Excited as I am to see Love and Friendship, Whit Stillman’s new film adaptation of Lady Susan, I’ve been more than a little skeptical of the spinoff novel he’s published to accompany the movie. Because Jane Austen already wrote that book, and it’s pretty darn hilarious.
The currently fashionable talk of Lady Susan’s “unfinished” quality ignores the fact that it is, in fact, finished: the fates of all its characters are resolved, albeit in a somewhat rushed, non-epistolary addendum to the epistolary narrative. The best ending Jane Austen ever wrote? No. But unfinished? Also no.
Nevertheless, I can’t deny that Stillman had a point when he suggested in a recent New York Times interview that Austen would likely have heavily revised Lady Susan had she intended to publish it. “The things she did in the same period, they started out epistolary, and then she shifted them to the dramatized novels that we know,” Stillman pointed out.
This tendency is already evident in Lady Susan itself: as the book progresses, each letter includes longer and longer passages of dialogue and dramatized action, implausibly recounted from memory by the letter-writer. It’s as if the living, breathing body of the story is beginning to press against the form into which Austen has corseted it.
Lady Susan has already inspired one clever and well-written non-epistolary fanfic – Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, by the mother-daughter team of Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway – which manages the neat trick of retaining virtually all of Jane Austen’s plot while making the title character sympathetic (and not in a she’s-so-bad-she’s-good kind of way).
Stillman’s novel apparently takes a different tack, inventing a new character, Rufus, who narrates the story in a self-important voice while prosecuting a pro-Lady Susan agenda. “In the appendix,” a recent story in the Los Angeles Daily News explains, “readers will find the full text of Lady Susan, along with annotations by Rufus discrediting many of the forty-one letters that make up Austen’s novella. . . . until 'Letter 15,' after which Rufus decides he’s not going to dignify the text with any more responses.”
OK, I’ll admit it. That sounds like it could be kind of fun.