Home ›   |   Publications ›   |   Persuasions On-Line ›   |   Volume 40 No. 2 ›   |   Letters from Page to Screen and Back Again: Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and Whit Stillman’s Two Versions of Love and Friendship

Letters from Page to Screen and Back Again: Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and Whit Stillman’s Two Versions of Love and Friendship

Calling this farrago of misrepresentation a “True Account” is the boldest of libels.  The author meanwhile hides her identity under the mask of anonymity, a privilege not afforded her victim, whose actual name is announced in the very title. . . . Most of these letters, in fact, never existed.  The version which the printer, Mr. John Murray, has chosen to include is the last she prepared, in which she turned her account of this history (already decidedly false) into the “epistolary” form then fashionable.  (Stillman, Love & Friendship 151) 

The reader will perhaps appreciate the restraint I have exercised in removing myself from the narrative.  Many, though, have urged me to recount my own part of this story, that I relate something of my connection to it and my own history from which I have hitherto refrained, with a few punctual exceptions.  (146) 

The declarations cited above occur during the course of Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated, Whit Stillman’s novelization of his 2016 film, Love and Friendship, itself an adaptation of Jane Austen’s epistolary novella, Lady Susan.  In his indignant refutation of the veracity of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and his conspicuous assertion of both his own unobstrusiveness and significance as a story-teller, Stillman’s narrator (Lady Susan’s nephew, Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca) establishes a complex, comical series of relationships between Austen’s source narrative and the two adaptations that Stillman derives from it.  While the novelization declares its intention of turning Austen “upside down”—since the scandalous protagonist of Austen’s narrative will be “entirely vindicated” by this new account—what Stillman in fact achieves across his film and novel is a continuation of Austen’s own ambiguous condemnation of her seductively manipulative heroine, as well as a playful exploration and act of “completion” when it comes to Austen’s chosen narrative form, namely the novel of letters.  Thus, taken together, Stillman’s film and novelization shed light on how the adaptation industry that has sprung up around Jane Austen, which comprises myriad forms of reworkings, sequels, new endings, and updatings, can be at once highly inventive and original while also heavily reliant on Jane Austen’s work as literary source.

In this analysis I shall argue that Stillman’s adaptations are significant because they allow us to see beyond some of the traditional terms by which adaptation has been theorized, particularly when it comes to degrees of faithfulness to sources (an approach that remains a highly cited and reproduced model within scholarship on adaptation).  In three separate studies, Geoffrey Wagner, Dudley Andrew, and Michael Klein and Gillian Parker have all proposed (strikingly similar) tripartite categorizations of film adaptation, for example, “transposition, commentary, analogy” (Wagner 222) and “borrowing, intersecting and transforming” (Andrew 98).  In these influential models a “faithful” adaptation is one where the original is retold “with minimum apparent interference” (Wagner 222), while a middle-ground approach (Wagner’s “commentary”) is one where a degree of re-interpretation is evident, where “there has been a different intention of the part of the filmmaker” (Wagner), or where “the cinema . . . records its confrontation with an ultimately intransigent text” (Andrew 98).  At the other end of the scale, an unfaithful adaptation (an “analogy”) is one where there is “a fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art” (Wagner 222). 

While these categories have undoubtedly been useful in the context of fidelity criticism—not least because they make clear that adaptations, in common with other creative works, aim for, and do, many different things—they are problematic in their bold assumptions of a sliding scale in both authorial intention and audience expectation.  The field of Jane Austen adaptations constitutes particularly fertile terrain for adaptation scholarship, not because (as is often assumed) it offers us many faithful transpositions of much-loved, canonical literary sources (although it does indeed do this); rather, it is because it provides a rich illustration of the contexts in which much twenty-first-century adaptation takes place, where the demand for retellings is high, where the field of play is abundantly populated with existing reworkings, and where readership knowledge of adaptation sources is minutely expert and ardently relived.  (Jane Austen, after all, has spawned the literary fan known as the “Janeite” as well as a prolific amount of amateur fanfiction and heritage re-enactment.) 

