Mail to Movie: A Commentary on Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Epistolary book, ‘Lady Susan.’

Jun 21, 2016 by Marketing on The Nickelodeon Blog

What is it like to communicate with far away family and friends exclusively by letter? Since the turn of the 20th century, phones have been increasingly viable methods of communicating with long distance friends and relatives: Real time communication across states, countries, and continents at the push of a button. How do we relate to a purely epistolary story? In its original form, Austen’s Lady Susan comprises forty-one letters sent between the main players. There is no narrative or narrator to convey events as they happen; we learn of events long afterwards, through the private communications between confidants.

The effects on the reader are remarkable and disconcerting. Instead of watching events through the eyes of a narrator or third party speaker, we are thrown into the maelstrom of emotions, prejudices, and disputed facts. Instead of witnessing cool exchanges and the parade of manners that we might expect in a period novel, we read passionate and sometimes desperate reactionary letters addressed to private friends. We have full access to the characters’ private responses and impressions, but are denied the ability to witness and interpret events for ourselves. This refuses the reader the sense of what really happened, a sense that we are accustomed to when reading a novel with a narrator and a clearly defined series of events; in Lady Susan, we can only access a second hand information. Each character possesses their version of reality and we can only synthesize from the various accounts. As readers, we have a birds-eye view in the sense that we can read everyone’s letters (not just our close friends’), but we are still placed among the members of society, relying on individual perceptions, concerns, and gossip to give us an impression of reality.

By formatting her story in this way, Austen recreates a real-life scenario for her readers, placing us among the members of society instead of giving us a 3rd person perspective that does not exist outside of novels or films. She makes the point that in actual society, individual perception is the guiding force, not an objective view of events. We do not witness actual events, but we do experience first-hand how information is transmitted in a society where communication is limited to in-person conversations and letters. When Whit Stillman translated the story from letter to film, he was forced to introduce the perspective that Austen specifically denies us: the narrator, the all-seeing eye, the camera. He introduces an external view of events, allowing the reader to witness events as they happen, and synthesizing the varied viewpoints into a fluid narrative. This necessary change in format damages the experiential quality of Austen’s letters, but Stillman expertly manages to retain the spirit of the book by converting many of the epistolary exchanges into in-person conversations, and creating a new ending that conveyed the sentiment of Austen’s conclusion in an entirely new way.

Stillman first had to decide how he was going to synthesize the events given in the book into scenes that both showed what happened, and how it affected individual characters. He achieved this effect by using quick camera cuts during the event, and following up with short scenes of individual characters. For example, when Sir James Martin arrives unexpectedly at Churchill, the camera quickly flashes to Frederica running up the stairs, clearly communicating her dread at seeing Sir James. Stillman stages the scene to illustrate the conflicting viewpoints, with Lady Susan and Sir James standing together, the Vernons standing facing them, and the camera switching between the two couples, clearly conveying separation. Stillman also chooses to exaggerate Sir James Martin’s ridiculous nature, thereby leading the viewer into the same conclusions about Sir James as the relevant letters. Stillman immediately follows this event, and every event in the film, with private scenes that directly translate Austen’s letters, either by having the characters read letters allowed, or having the characters make a quick visit to one another. These quick scene changes—punctuated by period music—maintain the episodic focus of the book, with each section of the movie centering on an event that the characters then react to. This format, which includes many direct quotes from the book, leads the viewer into the same emotional and factual impressions given by the letters.

Stillman does choose to make one huge change in the events given in the book: he chooses to show Frederica’s wedding, which the book only implies as a future event, and he chooses to imply that Lady Susan’s marriage to Sir James Martin was only a necessary response to becoming pregnant with (presumably) Lord Mannering’s child. The book, for its conclusion, notably departs from its epistolary form for just the last few pages. Catherine Vernon—speaking, ostensibly, as the implied hero of the book, having continually stood in opposition to Lady Susan and eventually getting her way in all things—addresses the reader, summarizing her successful efforts to get Frederica back to Churchill and her optimistic and realistic hope that Frederica would soon marry Reginald de Courcy. Lady Susan had just lost her best friend Alicia Johnson as a correspondent because Mr. Johnson forbade their ongoing conversation. She has no one to write to and has therefore lost her voice in this epistolary tale. Without her voice, Austen implies that Lady Susan has lost her manipulative power, allowing the more active efforts of Catherine Vernon to win out in the end. Stillman, without the ability to neatly and clearly achieve this same effect through film, finds an alternative way to render Lady Susan impotent: pregnancy. He inflicts her with an event that even she cannot talk her way out of, forcing her to take the only option left to her: marrying the only man whom she had no interest in marrying. Thus the fall of Lady Susan Vernon is complete in either case.

Stillman’s engaging adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan expertly preserves both the charm and the implications of the epistolary book. Faced with entirely incompatible formats, he was able to isolate the elements that carried Austen’s meaning and translate them to the screen. Stillman’s manipulation of his chosen medium and his audience would make the woman herself quite proud.  

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