Love and Friendship: A Film Review

Love & Friendship (2016)

Written and Directed by Whit Stillman

Based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan

Whit Stillman’s partiality for Jane Austen is obvious in his first film, Metropolitan, and close to the surface in Damsels in Distress.[1] In Love & Friendship he moves directly to Austen in an adaptation of her epistolary novel Lady Susan, begun sometime around 1794 when she would have been eighteen. In doing so he honours the book by placing the action in the eighteenth century: women’s coiffures are impossibly abundant mounting to impressive heights before cascading down in billowing curls and ringlets; the costumes, colourful and unworn, take full advantage of the fashions of a formal society; and the settings have the perfection of stately homes on display, as they no doubt are.

Despite Austen’s well-known sparseness of detail with regard to scenery and personal appearance, he captures something of the idealized, almost mythological depiction of the English society of the novels. The plot is intact. It opens with Lady Susan Vernon—a scheming beauty who at thirty-four could pass for twenty-four—making an overly long-delayed visit to the country home of her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon, and his wife, Catherine, née De Courcy. Sheer necessity has prompted her move. As a penniless widow, detected in her intrigues with Lord Manwaring, she had left his home under a cloud. Her manner now is designed to disarm criticism, in particular that of Reginald De Courcy, Catherine’s young brother, no easy task as her reputation as “the most accomplished flirt in England” has preceded her. She’s on the prowl for a husband; Reginald might do in a pinch, although whatever powers of affection she may possess have been directed to the “irresistible” Manwaring. Her seventeen-year-old daughter, Frederica, she plans to marry off to the rich and stupid Sir James Martin, a prototype of Mr. Rushworth of Mansfield Park: “If this man had not twelve thousand a year, he would be a very stupid fellow.”[2] The unexpected arrival of both of them is the catalyst of the plot, in which the inevitable pairing of Reginald and Frederica is balanced by the initially surprising marriage of Lady Susan herself to Sir James. But what else could she do? Neither Reginald nor Lord Manwaring is in a position to provide her with the security and place in society she sees as her due.

Austen’s novella moves the action with letters to and from the interested parties in which sentiments and observations that could not be expressed in polite society are stated openly. Lady Susan has a friend, Mrs. Alicia Johnson, as cynical and calculating as herself, with whom she can freely describe her motives and schemes. Similarly, Mrs. Vernon exchanges letters with her mother, detailing her distress at Reginald’s growing affection for Lady Susan. That one of them falls into the hands of her father, Sir Reginald, affords an amusing exchange between the younger and the older Reginald that reveals the extent of the young man’s infatuation. Stillman, while respecting the plot of the novella, gives it his own stamp by a reinterpretation of the characters and additions to the story line. Thus Lady Susan in the film comes across as more spontaneous and wickedly attractive than Austen’s coldly calculating heroine, partly because the director of the movie has to make explicit in his dialogue what Austen left, for the most part, implicit: “I have subdued him [Reginald] entirely by sentiment and serious conversation”; and Stillman succeeds brilliantly, even as continual explanations on the part of Lady Susan have a cumulative and debilitating effect on, respectively, the understanding and the affection of the young man.

But it is in his depiction of the other characters that Stillman indulges his inclination for whimsy, which has become increasingly evident in his films, as in the character Thor from Damsels in Distress, who came to university to learn how to identify colours.[3] Here it is Sir James who is rendered fatuous to a degree that might have made the mature Jane Austen cringe but would not, I think, have embarrassed the girl who wrote satires and farces. Such buffoonery adds an almost melodramatic element to Frederica’s disinclination to marry Sir James. Particularly stupid is the scene in which he exhibits an astonished delight in encountering peas for the first time. Stillman goes further, in that Sir James discovers on the day after his marriage that Lady Susan is pregnant and rejoices that their good friend Lord Manwaring happened to be staying with them at the time. Mrs. Johnson, too, exhibits Stillman’s penchant for satirical farce. He transforms her into an American ex-patriot who lives in continual and mortal dread that Mr. Johnson will take her back to the wilds of Connecticut. “You could be scalped,” Lady Susan exclaims or “tarred and feathered.” Her role in the story is to provide Lady Susan with appreciation for her machinations, applause for her power over men and circumstances, and an assessment of potential mates. Favouring Reginald at first, Alicia eventually advises against him because, with a healthy father, there could be a long wait for his inheritance, whereas Sir James is rich now, and foolish. Ideal! Recognizing her friend’s savoir-faire, Lady Susan says, “What a mistake you married Mr. Johnson, my dear: too old to be governable, too young to die!”