While it is tempting to assume that to turn Jane Austen “upside down” is to produce an unfaithful adaptation—Wagner’s “analogy,” or “significant departure”—Stillman’s film and novelization suggest an approach that is both an overturning and a preservation, particularly since it invites literate viewers to recall exactly what Austen’s work is like when it is the right way up.  In other words, using the metaphor of the palimpsest so prevalent in adaptation theory (see Genette 1, Hutcheon 6), such adaptations both overwrite previous inscriptions while also retracing them, so that their outlines are more visible within and against the new.  This strategy responds to an adaptation marketplace that is at once crowded and characterized by strong brand loyalty, where an adaptation that belongs in only one of the traditional Andrew/Wagner categories is often not doing enough to satisfy the demands of a highly informed, voracious target audience. 

Stillman’s 2016 film and novelization succeed in meeting these demands through their self-conscious scrutiny of both the narration and the story of Austen’s fiction.  As the narrator’s declarations cited above make clear, what is explored in Stillman’s adaptations are the epistolary form, the ambiguous suppression of a novelistic narrative voice within this form, and the nature and virtue of the Jane Austen central protagonist as they are presented through the conventions of the novel of letters.  Stillman’s film and novelization examine these properties in Austen’s original, at once taking their cue from the narration and characterization in Austen’s Lady Susan, while also overwriting and overturning these same properties. 

Break Graphic true to size

The sophisticated, often humorous relationships among the three narratives can be understood as follows.  It is widely assumed that Austen began work on Lady Susan around 1793–1794.1  Made up of forty-one letters and a conclusion narrated in the third person, the novella tells the story of widow Lady Susan Vernon, her flirtation with twenty-three-year-old Reginald De Courcy (the brother of Mrs. Catherine Vernon, who is married to Charles Vernon, the brother of Lady Susan’s late husband), and her relationship with her young daughter, Frederica, who seeks to oppose Lady Susan’s efforts to make her marry the wealthy Sir James Martin.  Lady Susan is ostensibly a deceitful flirt, who is also engaged in an affair with the married Mr. Manwaring and who eventually marries her daughter’s would-be suitor herself.  (Frederica, it is implied, marries Reginald, her mother’s would-be suitor.) 

On the surface the novella condemns the immorality of Lady Susan, exposing her hypocrisy, offering up judgments contained in correspondence by other characters, and eventually silencing Lady Susan altogether through the abandonment of the epistolary technique to a third-person, “editor’s” narration in the conclusion.  Yet the predominant absence of any intervening narrative voice, which is the result of the epistolary technique’s direct address by character-correspondents, has also prompted critics to argue that Lady Susan’s censure of its central character remains ambivalent since we enjoy the witty ingenuity of her letters, feel ambiguous about those who criticize her, and even see benefits in Lady Susan’s ruthless mothering techniques, with the eventual marriage of her penniless daughter to the eligible Reginald De Courcy. 

The epistolary technique resembles drama in so far as it provides a series of character monologues that address the reader directly.  Susan Allen Ford argues that epistolary fiction “privileges the relationship of the confidante, where the outpourings of the individual voice, the secrets of the self, are exchanged,” while Cheryl L. Nixon and Louise Penner point out that in Austen’s full-length novels letters sometimes serve the “comic function of exposing the absurdities of the flawed men and women who send them.”  (Mr. Collins and Lucy Steele are both exposed in this way.)  Lady Susan too uses its protagonist’s correspondence against her, with her opening letters revealing a shameless hypocrisy in their blatantly contradictory tone and content.  “‘I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profitting by your kind invitation when we last parted, of spending some weeks with you at Churchill. . . . I long to be made known to your dear little Children, in whose hearts I shall be very eager to secure an interest,’” writes Lady Susan to her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon, only to follow up with a frank, contemptuous account of her true feelings to her friend and confidante, Alicia Johnson:  “‘I am really going to Churchill.—Forgive me my dear friend, it is my last resource.  Were there another place in England open to me, I would prefer it’” (Later Manuscripts 3, 5–6). 

In demonstrating their writer’s connivance, hedonism, disdain, and deceptions, Lady Susan’s letters are at once incriminating and delicious.  Nixon and Penner posit that letters in the nineteenth century afforded rare opportunities for female expression and agency, particularly since letter-writing “provided a woman a unique position from which to assert a limited power over her fate in courtship.”  Seen in this light of habitual disempowerment, the act of precursory, unrestrained venting against rich in-laws on the part of an impoverished widow, obliged by reduced circumstances to stay with them, is perhaps not unreasonable (and may help to maintain good manners during the visit itself).  Thus, Lady Susan’s correspondence provokes mixed reactions, inviting us at once to judge and to excuse her. 

