I checked out Whit Stillman’s “Love and Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated” after seeing the trailer for the movie recently on Amazon Prime. I’ll admit I had a few false starts when I first started reading. Stillman’s re-telling is not long at 153 pages, so it wasn’t length, but I wasn’t engaging with the content. The few pages leading to the actual story felt like reading someone’s thesis – and maybe that’s precisely how the content is meant to appear to the reader. The main character, Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, is trying to provide a defense of Lady Susan who he feels has been wrongly portrayed in letters that he claims were fabricated and tampered with by the anonymous “spinster Authoress” we know as Jane Austen.
I had last read Austen’s epistolary novella in 2002, so I was a bit fuzzy on the details. I just remembered thinking I wasn’t happy to share a name with such a despicable character. My copy of the hardback book from the Dayton Metro Library had Austen’s “Lady Susan” so after re-reading Austen’s version I started the book with fresh memory of the first — supposedly false — tale of Lady Susan Vernon. I should add that Rufus’ footnotes to the 41 letters Austen composed are also a part of the text. He says some of the letters are fabricated and believes “the spinster Authoress,” the “counterfeiter,” is flattering her patrons, the DeCourcys. I like that Stillman uses footnotes throughout to share historical background, some insights from Scripture, even some areas where he discusses the power of good grammar usage. I love grammar!
Lady Susan is undoubtedly a stunning beauty. No one denies her beauty. The more you read about her though she becomes an example of surface beauty that doesn’t translate to virtue. She is a widow at the start of the story, and having sold the family estate to cover debts, is used to living off of the generosity of others. Stillman’s version stays close to the original. Lady Susan is ever the mistress of manipulation. Her thoughts of men as a means to an end are evident. She’s definitely callous. For example, when talking with her close friend, Mrs. Alicia Johnson, she wishes Mr. Johnson’s next case of gout to end in his demise. Lady Susan says he “is too old to be agreeable, too young to die.” Yeah. Nice lady.
Lady Susan has not even gone a full year in mourning after her husband Frederic Vernon’s death; however, when we first meet her she somehow has managed to ensnare two admirers, one a married Lord Manwaring and the other an unmarried suitor of Miss Manwaring’s, Sir James Martin. Of the latter though, Lady Susan says Sir James is someone she means her daughter to marry to secure their future. Our narrator, Rufus, tries to show any dalliance between Lady Susan and Lord Manwaring is fiction and really Lady Manwaring is unhinged and to blame for not keeping her husband interested in her.
Stillman’s unreliable narrator Rufus is a “glass-half-full” person, as was his uncle Sir James Martin. He wants to defend his uncle, Sir James, who he feels has been treated as a simpleton, while at the same time portraying Lady Susan as misunderstood and not as a coquette, callous and calculating. He sees the DeCourcys as predisposed to hate Lady Susan and make fun of such a sweet man like Sir James – he really is kind. In Rufus’ estimation, the DeCourcys are prejudiced by rumors they’ve heard, and Lady Susan is the victim of character assassination. Rufus would say I was duped by the DeCourcys because I still dislike Lady Susan and think she should change her name to Jezebel. I laughed though when I came to this conclusion: Rufus became another of Lady Susan’s conquests!
But what of Frederica? That seems to echo throughout Rufus’ account. He gives the sense that he finds her an ungrateful child instead of as a pawn for Lady Susan’s particular use to secure wealth, a home, and a future. She doesn’t want to have to rely on the kindness of others — probably because she wears out those welcome mats.
My recommendation is to read Jane Austen’s “Lady Susan” first. I used Stillman’s key provided at the beginning of “Love and Friendship” that has all the characters listed so I didn’t become lost in letters. I love Austen, so I did chafe a little as Rufus maligns Austen as the “spinster Authoress.” Stillman made this re-telling of Lady Susan more complete while not straying too far from the original. Some of the writing at the end I noticed staggered a bit, like reading a scene instead of a book. I was not expecting the ending, a new addition to Austen’s story. No spoiling that though. Now I just need to see the movie.