Whit Stillman’s new movie, Love & Friendship, is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. Mr. Stillman takes this piece of Austen juvenilia, an epistolary novella, and fleshes it out into a screenplay faithful to the spirit of Austen. Not only that, but also he has reworked Austen’s story into a novel of his own, Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated (Little, Brown and Company, 2016), to accompany the film. Austen’s Lady Susan is included in the back of the volume, as that book’s letters make a magnificent supplement to the main pages.Publishing a novel to complement his film project is not unprecedented for Mr. Stillman. After his third film, The Last Days of Disco (1998), he also published a 339-page version of that story as a novel: The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterward (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000). You may have trouble tracking down a copy, but the book is certainly worth the effort.
Mr. Stillman also had a novelization of his highly impressive first film, Metropolitan (1990), in the works once upon a time, but that project fell by the wayside when an impatient publisher apparently couldn’t agree with him on a timeline for delivery of the manuscript. To his credit, because of a meticulous attention to detail, Mr. Stillman likes to take his time on his projects, in order to get things just right. But the screenplay to Metropolitan, along with the screenplay to his second film, Barcelona (1994), has nonetheless been published in a nice edition with an introduction by Graham Fuller: Barcelona & Metropolitan: Tales of Two Cities (Faber and Faber, 1994).
Stillman aficionados will also want to add the fine collection of essays edited by Mark Henrie to their collection of books, Doomed Bourgeois in Love: Essays on the Films of Whit Stillman (ISI Books, 2001). There is an essay in that volume by George Sim Johnston, “Whit Stillman, Novelist,” and the designation seems apt for a director whose refined literary sensibilities always shape the way he tells a story on screen.
With his return to Jane Austen, who seemed overtly to be a main inspiration for Metropolitan, since mentions and sightings of her books play a highly significant role in that movie’s plot, Mr. Stillman’s efforts in Love & Friendship, to finish a project that Austen started, result in his most explicit and refined literary contemplation to date.
The contemplation is one of virtue, as seen through the novelistic lenses of irony and comedy, just like Austen. Austen uses the novel’s form to contemplate such themes as an indirect way of doing moral philosophy. As he observed in his famous book After Virtue, the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued that “Jane Austen’s moral point of view and the narrative form of her novels coincide. The form of her novels is that of ironic comedy.”
Austen’s comedy cannot be fully appreciated without also savoring its abundant ironies, which requires frequent acts of philosophic inference. “Her irony resides in the way that she makes her characters and her readers see and say more and other than they intended to, so that they and we correct ourselves,” explains Prof. MacIntyre.
On a key point that Mr. Stillman raised in Metropolitan, where two main characters argued about the thesis of the critic Lionel Trilling on Austen’s Mansfield Park, Prof. MacIntyre also has something to say about how Austen’s heroine in that book, Fanny Price, who “has been found positively unattractive by many critics.”
“Fanny’s lack of charm is crucial to Jane Austen’s intentions,” observes Prof. MacIntyre. “For charm is the characteristically modern quality which those who lack or simulate the virtues use to get by in the situations of characteristically modern social life.” This seems to be a central concern that Mr. Stillman has also zeroed in on, by announcing it in Metropolitan, and then returning to it again and again in his films, since a favorite theme of his concerns the simulation of virtue by characters with social aspirations.
Prof. MacIntyre elaborates on the simulation of virtue by citing Albert Camus. “Camus once defined charm as that quality which procures the answer ‘Yes’ before any question has been asked,” writes Prof. MacIntyre. “And the charm of an Elizabeth Bennet or even of an Emma may mislead us, genuinely attractive though it is, in our judgment on their character.”
When it comes to charm, however, “Fanny is charmless; she has only the virtues, the genuine virtues, to protect her,” observes Prof. MacIntyre. And it is this fascination with the protections offered by virtue, something that can only be observed indirectly, by paying attention to irony, that we find in both Mr. Stillman and Austen.
