Whit Stillman Remixes Jane Austen: The Vindication of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon

The letters never move on the page but writing is ever in motion. Jane Austen’s work was relevant when she wrote it and it still is, but our relationship to her writing has changed dramatically. Austen’s gift was that of a psychologist. She was able to describe human relations in a timeless manner. This makes her work ideal for the very modern art of remixing, and Lady Susan, an early novella, is the perfect platform for motion picture director Whit Stillman to re-purpose into Love & Friendship, as both a movie and a novel.

stillman-love_and_friendshipBoth are delightful. They honor the work of the original author and display the art of the remixer, director and writer, Whit Stillman. The novel as packaged is a hoot to read, and the movie is equally enjoyable. I read the book before seeing the movie, but I doubt it would make much of a difference in terms of the reading and viewing experiences. No matter how you approach it, Love & Friendship is deliciously dark fun.

At the heart of the novel is Lady Susan Vernon…no wait, it’s the narrator, Lady Susan’s devoted nephew, Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca. While he’d like you to think that he’s all about rehabilitating Lady Susan’s reputation, he generally manages to accomplish the opposite. Lady Susan, you see, is something of a predator. She’s beautiful, seductive, largely amoral and on the brink of broke. The upshot is that men of means are in deep moral peril when they are in her vicinity, married or not.

As an early work of Austen’s, Lady Susan has more than a few inconsistencies, which Martin, who adds the letters as an appendix to his own narrative, corrects, both in his story and in notes added to Lady Susan’s letters (which are Austen’s original manuscript). If all of this sounds very “meta,” well, that’s because it is, at least in the novel.   And it is very funny.

The film is a much more straightforward adaptation of the novel, and it eschews the narrative structure and the narrator himself, Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, who is (perhaps) only briefly seen. The acting, pacing screenplay, art direction and direction are all top-notch. As there are plenty of reviews of the movie by authentic film reviewers, I’ll leave my sense of the movie at that. It was as hilarious as the novel, but without any of the meta-fictional additions that make the novel a delight in itself.

The film and novel work well together, but one does not require the other. Were one to see the film first, upon reading the novel you will find much more to the story. And having read the novel before seeing the movie, it is truly a delight to see the cast and director create such a wonderful adaptation. There’s no sense of anyone hoping to fix it in the remix. Instead, the remix itself gets a powerful affirmation here as an art-form in its own right; whether as a film or a novel or both, Love & Friendship is a lesson in both motion and emotion.

whit_stillman-2016-265Unsurprisingly, Whit Stillman himself is a man in motion. While he did manage to sit down during our conversation, you could tell his mind was flying ahead. He did confess to me that someday, when he manages to slow down enough, he intends to write a big book, not an adaptation of a movie or another book, but a big ol’ novel that will remix reality. The way books do. Chances are, he’ll make a movie based on that book. He’s clearly not the sort of fellow to stop for very long. You can hear our conversation by following this link to the MP3 audio file. Or, pretend the world is sitting still and listen right here. The time will fly by.

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