As with The Last Days of Disco, Stillman has published a novel based on his movie script: Love & Friendship in Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated.[4] Continuing the absurdist vein of the film, it is presented as the work of R. Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, a nephew of Sir James, purportedly published in 1858. It was produced to restore the reputation of a woman whose character had been vilified. After his rectified account of the events and Sir James’s role in them, “Martin-Colonna” adds as an appendix the annotated text of the original novella in which he lays bare the falsehoods and prejudices of its “Spinster Authoress.” As the novella is included among Jane Austen’s juvenilia in the recent Penguin edition,[5] perhaps Stillman’s adolescent streak is not altogether inappropriate. His retitling the film and its concomitant book is thus itself consonant with the farcical elements in these early Austen works, one of which is actually entitled Love and Freindship (sic).

The most striking characteristic of Stillman’s scripts is their religious content, which has consistently been bypassed by critics. In a television appearance, for example, when Stillman stated that in Love & Friendship he wanted to “up the morality, up the religion,”[6] the interviewer, deaf and blind it seems when it comes to religion, preferred to focus on secondary topics such as witty dialogue and clever plotting. But the fact is that the films have been animated by Christianity to the point that The Last Days of Disco has been interpreted by one critic—me—as an allegory of the history of salvation. In my review I noted that his first two films are infused with Protestantism, in that they place the emphasis on preaching and not on sacrament. Barcelona, as set in Spain, adds a bit of (silent) Catholicism to the mix, and in Damsels in Distress we find two ironical references to Catholicism, the first alluding to superstition and the second to intolerance. Religion is less explicit in Love & Friendship than in the earlier films, although it figures prominently in the book, which functions as a quasi-apologia for Protestantism.[7] Jane Austen would have appreciated that. In 1813 she wrote to her brother Francis, “I have great respect for former Sweden. So zealous as it was for Protestantism.”[8] And in the movie itself two episodes, both Stillman additions, focus on the ten commandments—or “twelve commandments” as Sir James has it. When he is informed that there are only ten, he wonders which two could be dispensed with: “‘Perhaps the one about the Sabbath,’ he said with a smile. ‘I prefer to hunt.’”

More significant is a conversation in the course of which, attempting to bring Frederica to accept Sir James’s suit, Lady Susan invokes what she identifies as the fourth commandment: “Honour—Thy—Father—And—Mother.” Why does she identify as the fourth commandment what to Protestants is the fifth? I thought at first the mistake was simply a slip, until the action calls attention to it. Frederica, in her anguish, visits the local church, seeking solace in prayer. The young incumbent finds her there and, in their dialogue, corrects her numbering of the commandment: “The Fifth Commandment! My favourite! . . . It’s the Church of Rome that has it as the Fourth.” The implication is that Lady Susan is, or at least had been raised, a Catholic. Although the severest penal laws against Catholics had gradually fallen into disuse by the time the novella was written, Catholics still continued to be without social position and suffered a number of legal limitations. Lady Susan could not have functioned in that society without conforming to the established Church, as she implies in replying to Reginald’s remark about his father’s health:

[He’s] a Christian, for whom the prospect of the end is neither sad nor cold.”

“Ah, yes!” Susan agreed. “Thank heaven for our religion! So important for us in this life, and especially in the next . . .”

Stillman’s may have introduced the possibility of a Catholic Lady Susan merely to emphasize the difficulties, difficulties of which she was well aware, of her providing for herself. As a poor gentlewoman, she depended on male relatives for her upkeep. Charles Vernon, her brother-in-law, and Sir James, her prospective son-in-law, may be on occasion obliging, but her position was precarious, necessitating compromise and deception. Admitting her Catholicism would have been fatal to any chance of a decent settlement, and only once did her guard slip, and then in so minor a way that her early years—about which we know nothing—continue in the shadows.

