Because Whit Stillman has adapted Jane Austen’s Lady Susan for his new movie, Love & Friendship, it is worth asking the question: Will most people find that Mr. Stillman has discovered, in this early work of Austen, something new and unfamiliar about her, and made it accessible?
The question is prompted by the reports of the first people to see Mr. Stillman’s film, who have all remarked on his fresh take on Austen. Apparently, Mr. Stillman has opened up for many viewers a whole new appreciation for the many dimensions of her literary achievement.Once upon a time, however, in an essay with the hilarious title, “Jane Austen: A Depreciation,” Professor H.W. Garrod criticized Austen for what he saw as her incessant repetition. “Miss Austen,” he wrote, “has but one plot.” By this he meant simply: “The plot is always a husband-hunt.”
Given that Love & Friendship’s adaptation of Lady Susan does indeed involve such a familiar quest in its plot, it may seem that Garrod’s thesis is, at first glance, only going to be reinforced by Stillman’s cinematic excursion. However, if you have not yet seen Love & Friendship, I urge you to go see it for yourself, and then to decide about the merits of Garrod’s reductive analysis. Will you find the value of Jane Austen’s work depreciating before your very eyes? Or will you gain a newfound appreciation for Jane Austen’s literary merit?
To assist you in your meditations on the film, I wish to offer some words of preparation for you. They are inspired by some quite interesting remarks made by C.S. Lewis in an essay he wrote, “A Note on Jane Austen,” which was published in 1954 in the distinguished journal, Essays in Criticism. You can also find it in Lewis’ Selected Literary Essays.
Lewis begins his essay by quoting at length four passages drawn from Northanger Abbey (“Catherine was completely awakened,…” Chapter 25), Sense and Sensibility (“My illness has made me think,…” Chapters 37, 38, 46), Pride and Prejudice (“Till this moment I never knew myself,…” Chapter 36), and Emma (“How to understand the deceptions she had been thus practising on herself, and living under,…” Chapter 47). While distinguishing differences among them, Lewis nevertheless finds something common to all the episodes, namely, “undeception” or “awakening.”
While the “undeception” occurs over matters of varying degrees of seriousness, with Catherine Morland’s awakening being at the lowest end of the spectrum and with Marianne Dashwood’s being at the highest, and with both Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse somewhere in between, the moment of “undeception” is the one unmistakable feature, common to these four novels, that invites comparison with Garrod’s attempt at his “depreciation” of a singular pattern. Lewis writes:
“We are dealing with only four books, none of them long; and in all four, the undeception, structurally considered, is the very pivot or watershed of the story. In Northanger Abbey, and Emma, it precipitates the happy ending. In Sense and Sensibility it renders it possible. In Pride and Prejudice it initiates that revaluation of Darcy, both in Elizabeth’s mind and in our minds, which is completely by the visit to Pemberley. We are thus entitled to speak of a common pattern in Jane Austen’s four most characteristic novels. They have ‘one plot’ in a more important sense than Professor Garrod suspected.”
To be sure, the pattern of “self-deception and awakening” is not confined to the heroines. Lewis mentions also General Tilney, Mrs. Ferrars, and Mr. Bennet. But the most significant pattern is found culminating in the moment of undeception for the heroines. The pattern bears three marks for each heroine: first, each heroine comes to “realize that the cause of the deception lay within”; second, this drives each heroine to express, not just humiliation, but “self-hatred or self-contempt”; and third, each heroine wins the achievement of “self-knowledge,” with Elizabeth and Emma explicitly recognizing this cognitive achievement by such a name.
But when it comes to Mansfield Park and Persuasion, we find no such pattern of “undeception.” Instead, these “are the novels of the solitary heroines,” observes Lewis. Moreover, Anne Elliot in Persuasion, “like Fanny Price” in Mansfield Park, “commits no errors.” Thus, what most characterizes these solitary heroines is, not self-deception, but rather “the role of observers and critics.” In brief: “They are shut out and compelled to observe: for what they observe, they disapprove.”