This ambiguity is all the greater given the tradition of English-literary epistolary fiction to which Jane Austen is contributing and which is dominated by narratives of virtuous, wronged and/or disgraced women (most obviously in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady [1748] and Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded [1740]).  Elisabeth Lenckos points out that the act of letter-writing contained an element of risk for eighteenth-century women and that in epistolary novels, such as Clarissa, the heroine’s correspondence sometimes becomes evidence against her, playing a part in her ruin.  This literary tradition of sentimental tragedy influences our reactions to Lady Susan, whose position is perilous and whose resilience is formidable. 

William H. Galperin summarizes the equivocal position the novella takes up as regards its protagonist with the observation that 

although it is virtually impossible to regard Lady Susan Vernon as a role model for a presumably female reader, it is just as impossible to perceive the cultural order, which seeks to contain and to thwart her, in a more positive light. It is more the case that the various challenges that Lady Susan poses to the normative cultural order . . . go largely unmet in this text.  (121) 

The epistolary form, with its absence of a mediating narrative voice, contributes to this indeterminacy:  Lady Susan is never authoritatively condemned, while the married, respectable voices speaking out against her are never definitively endorsed as compassionate, just, and justifiable.  Save for the brief conclusion, characters’ thoughts, words, and actions are not subject to an extradiegetic, narrating commentary, a voice of authority that positions them and us in clear, stable moral positions. 

Break Graphic true to size

Written and directed by Whit Stillman, the film Love and Friendship builds on this ambivalence, particularly in rewarding Lady Susan with a fate different from the narrative hinterland usually accorded to women who sin (such as Lydia Bennet or Maria Bertram) in Jane Austen’s fiction.  Far from being absent from the story, or indeed silenced by the narration, Lady Susan is present at her daughter’s wedding to Reginald De Courcy at the end of the film, married to Sir James Martin, and pregnant by her lover, Manwaring.  (In a comical aside, Sir James proudly tells Mrs. Johnson that on the very day after their wedding, his wife broke the happy news to him that they were in fact already expecting a child.) 

The process of film adaptation adds narrating presences not found in Austen’s novella, and these highlight their own addition as elements of Stillman’s film while also bringing Austen to mind.  Cinema combines the narrative tracks of sound (in the form of speech, music, and noise) with mise-en-scène and cinematography, and Stillman’s film often contrives to be particularly conspicuous in the ways it narrates.  While we are reminded of Austen’s Lady Susan through the closeness of dialogue to the language of the novella’s letters and through the on-screen presence of many letters sent between the characters, the film also provides instances of narration that seem unashamedly clumsy, as if to offer rambunctious reminders of the extradiegetic narration it is adding to Austen’s source.  The film shows us letters on the screen, not just in the form of correspondence but also through the inclusion of written words within the frame—in subtitles and occasionally also intertitles.  Thus characters are introduced using subtitled dramatis personae, for example, “Lord Manwaring:  A divinely handsome man,” or “Sir James Martin:  Wealthy young suitor of Frederica Vernon and Maria Manwaring; A bit of a ‘Rattle.’”  While these subtitles are reminiscent of a play, they also place within the cinematic frame the kinds of ironic, intervening commentaries that we associate with novelistic, extradiegetic narration:  they quite literally show us what is missing (what is not told) in epistolary fiction. 


Love and Friendship.  © 2016 Westerly

In so doing, they both add evidence of Stillman’s authorship and also bring us back to Jane Austen, in that they ape the rewriting processes she herself undertook:  Austen favored the epistolary form early in her career (for example in “Love and Freindship,” from which Stillman’s film takes its title), but she redrafted Sense and Sensibility (1811), and perhaps Pride and Prejudice also, from its original epistolary form.  Thus both the process of adapting this short epistolary fiction to film and the conspicuousness of the cinematic, narrating subtitles suggest an act of completion and a reworking (as if Stillman were fulfilling Austen’s potential and intentions, as when she turned her draft of Elinor and Marianne into Sense and Sensibility). 

