By Michelle Albert Vachris, Guest Blogger
How does she do it? A young-ish widow, she has a not-so-discreet affair with a married man, attracts the affections of much younger men, and manipulates her daughter, all while managing to live off the serial generosity of relatives and friends. Who is she? Why Jane Austen’s character Lady Susan, of course, brought to the big screen in the recently released “Love & Friendship.” Written and directed by Whit Stillman and starring Kate Beckinsale as the lead, this film adaptation of Jane Austen’s short novel Lady Susan provides an amusing glimpse into the everyday world of early 19th century gentry England.
The question, “How does she do it?” though, could also be asked of Austen, herself. How does a writer from the late 1700’s continue to captivate and instruct us here in the 21st century? Easy. Despite the vast changes in the world since Austen’s times, the human condition remains the same. We all want to be admired and, more importantly, to be worthy of admiration – a sentiment that can be traced back to an even earlier writer, economist Adam Smith. In his philosophical treatise, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he maintains that “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely….He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness…” Both Smith and Austen provide us with a moral blueprint for achieving human happiness, and this blueprint is well evident in Lady Susan.
According to Austen and Smith, to be truly happy (admired and worthy) we need to practice virtues and avoid vices; we learn to do this by getting feedback (approval and disapproval) from those around us. Over time we internalize this feedback to create what Smith calls our ‘impartial spectator’ who judges our behavior. Lady Susan, however, eschews the moral and social constraints on her behavior and we enjoy watching her do so! She is so charming that even someone, like Reginald DeCourcy, who was predisposed to dislike her, is instead completely captivated. In Lady Susan’s defense, some of the constraints on women of her day needed to be cast off. In part, the novella is a story about the self-liberation of a strong woman. However, in the end, her scandalous behavior does not pay off in terms of happiness. Conversely, Frederica, Lady Susan’s much maligned daughter, takes the virtuous path and is rewarded as such.
That virtue leads to happiness is a theme well developed in both Austen and Smith. The virtues include Prudence (taking care of oneself), Benevolence (caring for others), Justice (being fair) and Self-Command (governing our passions). None of these would describe Lady Susan! And thankfully so. The audience can’t help but be both sucked in and bemused by her charm and audacity.
The movie stands as a stark reminder of the timeless nature of Austen’s work. “Love and Friendship” is actually the title of the first version of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which, like Lady Susan, was written in the format of a series of letters exchanged between characters (the epistolary form). Therefore Stillman, in adapting the novella for the screenplay, hand to infer scenes that Austen only hinted at, and he does so seamlessly. Austen’s brilliant comedic skills as well as her moral lessons are well evident. “Love & Friendship” reminds us that insights from this Regency Era writer still resonate today.