Furthermore, in their disapproving observations, argues Lewis, these “solitary heroines who make no mistakes” receive from their author, at least at the time of writing, “the author’s total approbation.” Although it cannot be said of Anne and Fanny that (to use words applied by Austen to other women) “they were of consequence at home and favourites abroad,” this certainly can be said of the heroines of Austen’s other four novels. Lewis draws their own contrast with the solitary heroines thus:
“Catherine Morland is hardly ever alone except on her journey from Northanger Abbey, and she is soon back among her affectionate, if placid, family. Elinor Dashwood bears her own painful secret without a confidant for a time; but her isolation, besides being temporary, is incomplete; she is surrounded by affection and respect. Elizabeth always has Jane, the Gardiners, or (to some extent) her father. Emma is positively spoiled; the acknowledged centre of her own social world.… But Fanny Price and Anne are of no ‘consequence.’ The consciousness of ‘mattering’ which is so necessary even to the humblest women, is denied them.… And in their solitude both heroines suffer; far more deeply than Catherine, Elizabeth, and Emma, far more innocently than Marianne. Even Elinor suffers less.”
Famously, many critics have assailed Fanny Price for being unlikeable in her virtue. Lewis too criticizes Austen for her portrayal of Fanny, whom he sees marked by “insipidity,” and who is therefore ultimately a failure as a literary heroine. “In Anne,” however, “Jane Austen did succeed,” because we find, says Lewis, that “her passion” and “her insight, her maturity, her prolonged fortitude, all attract us.”
These contrasts drawn by C.S. Lewis invite us to make a new sort of appreciation of Jane Austen. Austen is not limited by her decision to explore the various ways in which women are drawn, by their social networks, into the drama of the “husband-hunt.” Further, she is not limited by her masterful way of constructing the singular plot focused on the patter of “undeception,” for as we have seen, she is also greatly interested in the sort of solitary heroine who is unmistakably characterized by a virtuous lack of self-deception.
All of which brings us to the question we posed at the outset about the nature of the anti-heroine Lady Susan, who is herself at the center of Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated (to give the full title of Mr. Stillman’s novelistic expansion of Austen, which preceded the release of his film, being published by Little, Brown and Company in early May, 2016).
What can be said about Lady Susan? If she cannot be characterized as a “solitary heroine,” since she is obviously, and flamboyantly so, a person “of consequence,” then when we observe her on screen, from our standpoint of solitary isolation in the dark theater, can we say of her that she makes no mistakes? Further, does Lady Susan ever attain a moment of “undeception,” and whether she does or not, can the contemplative viewer in the cinema be said to be invited to the recognition of familiar cognitive patterns, even to the point of an attainment of “self-knowledge?”
All these questions may be borne in mind as you head into your first viewing of the film. Hopefully they will be enough to suggest to you what Mr. Stillman seems to have discovered in Austen and to have offered to us on screen: namely, a way that we ourselves may become, in the role of observer, somewhat like Fanny or Anne. This could mean that we might thereby secretly win for ourselves “the author’s total approbation,” at least if we can understand how heroines like Anne or Fanny might view the world that we see in Love & Friendship.
If we have eyes to see, then, perhaps we will glimpse more than a “husband-hunt,” and more than a world in which only one story is ever told, that “one plot” of “undeception” that Lewis found as the fundamental pattern of Austen’s most easily understood novels. With Lady Susan, we have the chance to discover something about Austen they we may not have seen before. What Mansfield Park and Persuasion may have made difficult for many a viewer, Love & Friendship makes considerably less difficult.
Without giving anything away, we may venture that Garrod is proved wrong in his thesis, for if there were “but one plot,” then no spoilers about Austen would ever be possible. Yet if Mr. Stillman’s sub-title itself seems to announce the ultimate spoiler—“Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated”—I advise you rather to approach this film in light of the following suggestive remark about Austen from Lewis, with which I close, and by which I invite you to rejoice with me in Whit Stillman’s high spirits in Love & Friendship; namely, by savoring the irony, no less than the comedy, with which this film is cloaked:
Mrs. Norris is almost alone among Jane Austen’s vulgar old women in being genuinely evil, nor are her greed and cruelty painted with the high spirits which make us not so much hate as rejoice in Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
For who can fail to rejoice in Lady Susan?
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