In addition, the intertextual links provided by previous adaptations and by Stillman’s filmography also have the combined effect of bringing Austen’s authorship of Lady Susan to mind, while imposing an awareness of a new authorial presence.  Love and Friendship stars Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan, casting that evokes the 1996 television adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma (in which Beckinsale plays Emma).  Such extra-textual dialogues reinforce the textual ambiguity surrounding the novella’s characterization, since in Austen’s Emma we have a famously flawed heroine who, like Lady Susan, tries to match-make for someone younger and potentially more vulnerable than herself but whose behavior in doing so seems much more innocent and well-meant—a contrast underscored in Beckinsale’s two performances, given nearly twenty years apart.2 

Perhaps the clearest intertextual link that both reinforces Stillman’s new authorship and brings Austen’s original authorship to mind comes through the association of Love and Friendship with Stillman’s first feature film, Metropolitan (1990).  While the story of this film seems removed from Austen’s world in its modern, New York setting, the narrative explicitly debates the phenomenon of the virtuous Jane Austen heroine, through discussions between central characters, Tom and Audrey, of Lionel Trilling’s essay on Mansfield Park and on whether Fanny Price’s virtue makes her inherently unlikeable to modern readers.  Metropolitan offers story parallels with Mansfield Park, with Audrey, Tom, and the glamorous Serena equating with Fanny, Edmund, and Mary Crawford, respectively, and Tom’s eventual rejection of Serena is accompanied by his conversion to Audrey’s favorite novelist, as he reads, and enjoys, the story of another virtuous heroine, Persuasion’s Anne Elliot.  Stillman’s early championing of the quiet, virtuous heroines of Mansfield Park and Persuasion provides further equivocation around the film’s depiction of Lady Susan, since it sits alongside the pleasurable, celebratory mischief of the film’s ending and Beckinsale’s performance.  In this juxtaposition we see again how the addition of authorial voices both inside and outside the text in fact heightens effects already present in Austen’s fiction:  the film offers access to commentary that we might expect to fill the silence when it comes to judging the actions of Lady Susan; yet these new sources of authorial address only add to the indeterminacy over where we stand in relation to Austen’s wickedly enjoyable heroine. 

Break Graphic true to size

Laura Carroll proposes Stillman’s Metropolis and Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995) as examples of an adaptation approach along Proppian lines, whereby certain character functions, such as the virtuous heroine, have become so familiar to readers of Austen’s work that they are readily recognizable in narratives where the story and action are transplanted to new settings.  If this film affirms Stillman’s early engagement with the Austenian adaptation context, where demand for newness is matched by a simultaneous expectation of extreme familiarity with the source, then his novelization of Love and Friendship demonstrates his understanding of this seeming paradox with a vengeance.  Stillman’s novelization draws strident attention to two authorial presences in the narrative, namely the narrator, Mr. Martin-Colonna, who intends his work as a vindication of his aunt, and the “Spinster Authoress” of Lady Susan, whom Martin-Colonna presents as a “sycophant” or “hanger-on” of the influential De Courcys, “notorious for her poison-pen fictions hidden under the lambskin of Anonymity” (3).  The narration thereby outrageously dissociates itself from the figure of Jane Austen, and it does so by drawing attention to its own writing and publishing processes as well as those of Lady Susan.  Thus Martin-Colonna condemns the decision of his publisher, John Murray, to include the entirety of Austen’s Lady Susan within the volume of his own novel and speculates on the financial ulterior motives involved, since “Mr. Murray is also the publisher of this Lady’s final so-called ‘novels ’” (196).3 

Yet the novelization simultaneously succeeds in narrowing the gap between its own and Jane Austen’s narration, not only because Lady Susan is published as part its text, but also because the narrator’s desire to write a book that will clear the name of his late aunt (Martin-Colonna is the son of Sir James Martin’s sister) resembles the posthumous publication of Austen’s novella by J. E. Austen-Leigh, as part of his 1871 Memoir of his aunt.  Moreover, Stillman’s novelization comically reverses and muddles the status of Stillman’s film adaptation in relation to Jane Austen’s work, since it presents Lady Susan as a revised version of a draft of an earlier, non-epistolary work by Austen, which previously included scenes that are in fact Stillman’s own, cinematic inventions.  Thus chapter 13, entitled “The Very Unfair ‘Green Peas’ Incident,” contains a defense of Sir James Martin’s intelligence in a moment in the film’s story, where he exhibits perplexed enthusiasm over the “tiny, green balls” on his dinner plate. 

