Austen in August Review: Love and Friendship, Whit Stillman

I saw the film upon which this is based a few months ago and loved it.  Upon discovering that there was also a book written by the director, I expected to be enthralled.  There may also have been a certain element of judging of the book by its cover, which is certainly very pretty.  Finishing it though, I felt slightly cheated.  While I will be looking out for the DVD (sorry, Blu-Ray, must move with the times), I have a feeling that this book may be bound for a second-hand shop near you/headed for Ebay.  I suspect I am a bit too close into the mania – if I were less of a fan, I might have found this funnier. As it was, I left disappointed.

Love and Friendship is the name given to the film of Jane Austen’s epistolary novella Lady Susan, even though Love and Freindship (mis-spelling intended) is the name of a separate book of Austen’s juvenilia.  I think it was felt that the “X and X” format of the title would make for better brand recognition on the big-screen (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Love and Friendship).  Fine.  So, this is the book of the film of the book and its premise is that after his ‘aunt’ was defamed in Austen’s novel, a nephew of Lady Susan, R Martin-Colonna De Cesari-Rocca (yes, really) is coming to her defense.

The first part of the book is essentially the screenplay of the film with added asides from the narrator, then at the end is the original text of Lady Susan.  So if you don’t have your own copy, I guess that’s helpful.  The narrator is the son of Sir James Martin’s sister but he apparently feels strongly about his aunt’s good name and he appears to have inherited his uncle’s dim wits.  He explains that the letters between Lady Susan and her good friend Alicia Johnson were just inside jokes and that whenever they called his uncle ‘silly’, they meant quite the opposite.  And the De Courcys were just super-mean.

whit-stillman
Whit Stillman

The problem with the long-named nephew is that he is present enough to be intrusive but not enough to be interesting.  I also found it kind of strange that the nephew was novelising the action which he admitted that he was not present for.  The film works in presenting an epistolary novel onscreen, with certain key scenes taking place offstage, but the book really doesn’t function in the same way.  The whole joy of Lady Susan the character is that she is unabashedly wicked and the film scores a master stroke in casting Kate Beckinsale who appears to be having a riotously good time being naughty.  In attempting to have a commentary that suggests otherwise undermines what made Lady Susan so much fun in the first place.

Another issue, I felt, was that Stillman kind of overplayed his hand.  One of the many, many things that I love about Austen is her wit, and how she lets you work things out for herself.  One can take it as read that in marrying Sir James Martin, Lady Susan will be free to pursue matters to suit herself.  It is not necessary to have Sir James report to Alicia Johnson that Lady Susan told him she was pregnant the morning after the wedding.  It is not necessary for him to talk at length about how ridiculous it would be to imagine a woman committing adultery.  I let it pass in the film but in the book it seemed even more obvious, particularly the nephew’s remark on how his cousin came to resemble Mr Manwaring physically and emotionally.  Yes, we get it – but it’s not exactly understated.

I guess I’m not sure what this book was supposed to achieve.  I got the film, in fact, I loved it.  It was great to see one of Austen’s lesser-appreciated gems getting the big screen treatment.  I think I was expecting something like Henry Fielding’s pastiches of Pamela via Shamela and Joseph Andrews, but at least he knew what he was making fun of.  Whit Stillman seemed to be just picking up the script of his film and adding in an unrelated character who was saying ‘No she didn’t’ at regular and unappreciated intervals.  So … hmm.  I salute Stillman as a fellow fan but I left disappointed.

 

one-half-stars
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Love & Friendship by Whit Stillman
Published by Hachette UK on May 19th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary, General
Pages: 288
Goodreads
ISBN: 9781473639850


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