This weekend I finally got to watch a movie I’ve been really looking forward to: Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship! The film is a version of one of Jane Austen’s unfinished works, Lady Susan, which was written in the epistolary form. Watching the movie was incredibly fun – the costumes are gorgeous, the directing is comedic and frank, and the plot itself kept my friend and I in this constant mix of humor and suspense. The story follows widowed flirt Susan Vernon on her unscrupulous quest to turn her precarious financial position into an absolute win, socially and romantically – whatever the costs.
The humor comes from classic Austenian quips about the brokenness of human nature, and from the ironic juxtaposition of Lady Susan’s calm demeanor and the extreme selfishness of her machinations (and how those around her come to manipulate her back in turn). But unfortunately, I think the ending was another case of the modern world mistaking for enlightenment what is actually delusion. As the fallout of Lady Susan’s manipulations reached its climax, I really could not imagine how it was going to end – the film certainly makes you empathize with her, but not to the point of thinking it could end well. And when it was over, the way that it eventually DID end just felt very…off. If Miss Clavel had been there, she would’ve joined me in exclaiming that “something is not right.”
What I didn’t know at the time is that in addition to turning the original letters into a cohesive narrative, Stillman’s book also edited Austen’s ending. So I did some digging, and it turns out that the director sees his adaptation’s ending as a revision, a “correction” of Jane Austen’s “youthful naivety.” While Austen’s ending is a funny but just reward, Stillman changes it to give Lady Susan happiness and stability in all the things she has been plotting for. As opposed to breaches of honest righteousness, Lady Susan’s schemes are reframed as brilliant “pivots” on the path of justified self-preservation.
The director’s assumption is that all her actions are justified and even admirable in a cruel world of survival of the fittest. She is an opportunist, and it gets her everything she wants, and that is to be admired. She is not likeable, but she is right.
Ignoring the fact that blatant adultery has nothing to do with self-preservation, even if her other actions could be spun in a positive or admirable light, I don’t think the new ending makes sense in the context of the story, and it’s definitely not nearly as humorous.
The diverging endings give us an interesting comparison of two writers’ views of the same story, and what makes a “deserved” or believable ending. Stillman’s ending is overwhelmingly sympathetic. In his mind, no one mature and experienced in the ways of the world would write such a naïve ending where the good end well and the bad end badly. Except, of corse, that all of Jane’s other works are equally righteous. Or as I would say, equally realistic.
I think the true distinction is not between a naïve young writer and a worldly, mature one, but a distinction of worldview, and possibly of faith. As a 18th century Christian, it made perfect sense for Jane to write stories with just ends. In her worldview, bad people do end badly in real life. The only possible end for Susan Vernon is that one day, all her selfishness will catch up to her. Looking at any of Austen’s other novels, none of the people who make their life by manipulating others make it. If Stillman thinks Lady Susan is naïve, does he realize that two of Jane’s three major novels feature sisters on the brink of financial destitution finding true love that also happens to solve all of their money problems?
Of course, they are novels. It’s ok to expect a happy ending. But there is no reason to think such an ending is naïve. As believers, we know that God is our provider, and as we submit to him through our trials and joys, he will give us our daily bread. Not to meantion the joys that await us in heaven. Believers CAN expect good things from a broken world. Our story DOES have a righteous and happy ending. Doesn’t it only make sense then that an author writing within that meta-narrative would reflect that within her own works? And doesn’t it also make sense that a writer and director living in an alternate meta-narrative, a paradigm of self-justification, survival of the fittest, nothing good will come to me that I don’t take for myself, would find Jane’s unflinching endings in need of revision.
Notably, in Jane Austen, everyone has the opportunity to repent. Anyone familiar with the character journey of Emma or Mr. Darcy knows that in Jane’s world, there is always an open door to come back from past wrongs. If freaking Frank Churchill can come back by the end of the novel, trust me, there is hope for anyone. Jane’s “bad,” or what I would call, “realisic” ends are only for the characters who are well aware of how their actions have hurt others, but are either determined to persist in their ways, or else are still riding out the consequences (Wilhoughby, Wickham). In that sense, the directors’s fate for Lady Susan has no place in Austen’s world – Susan Vernon having her evil cake and eating it too is impossible. In Jane’s paradigm, a bad character who does not repent invariably MUST suffer the consequences of those actions, and this I would argue is much more like the real world. It makes no logical sense that a person could repeatedly terrorize everyone around her, and still somehow end happily and in working relationship with all of them. Not even the social conventions of regency England make that claim hold water.
So in conclusion, I don’t agree with the director’s revisions. The ending feels ungenuine in the context of the whole story, and even if Lady Susan survives “happily”for now, what does she really have?
Sure, from the director’s perspective, Lady Susan is living the dream. To borrow a Jane Austen quote, she “has used everybody badly, but they are all desperate to forgive” her – or at least according to Stillman. But sadly, his revised ending to this narrative is even more a fantasy than Jane Austen’s was in the first place. A world where Susan Vernon is at peace with herself and those around her, which is implied in the last scene, is not the world we live in. The hurt that she caused the Manwarings, her contempt for her daughter, and what must be a truly weird relationship with her new son-in-law, will eat away at any temporary happiness she gets from Sir John’s fortune and Manwaring’s attention, however long he sticks around. A self-interest that consuming will stop at nothing until she has nothing left. In trying to make lady Susan “more realistic,” the “happily ever after” Stillman has created is a logical impossibility.
There is so much more you could write about the story conveyed in this movie/book. Why did Jane never novelize this work, like she did with “Sense & Sensibility?” Is Stillman a secret genius, using an unrealistically happy ending to jarr us into the realization that the world is just after all? What does this story say about gossip and perceptions of character? Could the story be told interestingly from any other character’s perspective? But I will save those for another time.