Friday) as well as his novelization based on the movie show a deep familiarity with her life, work, and times. He knows, for example, that Austen reluctantly dedicated Emma to the Prince of Wales, another big fan, even though she deplored his treatment of his wife. (Stillman’s novel begins with a parody of that dedication.) The work the director chose to adapt, Lady Susan, is a bit of Austen juvenilia, a novella published by her descendants after her death. Although Austen, who wrote the manuscript when she was about 19 or 20, liked it well enough to hold onto it, she never tried to publish it. She never even gave it a proper title. (Confusingly, Stillman has given his film the title of a different story, one that Austen wrote at age 14.) Many Austen admirers haven’t even read the novella, and yet of all her works, Lady Susan is the best-suited for a Stillman adaptation.

True, Lady Susan is a tricky story to make into a movie. It can’t have been easy to reconfigure this epistolary novella as a drama built of scenes in which people speak face-to-face, although Stillman has done so beautifully. When it comes to its characters and story, Lady Susan also stands in marked contrast to the six novels that made Austen’s reputation. The novella’s racy title character is more handsome and clever than even Emma Woodhouse (although nowhere near as rich), but she can’t properly be called a heroine. Lady Susan might squeak by as antiheroine, but she has much more in common with the most dangerous antagonists in Austen’s mature novels: charming, duplicitous, reputation-decimating fast-talkers like Wickham in Pride and Prejudice and Mary and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park.

Lady Susan is diverting and filled with the same wit and anti-sentimental skepticism that keep Austen’s later works from subsiding into mere romance. But it nevertheless feels as if it were written in a different century from the later novels. And, in a manner of speaking, it was. Although it and the initial draft of Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, were written within a year or so of each other, between them lies a gulf, the difference between the era in which Jane Austen grew up and the Victorian ethos she had the genius to anticipate. Stillman’s adaptation of the book demonstrates that his take on life and human nature belongs more to the former than the latter. He and the Jane Austen we know best may not be such a perfect match after all.

Lady Susan covers a few months in the life of its title character, a widow of 10 months who arrives at her brother-in-law’s country house after making a hasty departure from the stately home of some friends. Lady Susan, played by a sparkling Kate Beckinsale in the film, claims to be seeking the “delightful retirement” of her brother’s establishment and the chance to acquaint herself with his wife and children. However, a subsequent letter she writes to her close friend, Mrs. Johnson (transformed into an American and played by Chloë Sevigny in the film), reveals the truth: Lady Susan was forced to find a new place to stay when her flirtations with both her host and his daughter’s fiancé alienated the ladies of the house. The rest of the novella plays off the contrast between Lady Susan’s highly persuasive imitation of a virtuous, sensitive, and put-upon gentlewoman and the blithely self-justifying opportunism she only expresses to her trusted co-conspirator. Irked that her sister-in-law suspects the truth, Lady Susan sets about conquering the heart of her hostess’s handsome younger brother. She also has a 16-year-old daughter, Frederica, whom she’s attempting to force into a marriage with a rich simpleton.

In short, although Lady Susan would be out of place in the pantheon of Austen heroines, she’s instantly recognizable as a favorite character of Stillman’s: the Chris Eigeman type. This figure—a glib, manipulative operator whose charm comes in large part from his flagrant willingness (under the right circumstances) to confess his own connivances—is usually played in Stillman’s films by the glorious Eigeman, the Toshiro Mifune to Stillman’s Kurosawa. Eigeman first appeared as tuxedoed Nick Smith in Stillman’s breakthrough Metropolitan, where he memorably told a sanctimonious middle-class pal, “There’s something a tiny bit arrogant about people going around feeling sorry for other people they consider less fortunate.” Eigeman’s characters deploy verbal bravado and a disarming candor to flip their opponents’ assumptions upside down. “I can’t believe you’re playing bridge,” another character says to Nick later in the film. “It’s such a cliché of bourgeois life.” “That’s exactly why I play it,” Eigeman replies with zest. “I don’t enjoy it a bit.”

All great bakers know that the best way to save a sweet recipe from becoming cloying is to add salt, and Eigeman’s characters, likewise, instantly became an essential ingredient to the charm of Stillman’s films. His quips, like so many of Oscar Wilde’s, hinge on a brazen reversal of conventional values: You don’t play bridge in spite of the fact that it betrays your bourgeois origins, you play it to shamelessly flaunt them. Stillman clearly finds this character type irresistible. “In the course of writing the script,” he told Bomb magazine about Metropolitan, “Nick got all the funny lines, so he became more and more important. He refused to stay in his place and seemed to invent lines for himself.” Eigeman doesn’t appear in Love and Friendship, but Beckinsale, who played a similarly self-absorbed but less devious character in Stillman’s 1998 film The Last Days of Disco, steps into the breach as Lady Susan.

