In a lecture at the 2013 Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts, the novelist and journalist Howard Jacobson addressed the sexual tension in Jane Austen’s novels, arguing that they are sexy because of what they omit and repress. He based his case, in part, on a scene in Persuasion (1818), Austen’s masterpiece of thwarted desire and longing, when Captain Wentworth helps Anne Elliott into a carriage. Jacobson asks:
Is Anne Elliott’s agitation, on being helped into the carriage by Captain Wentworth, any less materially present to us, is her disarrangement any less sensually felt, because there’s no mention of where Wentworth puts his hands in relation to her bra strap? Isn’t the fact that he puts his hands on her at all, that “he had placed her there” – sufficiently electrifying to explain Anne Elliot’s perturbation? Don’t be misled by the decorousness of the language. If the spirit is perturbed, so is the flesh.
For Jacobson, putting sexual desire into words effectively kills it. Rather than suggesting that Austen wasn’t more explicit about it because she didn’t know anything about it first hand, Jacobson points to this discretion as a deliberate artistic choice, reminding us that “Just because Anne Elliot’s skin is not described as ‘buzzing with excitement’, doesn’t mean it isn’t.”
There’s a similar buzz throughout much of Austen’s work where sex is powerfully present through its absence. There may be little of it actually taking place on the carefully manicured pages, but the desire for it generates heat, prolonged yearnings manifest in disruptive behaviour, attachments are formed despite characters’ better judgments. As well as the tension between Anne and Wentworth, you see this disordering of temperaments take place, most memorably, between Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (1813) and between Marianne and Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility (1811).
In Austen’s novella, Lady Susan (first written around 1794 but published posthumously in 1871), sexual desire has an ordering effect. Like all of Austen’s works, Lady Susan is about courtship and marriage, but it is also very much about sex. And in Whit Stillman’s delicious adaptation (here entitled Love & Friendship, after an unrelated juvenile short story by Austen), sex is arguably the major ordering cog in the narrative, although much of it happens, once again, without being expressly worded.
Love & Friendship begins with the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), as she is ejected from the Manwaring estate, where she has been found in an indiscretion with the married Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin). Manwaring is described, in amusing title cards, as “a divinely attractive man.” Penniless and effectively homeless, Susan descends on Churchill, the home of her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards), and his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell). Her reputation as “the most determined and accomplished flirt in England” precedes her.
Before too long, Lady Susan is enacting a plan to secure husbands for her teenage daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), and for herself. Two suitors present themselves – the wealthy but dumb, Sir James Martin (a scene-stealing Tom Bennett) for Frederica, and Catherine’s handsome brother, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) for herself. Dialogue is barbed. Interiors are velvety and ornate. Delightful hijinks ensue (it’s witty and elegant; I recommend watching with a very dry martini, if you can). Affections are manipulated, secured, and then transferred.
Stillman teases us with the precise purpose of Lady Susan’s plan, which isn’t just to marry a man of means. There are other desires thrashing around inside her corsets. If an argument can be mounted to say that most Austen heroines are sexually frustrated, Lady Susan rejects this characterisation – she takes matters into her own hands and sets out to alleviate it. Love & Friendship places Lady Susan’s personal agenda for sexual fulfilment at the fore, but only shows us the half of it.
The indiscretion with Manwaring, which sets the narrative in motion, is clearly more amorous than the image of Lady Susan as a skilled flirt suggests, and it continues as a clandestine quest. Susan’s many tête-à-tête with her American confidante, Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), take place in part on screen, but also, we assume, away from our eyes, in keeping with the discretionary space provided by the private correspondence between them that shapes Austen’s novella (it is written exclusively in letters). Letter writing enables Susan’s machinations to be secretive. Stillman highlights these traces of desire, reading, effectively, between the lines to flesh out the narrative. Whatever is going on between Susan and Manwaring must unfold behind the scenes, because, as Susan says, “A lady never reveals her tactics.” That Lord Manwaring doesn’t say a single word during the entire film only strengthens this view.
Lady Susan is an Austen protagonist who steers her own destiny. Hers is a world governed by rules that seek to limit her freedoms, yet she is clearly of the view that these rules are made to be broken. She scandalously and unapologetically pursues (then discards) a younger man, fully aware of her charms, and that at all times, she is the smartest person, woman or man, in the room. Hers are very practical tactics, dependent on a public performance balanced at the very precipice of politesse. She subverts her society from within, remaking the world to fit her purposes. As she exclaims, “Facts are horrid things!” Her only options for self-fulfilment are hidden agendas and deceit.
By the end of Love & Friendship, Susan has secured a husband and financial security in the form of Sir James, as well as a divinely attractive lover, Manwaring, and with him, her own sexual satisfaction. There is little talk of love, and we still don’t see the sex, but Love & Friendship is the raciest of Austen adaptations, drawn from a template almost completely devoid of romanticism, structured around one woman’s pursuit of carnal pleasure. Importantly, Lady Susan is liberated without punishment. She is the mistress of her own life – one man, she realises, can’t provide both money and orgasms; her genius lies in her ability to find a way, within the confines of her world, to have both.