I move now to examine, perhaps to exaggerate, the religious symbolism of Love & Friendship. My starting point is Stillman’s associating Lady Susan with Catholicism. In the traditional Protestant polemic, the scarlet woman of the Book of Revelation, seductive and destructive, was identified with the Church of Rome. Like it, Lady Susan is powerful, deceitful and amoral. As if to highlight her symbolic role, at one point in the film Lady Susan doffs her widow’s weeds and dresses in a scarlet gown: “I am no widow, mourning I shall never see. . . . arrayed in purple and scarlet (Rev. 17:4; 18:7). Lady Susan’s adultery with Lord Manwaring also has its parallel in Revelation: “the kings of the earth, committed fornication and were wanton with her” (Rev. 18:9). If she represents Roman Catholicism, Reginald would stand for the Reformed Church of England, drawn, seemingly irresistibly towards his mortal enemy, not only drinking from the poisoned cup of her specious claims but even defending them against the wisdom of his own kin. The Established Church seems helpless in the face of such subtlety, falsehood and ambition. The curate, Mr. Thomas Edward Braddock, indicates this weakness in several ways: he is young, he is short, he is naïve:

We are not born into a savage wilderness but into a beautiful mansion of the Lord that the Lord and those who have gone before us have built. We must avoid neglecting that mansion but rather glorify and preserve it—as we should all of the Lord’s Creation. The superb Baumgarten has outlined the authentic trinity as “Truth,” “Beauty,” and “Good.” “Truth” is the perfect perceived by reason; “Beauty,” by the senses; and the “Good” by moral will.

What defence can these fine sentiments provide against the cunning of a clever woman? Lady Susan’s demand for unquestioning obedience and secrecy from Frederica on the basis of a false biblicism corresponds to the authoritarian, crippling pretensions of Catholicism. Eventually, however, her hypocrisy as well as her cruelty to her own child open the eyes of the deluded youth. When at last Protestantism is freed from the alluring snares of the temptress, it reassumes its rightful role in society; and so Reginald is welcomed back into the household (of the faith) and thus restored can rescue Frederica from her unnatural mother.[9] Their marriage brings the young woman into a new family, where her true worth can be recognized and rewarded. In the closing scene, the bridegroom describes his bride:

Blest tho’ she is with ev’ry human grace,

The mien engaging, and bewitching face;

Yet still an higher beauty is her care,

Virtue, the charm that most adorns the fair;

Long may they those exalted pleasure prove

That spring from worth, constancy and love.[10]


Daniel Callam, C.S.B.

Toronto, Canada

[1] Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco were reviewed in The Chesterton Review, vol. XXXVI (2010) 171-181; Damsels in Distress in vol. XXXXVIII (2012) 181-85.

[2] Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, chapter 4.

[3] Having skipped kindergarten, Thor, despite his name, had never been able to name the colours of the rainbow.

[4] Whit Stillman, The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2000); Whit Stillman, Love & Friendship in Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated (Little, Brown and Company: New York, 2016). Quotations in the text, unless otherwise identified, have been taken from the novel.

[5] Jane Austen, Love and Freindship and Other Youthful Writings, edited by Christine Alexander (Penguin/Random House: London, 2015).

[6] Available at

[7] E.g.: “Jean Calvin. . . His Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536) is undoubtedly the greatest work of theological thought, of this millennium, at least.” Whit Stillman, Love & Friendship in Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated (Little, Brown and Company: New York, 2016), p. 102.

[8] Jane Austen, Letters, 1796 – 1817, edited by R.W. Chapman, The World’s Classics 549 (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), p. 143. Jane Austen as a devout Anglican may have favoured Protestantism, but her moral principles came from the pages of the Catholic Book of Common Prayer, thus representing the two strains of Anglicanism: the Reformed and the Anglo-Catholic; cf. Daniel Callam, C.S.B., “Jane Austen’s Catholic Sensibility” in Mapping the Catholic Cultural Landscape, edited by Paula Jean Miller, F.S.E., and Richard Fossey (New York: Sheed and Ward, 2004), pp. 9-18.

[9] A parallel with Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte suggests itself, in that the Queen of the Night is taken as a symbol of the Catholic Church.

[10] The poem was originally published in the Massachusetts Gazette on 20 June 1774.