Writers & Company

Whit Stillman on Jane Austen's diabolical, amoral and utterly charming Lady Susan

The American writer and director on making Love & Friendship, a film adaption of a lesser-known Austen novel.
American writer-director Whit Stillman was interviewed by CBC host Eleanor Wachtel in 2019. (Katy Swailes/CBC)
Listen to the full episode51:46

Writer and director Whit Stillman is best known for his witty comedies of manners, which often explore the anxieties of bourgeois American 20-somethings, such as Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998).

His latest film, Love & Friendship, is the first adaptation of Jane Austen's relatively little-known novella Lady Susan, written as a series of letters when Austen was 19. Revolving around a beautiful, impoverished widow in her mid-30s, the work wasn't published until 1871, more than 50 years after Austen's death. Stillman's adaptation, starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny, was released to wide critical acclaim in 2016.

Stillman also wrote his own companion book to the film, called Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen's Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated.

Stillman spoke to Eleanor Wachtel while in Toronto for TIFF's Books on Film series.  

Austen appreciation

"My sister was the one who first recommended I read Jane Austen. I think Sense and Sensibility is a good starter novel if you're basically a nonfiction, essay-oriented person. It's a debate between two senses and sensibilities, as the title says. One sister is very sensible and the other is very much controlled by romance and her feelings. Jane Austen had very strong opinions about the Romantic movement and there's a battling with Romanticism throughout her novels.

"I initially hated Northanger Abbey, which is very different from her other six great books because it's a send up of gothic novels that were written in the period. I read it when I was 18, without knowing anything about gothic novels, so I thought it was a mess. Later, I worked in book publishing on gothic novels of the present day and so I got the picture of what gothic novels are about. I could understand the parody better when I came back to that book."

Lady Susan and the problem with bad people

"I first found Lady Susan when I went back to reread Northanger Abbey to see whether I'd like it better than when I was in university. I did like it better, and I found Lady Susan published in the back of that edition. I thought it was absolutely marvelous. I couldn't believe how great it was. My first love was actually Oscar Wilde's plays and the Oscar Wilde persona. Lady Susan is sort of bizarrely Wildean — it's like Oscar Wilde a century before his prime. It seemed to me divinely funny and crazy and amoral.

"Lady Susan is a diabolical manipulator, but she's entirely charming about it. One of the big problems with bad people — with manipulators — is that not only are they doing bad things, they're denying it and often putting the guilt on other people. What's charming about her is that she's totally conscious and open and declared. It takes a lot of the awfulness away from the character. But she is awful. She's totally manipulative and cynical. I think I could accept the amorality of Lady Susan because I know that Jane Austen is the greatest moralist."

Kate Beckinsale stars in Love & Friendship, a 2016 film written and directed by Whit Stillman. It is based on Jane Austen's epistolary novel Lady Susan. (Submitted by TIFF)

The making of Love & Friendship

"I had a theory that it was bad to adapt Jane Austen's great novels to film because they're just so great. What you would end up doing would be the classic comic book film [treatment]: reducing them to 90 minutes or two hours and transforming things to please audiences in the wrong way.

"Lady Susan wasn't fully finished. Austen didn't give it what she'd give something that she was going to publish. But I liked the idea of finding something that was unknown and had not been adapted. In making Love & Friendship, I felt I could add another work to the Jane Austen shelf, even though devotees of Jane Austen knew about it and read it and liked it. There was space for me to complete it, in a certain way. As a writer-director, that was exciting."

Watch the trailer for Love & Friendship

Whit Stillman's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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