Deborah Ross

Jane Austen on speed

Because he’s utterly wrong about Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan – and this delicious film adaptation, Love & Friendship, by Whit Stillman proves it

Love & Friendship is based on the little-known Jane Austen epistolary novella, Lady Susan, which was not published until after Austen’s death, and was then ill received. As G.K. Chesterton declared: ‘I, for one, would have willingly left Lady Susan in the wastepaper basket.’ Knowing what I know now and having, in fact, read Lady Susan, I, for one, would have willingly punched G.K. Chesterton in the head, had I been around at that time. And, had I wished to torment him further, which is highly likely, I might have then told him that it would one day be turned into the most delicious hoot of a film, so put that in your pipe and smoke it. I think he’d know he’d met his match.

Just as Lady Susan is not your common-or-garden Austen read — no misunderstandings; no grand balls; a splendidly wicked heroine — this is no common-or-garden Austen adaptation. All our beloved trappings are here. The sublime frocks. The horses and carriages. The magnificent country houses. But, as written and directed by Whit Stillman (Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco), this is made new by a reworking that has wit, energy, verve and a sense of mischief. And, as it’s all told at such a lick, you’ll wonder, like G.K., quite what has hit you.

Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is a widow in possession of no great fortune, or any fortune at all, and is therefore in want of a wealthy husband, natch. We first meet her as she is being ejected from the magnificent country home of Lord Manwaring — ‘a divinely attractive man’ reads the mischievous caption underneath — having set the cat among the pigeons there. (He had fallen for her; his wife was not best pleased.)

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