When surveying all the greatest works written in the English language, Jane Austen’s novels certainly rank right up there with Shakespeare’s dramas. But Austen is not just one of the greatest novelists of all time. She is also an important thinker in the tradition of moral philosophy. This is because Austen teaches us how to rightly judge character, as well as to pursue virtue for its own sake. Prof. MacIntyre notices that this sort of philosophical enterprise requires the use of novelistic form, because “any specific account of the virtues presupposes an equally specific account of the narrative structure and unity of a human life.” By giving us a comprehensive view of a heroine’s life, Austen shows us how virtue itself has intrinsic value. A heroine who “pursues virtue for the sake of a certain kind of happiness and not for its utility” is thus able to indirectly demonstrate to us, via the author’s literary ironies, how happiness lies in virtue cultivated for its own sake. True virtue, we can infer from her heroines’ own life stories, is what offers true happiness.
For this reason, Prof. MacIntyre identified Austen as “the last great representative of the classical tradition of virtues.” In her novels, she unites “Christian and Aristotelian themes in a determinate social context.” This, according to Prof. MacIntyre, “makes Jane Austen the last great effective imaginative voice of the tradition of thought about, and practice of, the virtues.”
Yet Austen is also an innovator in her exploration of moral philosophy. “Austen goes further than Aristotle in exploring the dramatic moments when virtues compete with one another in creative tension,” writes Sarah Emsley in Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues. “While she sees tensions among the virtues, she also suggests that the unity of virtue resides in attempts to balance these tensions.”
Dr. Emsley notes that Aristotle found virtue in the steering of a middle course between two extremes, and so too Austen: “In her novels, Jane Austen begins with the Aristotelian idea of the mean, and her virtuous characters work to find the mean in a world of extremes and temptations and vices.”
The innovation comes when Austen creates dramatic scenarios to explore the tensions involved in attempting to steer the middle course of virtue in practical situations. “Austen explores the implications of what happens when the virtues come into conflict with each other, and she explores the dramatic potential of these moments of tension,” argues Dr. Emsley.
The moral reasoning involved in such situations demands consideration of both ends and means. “For Austen, as for Aristotle, virtue is a disposition and is chosen, acquired, and practiced through habit: the process is important, and there is an end in view,” writes Dr. Emsley. In sum, “The theories of ancient philosophers with regard to the practice of virtue were adopted and adapted by early Christian thinkers to become part of the theological tradition: Jane Austen inherits this tradition, and responds to it creatively.”
Interestingly, Dr. Emsley makes an observation about Austen’s Lady Susan that is borne out by Mr. Stillman’s own treatment of the character, which mines the potential of such a character for generating ironies, even though Mr. Stillman somewhat tones down Lady Susan’s wickedness for the screen. Nonetheless, “Lady Susan is innately wicked, coldly prudent and the creator of her own version of propriety. In Northanger Abbey, and even more so in Lady Susan, Jane Austen focuses on varieties of vice,” observes Dr. Emsley. This is unlike what Austen does with her later characters, but it seems it have been a useful literary exercise that she learned from in order to construct her other characters for higher purposes, since “Austen’s other heroines are neither all good nor all bad, as she incorporates aspects of both Lady Susan and Catherine into her later work.”
Looking back to Northanger Abbey and Lady Susan, Dr. Emsley finds an overall pattern: “The figure of Catherine predominates as the pattern of natural virtue, but there is still a mixture, as Marianne, Elinor, Elizabeth, Fanny, Emma, and Anne exist in a world where original sin is also part of human nature. Unlike the world of Lady Susan, however, the worlds of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion are places in which virtue can triumph over sin.”
Perhaps the ultimate triumphs are comic triumphs, when the joy of inference required for a good laugh also serves to manifest unexpected insights. Certainly Mr. Stillman’s films are an acquired taste for many, yet those who have become fond of his subtle ironies and comic philosophizing never tire of watching his films and reading his books again and again. Like all the best pleasures, enjoyment of them only increases with age. Mr. Stillman’s attentions to Austen in his own oeuvre seem to suggest that her reputation is destined only to grow, until her greatness will be universally and proverbially acknowledged, like that of Shakespeare. If it has been all too “easy for later generations not to understand her importance as a moralist because she is after all a novelist,” as Prof. MacIntyre wrote, then perhaps Mr. Stillman’s own reputation will unfortunately by comparison remain only celebrated by a happy few, since he is after all only a filmmaker. And yet, as we have seen, he is also a novelist. Therefore, in ages to come, I suspect it will become impossible to study his films without his books, even if today they are savored mostly by the happy few. But if this film becomes his biggest success, that could all change. It would be a fitting irony for the wicked Lady Susan to be the one to increase the stature of one of cinema’s very best comic philosophers of virtue.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.