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Being Bad Never Looked So Good

First things first: don't miss out on the fascinating lectures from world-renowned scholars, small-group discussions with fellow Austen fans, workshops, dance lessons, theatricals, movie night, a Regency game night, and a Regency Ball. Register today for JASP2023; you'll be glad you did!


Jane Austen wrote Lady Susan, an epistolary novel with a mildly shocking eponymous heroine, when she was around nineteen years old. Actress Kate Beckinsale was only 20 when she made her big film debut in Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (1993). Coincidence? Subsequent roles tempt one to see more than coincidence at work. Beckinsale soon found herself starring in the Austen-esque Cold Comfort Farm (1995), playing a character who declares "If you ask me, I think I have much in common with Miss Austen. She liked everything to be tidy and pleasant and comfortable around her, and so do I…I cannot endure messes." Shortly afterward, Beckinsale portrayed the Austen heroine who creates messes as she tries to tidy everyone else's life: Emma (1996).

Beckinsale's most recent Austen-related performance as Lady Susan in the film adaptation of the novella, retitled Love and Friendship (2016), is perhaps her best Austen turn yet. In addition to reading the novella as part of our focus on Austen's teenage writing this year, we'll have a chance to watch the film AND talk to the writer/director, Whit Stillman at JASP2023.

This won't be the first time JASP has featured a film by Whit Stillman (a fellow Austen fan); his Metropolitan (1990) is a tonal adaptation of Mansfield Park with an ongoing debate about the novel running through the film. It was screened at JASP2016. Metropolitan is a multi-award-winning independent film, recently named as one of "The Greatest Independent Films of the Twentieth Century." You can learn more about the making of both Metropolitan and Love and Friendship from Stillman's address, "Adapting Jane Austen," given at Hillsdale College as a part of the Center for Constructive Alternatives series here. As you'll see in the presentation, he is a careful reader of Austen, attentive to both her verbal dexterity and the nuances of the mores within which she lived. He describes how compelling the "predicaments" at the heart of her novels are (an added bonus, he points out, is that she never asks to see the script). The video includes a brief reading from his post-movie novel, Love and Friendship: in Which Jane Austen's Lady Susan is Entirely Vindicated. If you are intrigued by this sample, you can order the book through Jane Austen Books (note: the novel comes highly recommended by JASP co-founder and director Inger Brodey, who describes it as "quite hilarious!")

Love and Friendship (top) was not the first film for which Stillman cast Beckinsale and her co-star Chloe Sevigny; the trio worked together on The Last Days of Disco (1998, bottom), which Stillman also wrote, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

Love and Friendship is an objectively gorgeous film. Kate Beckinsale is resplendent in custom-designed period dresses, and the hairdos alone deserve awards. But beyond the appealing aesthetic, Stillman's writing enables Beckinsale to perfectly capture the devious but undeniably charming character of Lady Susan. The verbal pyrotechnics he writes for her, and the agility with which she delivers her smiling barbs exceed the special effects of her action movies. In this interview she discusses the "envelope pushing" qualities of Austen's novella, admitting that when she first read the script she thought it must have been written by a modern author (for your further entertainment: in this short from Vanity Fair, she reads and reacts to quotations from etiquette guides published in the 1800s about how women should behave).

In the talk linked above, Stillman recounts examples of ways in which the script grew and was shaped by those involved in the production; the character of Sir James Martin, for example, was expanded in part because Tom Bennett was so funny in the role. The character of Mrs. Cross, Lady Susan's companion and unpaid maid, is Stillman's addition, and another example of how he has used expansions and additions to reveal more about Lady Susan. She tells Mrs. Vernon that "Mrs. Cross will come with me, as my companion, and to help pack and unpack; and as there is a friendship involved I'm sure the paying of wages would be offensive to us both." Delivered with a perfectly composed demeanor, this line is a remarkably efficient depiction of Lady Susan's ability to clothe her naked self-interest in socially acceptable pieties. While Stillman eschews notions of strict fidelity in adaptation, it is clear that he values careful attention to the heart of the piece he's adapting, and that he knows his Austen well. The result is a thoroughly entertaining film which reminds us that Austen was not as prim and proper as she's sometimes made out to be.

We'll be watching the film on Friday night of the symposium, and will have the opportunity to talk with Whit Stillman about it afterward. If you haven't seen the film yet, you're in for a treat; if you've seen it, you are probably already looking forward to seeing it again (I know I am!). Need more convincing? Amazon did a "behind the scenes" featurette that you can watch here, or the trailer, here.

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