Although the narrator vehemently asserts Lady Susan’s blamelessness, in the novelization questions around the protagonist’s morality remain just as unresolved as in the preceding novella and film.  This lack of resolution is largely due to the tone and style of the extradiegetic narration intended to perform the vindication, since the narrator emerges as someone just as likely to be fooled by Lady Susan as was his gullible uncle.  Like Sir James, Martin-Colonna is blind to her extra-marital affair, commenting credulously that his cousin “hero-worshipped Manwaring and even grew to resemble him physically—admiration and emulation sometimes having that effect” (110).  Stillman credits the actor Tom Bennett for the way the character of Sir James becomes “fully realized” on film (Graham), and the incongruous digressions of the novelization’s narrator often resemble the rambling eccentricity of the film’s Sir James (Bennett frequently delivers his lines as if Sir James is unsure where his sentences will end when he begins them).  In the novelization, Martin-Colonna espouses his own, and his uncle’s, optimistic ability to see the goblet of life as “half-filled”:  “A so-called ‘half-filled’ goblet can . . . be moved about freely without spilling. . . . [E]ven the half that is seen as ‘empty’ is not truly so; it is filled to the brim with healthful, life-giving ‘air.’  If one were trapped in an airless vault the ‘empty’ half of the goblet could prove the difference between life and death” (75).  We are reminded here of Sir James’s blundering philosophizing in the film, such as his speculation, after Frederica attempts to correct his belief that the Old Testament contains twelve commandments, over which two commandments one might be permitted to “take off.” 

The narration therefore emerges as entirely inadequate to the task of clearing up doubts left by Austen’s novella when it comes to the characterization and virtue of its central protagonist.  While the delightful silliness of Sir James and Martin-Colonna are the inventions of Stillman and Bennett, the novelization’s comic, seemingly unintentional revelations of the narrator’s foibles are also reminiscent of Jane Austen’s satirical epistolarity, particularly Mr. Collins’s letters in Pride and Prejudice.  Thus the novelization revels in its new authorial voice while again returning us to Jane Austen.  Stillman affirms that this was his intention, with his observation that he sought to write an “Austenian” book but with a narrator belonging to a slightly later generation than both Austen and Lady Susan—a comic character from Thomas Love Peacock or early Dickens (Graham). 

Break Graphic true to size

Both the film and the novelization contain instances of striking self-consciousness, a kind of aping of “bad narration” that provides a commentary on the narrative techniques at stake in the three-part adaptation chain.  In the film this commentary occurs at the moment where we have both a letter (a correspondence) and letters (words) on screen at the same time, namely when Sir Reginald (young Reginald’s father) reads a letter intended for his wife and thereby finds out that his son is in love with Lady Susan.  The contrivance of a damning letter falling into the wrong hands is a recurring device of epistolary fiction (confirming the social risks of correspondence), and in Austen’s novella Sir Reginald reads the letter from his daughter out loud to his wife because her eyesight has been affected by a cold.  In the film Sir Reginald begins by glossing the letter’s content and is asked by Lady De Courcy to read “the words” because “some of Catherine’s voice will be in them.”  Her husband then reads out everything on the page, including every comma, full-stop, and semi-colon, a superfluity the film mischievously imitates by placing the text of the letter in subtitles, a phrase at a time, with punctuation appearing separately, simultaneous with Sir Reginald’s intonation of it. 


Love and Friendship.  © 2016 Westerly

In addition to imitating Sir Reginald’s pedantry, the one-clause-at-a-time subtitling makes reference to the formal awkwardness of the epistolary tradition, in which the absence of an extradiegetic, retrospective narration obliges characters to tell their story immediately after each event occurs.  Richardson referred to this technique as “writing to the moment,” a technique famously mocked by Henry Fielding in Shamela, his satire of Richardson’s Pamela:  “Mrs. Jervis and I are just in Bed, and the Door unlocked; if my Master should come—Odsbobs!  I hear him just coming in at the Door.  You see I write in the present Tense” (318).  The parodying of the potential clumsiness of such storytelling through filmic subtitles is particularly apt if we recall that linguistic narration in cinema is sometimes denigrated as a failure in the film’s visual art—a shortcut via “telling,” instead of the cinema’s “true” purpose of “showing.”4 

