A great treat last weekend as I headed off with Child 2 to watch the Jane Austen movie, Love and Friendship. Child 2 was poking her nose briefly into the outside world after a dreary few weeks of revising. I feel such a pang for all the poor 16, 17 and 18 year olds across the country, their lives currently blighted by these awful exams. One friend said she’d hardly seen her daughter, taking A2s, for weeks and she could be decomposing in her bedroom for all she knew! It would be much kinder if they could hold all this testing in winter. I don’t know whose idea it was to ruin years of consecutive summers, but they were clearly never young themselves.
Anyway, back to lovely Jane Austen. I’d read the short story/novella, Lady Susan, that the film is based on years ago – I think it comes at the end of one of my editions of the other books, as a sort of optional extra. It was written in the epistolatory form (posh way of saying it’s a bunch of letters) and the thing that makes it stand out is its revolutionarily naughty heroine, Lady Susan, who is just superbly bad to the bone. She makes me think of Becky Sharp in Thackeray’s fantastic Vanity Fair, though I’ve just googled that book and found it was written in 1847 – years and years after Lady Susan, which Austen knocked off in 1794. Lady Susan is, even better, a middle-aged heroine. How many of these do we have now? And how many do you think there were in 1794?
The point, with both Lady Susan and Becky Sharp, was that a woman alone in those times (even 50 years apart) had to live on her wits, and the game was to snare a man. When a woman is trying to find a husband for her daughter, as in the case of Mrs Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, that is considered understandable though vulgar if (as with Mrs Bennett) her efforts are too obvious. If a woman is trying to snare a man for herself, well, that is unforgivable, even if she is a penniless widow whose station in life makes her unable to take the other option for impoverished women and work as a governess. Women in Lady Susan’s predicament were supposed to leech off their relatives and die as quickly as possible, or, if they couldn’t manage that, then dwindle into meek and biddable hangers-on who, if they were extremely lucky, might accidentally catch the eye of some man who wasn’t too fussy.
Lady Susan is made of entirely different stuff. All men, married, young, old or silly (very very silly, in the case of Tom Morton’s scene-stealing and hilarious Sir James) are fair game, and the only people she cares about are the friend to whom she writes all the letters, and her daughter, to the extent that she has to settle her somehow, and as advantageously as possible if the pair of them are not to sink in society. She is a monster – but she is also really funny.
I loved the film, though a friend whose opinions I always rate did say she thought Kate Beckinsale looked a little too ‘towie’. I actually thought she looked magnificent, and I desperately coveted all the gowns, from the majestic deep mourning to the frankly rather ooh la la red number she wore at the end. I did think, with all the convoluted stratagems she has to concoct to keep her head above water, that it was a little surprising her brow was so unruffled (ahem!) but that seems an occupational hazard in Hollywood these days.
There were some gorgeous lines, from Lady Susan’s lament about a husband who is ‘too old to train, and to young to die’, but the contempt for men that sometimes peeps through Austen’s other novels was in full force here. I think you’d have to be a strong man to like this film. And I’m sure the ending (I won’t spoil it for you) would definitely have the authoress spinning in her grave faster than a leaf of kale in a Nutribullet. But go and see it. You’ll laugh, you’ll feel sorry for all the widows who weren’t Lady Susan – and you’ll be glad we’re here now.