On my first viewing, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s posthumously published novella Lady Susan immediately shot up to the top of my list of favorite Austen film adaptations (though I still put Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s version of Sense and Sensibility in the number one spot). I have to admit I was never a big fan of Stillman’s previous films (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, Barcelona). His entitled, upper-class modern American characters grated on me. But it turns out it’s that very thing that makes him a perfect match for Austen’s work.
As with all of Austen’s novels, the major theme is how marriage is the only respectable option for the women of her society. Only in this one, she makes a character who would have normally been the antagonist the protagonist.
Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is recently widowed and quite poor. She is so bad off she’s forced to basically crash in other people’s homes. She has a sweet teenaged daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark) she keeps in a boarding school she can’t afford.
As the story opens, she has been ejected by her latest hostess because she is suspected of having an affair with her husband, Lord Manwaring. Lady Susan then imposes on her brother in law and his wife, Charles and Catherine Vernon (Justin Edwards and Emma Greenwell). They adore their niece Frederica, but can’t stand Lady Susan, and fear her reputation will harm them in some way.
To their horror, Catherine Vernon’s brother Reginald DeCourcey (Xavier Samuel), who they were hoping to match with Frederica, becomes instead enchanted by Lady Susan. Frederica runs away from her boarding school because she is being relentlessly pursued by the wealthy but epically dimwitted Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett).
The unconcerned Lady Susan refuses to rescue her daughter from the unwanted attentions of Sir James, seeing the match as most appropriate. (Did I mention he’s enormously wealthy?) The only person she truly confides in is her friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) an American married to an older man who prefers living in England.
Since this is one of Jane Austen’s lesser-known works, it would be a shame to spoil the plot turns, especially Lady Susan’s many superb manipulations in her pursuit of a wealthy husband and personal happiness.
I was very determined to pick a female villain for the blogathon this year, but found that too many fit into the “psycho obsessed with a man” category. I wanted something far less stereotypical, and remembered how much I adored this movie and its protagonist.
Normally, I would perhaps make the argument that Lady Susan isn’t REALLY a villain, only a woman forced into bad deeds by the limited role her society has given her. This is true, but she is so audacious, so unconcerned by how she hurts other people, including her own daughter, I think she absolutely qualifies as a full-blown villainous character.
Beckinsale (easily the performance of her career—I still can’t believe she didn’t earn an Oscar nomination) and Stillman make Lady Susan so clever, so funny, so dead-on in her observations of other people that it’s kind of hard not to like her at least a little. She has elements of Austen’s other ruthless, marriage minded ladies who make the lives of her heroines, if not miserable, at least difficult: Lucy Steel of Sense & Sensibility, Mary Crawford of Mansfield Park, Caroline Bingley of Pride & Prejudice. Unlike these other ladies, she’s already been married, a mother, and her age is not in her favor. Yet she refuses to let these disadvantages stop her from securing a new and very rich husband.
In an era when everyone is terrified of what would happen if they don’t follow the rules, Lady Susan is a woman who doesn’t care about them at all. Even though her behavior is fairly well-known, everyone has a stake in not exposing her entirely and exiling her from society. She takes full advantage of their conundrum.
What’s most interesting about the movie’s source material is Austen wrote it when she was quite young, when one would more likely imagine this cynical, scheming character coming out of the pen of an older and worldly woman. It pretty much shatters the notion of Austen as a retiring recluse for most of her life.
Austen’s stories are populated with perfect foils for her main characters. This is no exception. Her friend Mrs. Johnson is in a situation Lady Susan would never find herself in, completely under the control of her husband’s whims. Her daughter is a properly bred young woman who is more of a hindrance to her than an asset because she refuses to settle for any handy rich husband. Reginald DeCourcey is another type of character who appears often in her novels: a worthy young man briefly dazzled by an unworthy woman.
Then there is James Martin. If there was a Dunderheaded Characters in Movies Blogathon, I would pick him as a topic. He makes Mr. Collins from Pride & Prejudice seem like a rocket scientist in comparison. I have to take the focus off Lady Susan for a moment and applaud Stillman for how he introduces the character to the audience. His first full scene is a perfect portrait of the foolishness people are forced to put up with because an accident of birth gave someone wealth and rank.
The clever, the principled, the naïve, the stupid—none of them have a chance against Lady Susan Vernon. Stillman reminds us that in addition to great love stories, Austen could also create dark comedy built around a shrewd villain.