In addition, this moment is suggestive of other drawbacks of the epistolary mode:  while Lady De Courcy may wish to hear her daughter’s letter verbatim because “some of [her] voice will be in it,” Sir Reginald’s nit-picking performance-failure as he reads reminds us that correspondence is the corollary of absence:  when we receive letters, those we wish to hear from are not actually with us, and in epistolary fiction the letter-writer’s supposed direct address to readers is not necessarily as distinctive as direct speech, or as intimate as extradiegetic narration when it slides into free indirect discourse—two narrative techniques that Austen’s third-person narration developed with ground-breaking brilliance.  It is characteristic of Stillman’s technique of both exceeding and retaining Austen’s novella that some of the disadvantages of the epistolary mode are at once paid homage and overcome in his film:  the subtitles and reading of correspondence imitate the formal awkwardness of the novel of letters, while the dialogue, lively performances, and cinematic visuals provide the extradiegetic commentary and truly animated “liveness” that epistolary narration necessarily struggles to accommodate. 

Stillman’s novelization uses Sir Reginald’s verbal inclusion of punctuation as an opportunity to hammer one final nail into the coffin of its own, comically brilliant narrative failings.  In the antepenultimate chapter, Martin-Colonna applauds Sir Reginald’s careful attention to punctuation and contrasts his own excellent punctuation with apparent deficiencies in Jane Austen’s Lady Susan.  He then concedes that his decision to enunciate every mark of punctuation when giving evidence at his own criminal trial may not have resulted in the “full clarity” he intended and was perhaps “held against [him] at the time of sentencing” (130).  At this point the ludicrousness of Martin-Colonna’s entire narrative project becomes apparent:  while boasting of the “restraint” with which he has removed himself from the narrative, he finally reveals that he is endeavoring to restore the damaged reputation of his aunt while himself disgraced and imprisoned, having been found guilty of embezzlement.  (Admittedly, Martin-Colonna’s naivety suggests that he was duped by his business partner in the mahogany trade, particularly when he protests that he understood the term “co-mingling” as “referring to something quite different” [148].)  The narrative ends on a final, glorious note of hopeless optimism, as the narrator anticipates that his literary achievement in vindicating Lady Susan will also restore his own sunken reputation:  “while the door to triumph in the rare woods trade has closed, the door to literature has opened” (150).  In this highly comical frame narrative, the novelization crowns its project of both changing and retaining the work of Jane Austen through adaptation:  the narration is both a blatant addition (separated from the rest of the story through the narrator’s retrospection and incarceration) and the means by which Jane Austen’s status (as by far the more reliable story-teller of the two) is preserved and promoted in this act of retelling. 

Break Graphic true to size

The model of adaptation that Stillman adopts is one that responds to a demanding market, where creative reinvention and loyalty to sources are desired simultaneously.  The choice of adapting Lady Susan in the first place goes some way towards meeting this requirement, in that it marks an expansion of Jane Austen sources beyond the six novels, thereby offering both Austenian authenticity and a narrative whose brevity and canonical peripherality invites addition and change.  This approach of mining source material outside the mainstream of Austen’s oeuvre (for example juvenilia, short or incomplete works, paratexts, and work-in-progress) has been adopted with varying degrees of success elsewhere, most notably ITVs 2019 television adaptation of Sanditon, written by Andrew Davies, as well as in numerous Sanditon novelistic completions.5  It is also evident in ITVs 2007 reworking of Persuasion, which utilizes Jane Austen’s discarded chapter 10 of the second volume, in which Captain Wentworth discovers that Anne is not engaged to Mr. Elliot after Admiral Croft charges him to find out if the Admiral should give up his lease on Kellynch Hall so that Anne and her betrothed can occupy the Elliot ancestral home themselves. 