Austen scholars have long debated the inspiration for Susan Vernon. Some think the character was based on Austen’s older cousin, Eliza de Feuillide, whose first husband, a French count, was guillotined during the French Revolution and who later married Austen’s brother. Others detect a more literary influence: Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, in which two decadent 18th-century aristocrats challenge each other to a seduction competition designed to wreak maximum havoc on the hearts and lives of their conquests. Like Laclos’ cold-blooded Marquise de Merteuil, Lady Susan regards her dalliance with her sister-in-law’s brother as a gratifying assertion of power. “There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predetermined to dislike acknowledge one’s superiority,” she writes to Mrs. Johnson, sounding exactly like Merteuil; the marquise boasts to her correspondent, Valmont, of her ability to make “formidable men the playthings of my caprices or fantasies; depriving some of the will, others of the power to harm me.” Les Liaisons Dangereuses was not the sort of novel an unmarried lady like Jane Austen should have been reading, and if she did get her hands on a copy, chances are it came from her glamorous and not-entirely-respectable cousin—so whatever inspired Austen, Eliza de Feuillide is responsible for Lady Susan.

The form that Lady Susan takes, as a fictional cache of letters, captivated 18th-century readers. They found epistolary novels like Samuel Richardson’s blockbusters Pamela and Clarissa a bit titillating; like a mockumentary film, they present the illusion that you’re spying on something that actually happened. Disagreement and uncertainty come baked into the form. Lady Susan complains of her daughter’s “girlish perverseness and folly” while, in another letter, her sister-in-law praises Frederica’s “gentle, affectionate heart.” The reader must decide which woman’s account strikes closest to the truth, and while that isn’t difficult to do, an epistolary novel nevertheless always lacks the single, overarching, authoritative narrator who presides over Austen’s mature work.

You can sense Austen’s frustration with this indeterminacy in Lady Susan; the novella ends with an unsourced third-person “conclusion” that briskly wraps up the plot. Sense and Sensibility, too, she originally envisioned as an epistolary novel, but she changed her mind: The final version of Sense and Sensibility comes to us via the serenely confident third-person narrator now so completely identified with Jane Austen. This narrator is ironic, humorously alert to the contrast between the virtuous façades most of us offer to the world and the real and often ignominious motivations behind them. But she never, ever doubts what is right and wrong, what is proper or fitting and what is not, and how firmly even the most mundane behavior ought to be rooted in both.

Although Austen died 20 years before Queen Victoria’s coronation, she anticipated the backlash we now associate with Victoria’s reign, whose first great purpose was to restore the public’s faith in the moral authority of the nobility. It all comes back to the Prince of Wales, the same one who finagled a dedication out of an author who disliked him and all that he represented. Throughout the Regency (1811 to 1820), when the prince ruled on behalf of his father, George III, during the king’s final bout of madness, he epitomized the British version of the libertine aristocrats in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He publicly kept mistresses, drank to excess, and ran up huge debts. The prince’s friends—wealthy, indolent dandies—devoted their entire lives to the perfection of fashion. (Beau Brummell purportedly took five hours a day to dress.) Others openly frequented gambling dens and brothels, squandering their lives and fortunes on idle pleasures, provoking the disgust of the increasingly assertive upper middle class to which Austen and her family belonged.

Lady Susan, the sort of woman who laments her best friend’s marriage to a man “too old to be agreeable, too young to die,” belongs to this 18th-century-style aristocracy, people who, provided they kept up appearances, expected their rank, elegance, wit, and self-confidence to make them exempt from the censure imposed on their inferiors. Lady Susan views goodness as a performance, not an interior state. In the six novels Jane Austen would go on to publish, such characters might temporarily bamboozle the good guys, but they would not achieve the same kind of lasting mastery over others that Lady Susan does. Never again would such a character stand at the center of Austen’s work or be allowed to directly exert so much dangerous charm over her readers. The likes of Wickham and the Crawfords are presented to us by Austen’s observant voice, then unmasked and abandoned to face the sordid and dreary consequences of their wrongdoing. Miraculously, Austen is able to pull off such endings without coming across as a prig.

Whit Stillman cannot follow her there. Perhaps he loves his wicked characters too much to cast them out. Perhaps he lacks faith or interest in the genteel, harmonious moral paradises that Austen’s novels resolve into. His film embellishes the ending of Lady Susan to indicate that, far from receiving her comeuppance, Susan has arrived at a situation perfectly suited to her needs and desires. Not content with that, he presents his novelization of the film as a retelling of Austen’s novella written by Lady Susan’s devoted nephew with the aim of vindicating his aunt against the calumnies of the “spinster authoress.” (I imagined it narrated by Chris Eigeman.) And who, really, can blame Stillman? Lady Susan, like Nick Smith in Metropolitan and Des McGrath in The Last Days of Disco, may be dastardly, but she’s just too much fun to banish forever. A genius like Jane Austen might be capable of doing so without subtracting some essential spice from life, but the rest of us are made of weaker stuff.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.