In terms of satisfying audience expectations of inventiveness and novelty, the dangers of what is often understood as a “turning-upside-down” approach to adaptation—Wagner’s “analogy” model—have been well documented in much fidelity criticism.  They are also humorously signalled in Stillman’s own Metropolitan, in which the film’s very loose reworking of Mansfield Park is playfully acknowledged at the moment when Tom confidently dismisses the novel as “notoriously bad.”  He then reveals to Audrey that this assessment is based on the authority of Lionel Trilling, that he himself has never read any works by Austen, and that he avoids reading fiction at all, preferring instead literary criticism, since “that way you get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking.”  We are invited to laugh at the futility and ignorance of Tom’s reading practices, particularly since they rest on a misreading of Trilling, as Stillman himself acknowledges (see Graham).  Tom’s bypassing of literature itself in favor of scholarly criticism also brings to mind the fears that surely underlie fidelity critiques, namely that unfaithful adaptations are potentially guilty of usurpation, of supplanting the true “original” with “inaccurate” (or even bad) copies.  In this moment Metropolitan indirectly acknowledges that some of its own viewers may come to base their assessment of Mansfield Park not on Jane Austen’s 1814 novel but on its own story of young, late-1980s, “preppy” New Yorkers attending debutante balls. 

At the same time, the discussion (and misinterpretation) of Trilling’s essay within the film’s dialogue also signals that the narrative seeks to open up additional readings of Jane Austen’s work (and Jane Austen adaptations) to those with an advanced level of literary knowledge.  Thus the film makes clear that the act of turning upside down need not be a destructive one but can in fact reinvigorate adaptation sources through a particularly rigorous engagement of, and with, textual expertise, very much in the manner of the best literary criticism, in fact. 

That Stillman’s two versions of Love and Friendship accomplish this is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that they have the power to bring Austen to mind, even where they conspicuously establish their independence from Austen’s Lady Susan.  Stillman’s insertion of additional, self-conscious narration echoes instances of self-awareness in Austen’s own narratives—which at times themselves assert both participation in and a reinvention of the novels’ own literary antecedents.  Thus, the narrator of Northanger Abbey comically critiques gothic and sentimental fiction with an opening explanation of how Catherine Morland could have reached the age of seventeen without ever having felt, or provoked, any romantic attachments: 

There was not one lord in the neighbourhood; no—not even a baronet.  There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door—not one young man whose origin was unknown.  Her father had no ward, and the squire of the parish no children.  (9) 

Immediately afterwards, the narration makes clear its simultaneous engagement with these types of story tropes, as Catherine is whisked away by conveniently wealthy, benevolent neighbors so that she can be thrown in the path of rival suitors and subsequently experience romantic adventures and misunderstandings in an ancestral home that was once a medieval abbey.  As the narrator wryly comments, “when a young lady is to be a heroine, . . . [s]omething must and will happen to throw a hero in her way” (9). 

In such moments the allusion to tropes common to other works of fiction signals a narrative awareness of the story’s own fictional status.  Austen’s Mansfield Park concludes with a similar instance of narrative self-consciousness, in its dismissal of Henry and Mary Crawford from the story and its summary of how Edmund comes to fall in love with Fanny: 

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.  I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest. (533) 

Here the narration directly acknowledges both the editorial choices inherent in novel-writing and the practice within Austen’s own novels of evicting sinners (in this instance, both female and male) from the story in order to accommodate the desired, conventional, matrimonial conclusion.  In twice reworking Austen’s Lady Susan, Stillman both adopts and adapts Austenian narrative strategies:  Stillman’s stories also end in apparent domestic happiness, and they too avoid dwelling on guilt and misery, but unlike in Austen’s novels, Stillman sometimes “has done with” guilt by overlooking it or even rewarding and enjoying it.  As with Austen, Stillman’s narration is inventive and self-aware, and both the film and the novelization offer satisfying familiarity for those who love Austen as well as ingenious additions for those in search of fresh narrative experience.  Jane Austen is at once preserved and overturned in Stillman’s knowing versions of Love and Friendship, which offer particular pleasure to those who relish the expert’s privilege of also being in the know.


1Jane Austen was nineteen years old at this point.  The composition date has been the subject of some dispute, with watermarks on two leaves of the manuscript dating from 1805, while several critics have argued for a date as late as 1810–1812 (see Russell, Fernández Rodríguez, Barchas). 

2It is perhaps worth noting that Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998) stars both Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny, who plays Alicia Johnson in Love and FriendshipThe Last Days of Disco gives us another youthful comparison to set alongside Beckinsale’s later performance as Lady Susan, in a film where we at first feel that Beckinsale’s Charlotte is cruel towards her naïve, virtuous friend, Alice (Sevigny), but later feel sorry for the unsuccessful Charlotte, as Alice overtakes her in both romantic conquests and “yuppie” career progression. 

3Stillman’s novelization is published by Two Roads, which is in fact an imprint of John Murray Press, with whom Austen published from 1815 onwards. 

4See Kamilla Elliott’s discussion of this tactic in relation to subtitles and intertitles and Sarah Kozloff’s discussion in relation to voice-over. 

5See, for example, works by Juliette Shapiro and David Alan Williams, as well as Kate Riordan’s novelization of the ITV adaptation of Sanditon.

Works Cited
  • Andrew, Dudley.  “Adaptation.”  Concepts in Film Theory.  Oxford: OUP, 1984.
  • Austen, Jane.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Gen. ed. Janet Todd.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005–2008.
  • Austen-Leigh, J. E.  A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections.  Ed. Kathryn Sutherland.  Oxford: OUP, 2002.
  • Barchas, Janine.  Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location and Celebrity.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012.
  • Carroll, Laura.  “A Consideration of Times and Seasons: Two Jane Austen Adaptations.”  Literature/Film Quarterly 31.3 (2003): 169–76.
  • Elliott, Kamilla.  Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate.  Cambridge: CUP, 2003.
  • Fernández Rodríguez, Carmen María.  “Another Mistress of Deceit? Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and Sarah Harriet Burney’s Geraldine Fauconberg.”  Persuasions On-Line 36.1 (2010).
  • Fielding, Henry.  Joseph Andrews.  Shamela.  Oxford: OUP, 1999.
  • Ford, Susan Allen . “‘No Business with Politics’: Writing the Sentimental Heroine in Desmond and Lady Susan.”  Persuasions On-Line 26.1 (2005).
  • Galperin, William H.  The Historical Austen.  Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 2005.
  • Genette, Gérard.  Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree.  Trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky.  1987.  Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1997.
  • Graham, Peter W.  “‘I Want to Be a Scavenger’: A Conversation with Whit Stillman.”  Persuasions On-Line 38.1 (2017).
  • Hutcheon, Linda.  A Theory of Adaptation.  London: Routledge, 2006.
  • Kozloff, Sarah.  Invisible Storytellers: Voice-Over Narration in American Fiction Film.  Berkeley: U California P, 1992.
  • Klein, Michael, and Gillian Parker, ed.  The English Novel and the Movies.  New York: Ungar, 1981.
  • Laurence, Diarmuid, dir.  Emma.  Screenplay Andrew Davies.  ITV/A&E Television Network, 1996.
  • Lenckos, Elisabeth.  “‘. . . [I]nventing Elegant Letters,’ or, Why Don’t Austen’s Lovers Write More Often?”  Persuasions On-Line 26.1 (2005).
  • Nixon, Cheryl L., and Louise Penner.  “Writing by the Book: Jane Austen’s Heroines and the Art and Form of the Letter.”  Persuasion On-Line 26.1 (2005).
  • Propp, V.  Morphology of the Folktale.  Trans. Laurence Scott.  Ed. Louis A. Wagner.  2nd ed.  Austin: U of Texas P, 1968.
  • Riordan, Kate.  Sanditon.  London: Trapeze, 2019.
  • Russell, Gillian.  “‘A Hint of It, with Initials’: Adultery, Textuality and Publicity in Jane Austen’s Lady Susan.”  Women’s Writing 17 (2010): 469–86.
  • Shapiro, Juliette.  Sanditon: Jane Austen’s Unfinished Masterpiece.  Berkeley: Ulysses, 2009.
  • Shirgold, Andrew, dir.  Persuasion.  Screenplay Simon Burke.  ITV/WGBH, 2007.
  • Stillman, Whit.  Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated.  London: Two Roads, 2016.
  • Stillman, Whit, dir.  The Last Days of Disco.  Screenplay Whit Stillman.  Castle Rock, 1998.
  • _____.  Love and Friendship.  Screenplay by Whit Stillman.  Westerly, 2016.
  • _____.  Metropolitan.  Screenplay Whit Stillman.  Westerly, 1990.
  • Trilling, Lionel.  “Mansfield Park.”  The Opposing Self.  New York: Viking, 1955.  206–29.
  • Wagner, Geoffrey.  The Novel and the Cinema.  Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1975.
  • Williams, David.  Set in the Silver Sea, by Jane Austen and a Gentleman: Sanditon Finished.  Kindle ed.  N. p., 2016.
‹ Back to Publication