Friday, June 3, 2016

Mail Call: Epistolary Novels

Love and Friendship: The Poster

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49201388

“I congratulate you and Mr. Vernon on being about to receive into your family the most accomplished coquette in England."
Lady Susan Letter IV, Mr. De Courcy to Mrs. Vernon

Last week, several local Janeites had the opportunity to see Love and Friendship at the Little Theater. Love and Friendship is, of course, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. As several of us went in Regency dress, the occasion was a gala affair, although I am still bemused by how little note arises when half a dozen people in Regency garb appear in a Rochester restaurant or coffee shop.

JASNA and Friends attend Love and Friendship at the Little Theater.

No movie can ever be perfect Austen, but Love and Friendship comes close. Kate Beckinsale delightfully captures the deliciously despicable character of Lady Susan while Chloe Sevigny is the perfect ally as Alicia Johnson, Lady Susan’s equally scheming friend. On one occasion, as the two friends meet and discuss their difficulties with the men in their lives, Lady Susan describes Alicia's poor choice of a husband as “too old to be governed and too young to die.” The actual quote from one of Lady Susan’s letters to Alicia is:

“My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die” Lady Susan letter 29, Lady Susan Vernon to Mrs. Johnson.

Close enough!

One of the obvious problems Stillman has with Lady Susan is in converting a novel that consists entirely of letters into a series of movie sequences. In some ways Jane Austen faced a similar problem. It is widely believed that Jane Austen originally wrote Sense and Sensibility as an epistolary novel. Many believe Pride and Prejudice also originated this way. Both novels would have needed major revisions to reach their final form.

As is well known, there are no drafts of Austen’s early work on these novels, and the evidence for the epistolary origins of both novels must come from evidence internal to the novels. The best review of this evidence I have found is an article in Persuasions by Deborah Knuth Klenck entitled "Fun and Speculation: Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice as Revisions" (1). The article is fun, and the author readily admits that everything about early versions of these novels must be speculation. Three examples from the article will serve to demonstrate the kind of evidence available to suggest an epistolary origin.

First, Knuth Klenck notes that the narrator often summarizes letters such as this letter from Sir John Middleton offering his cottage to the Dashwoods:

"The letter was . . . written in the true spirit of friendly accommodation. He understood that she was in need of a dwelling, and though the house he now offered her was merely a cottage, he assured her that everything should be done to it which she might think necessary, if the situation pleased her. He earnestly pressed her, after giving the particulars of the house and garden, to come with her daughters to Barton Park, the place of his own residence. . . . He seemed really anxious to accommodate them, and the whole of his letter was written in so friendly a style as could not fail of giving pleasure to his cousin. . . . " Sense and Sensibility ch. 4 as quoted in Knuth Klenck (1).

Knuth Klenck suggests that the summary offers a veritable transcription of the letter, thus suggesting its origin as a real letter in an epistolary novel.

Next, Knuth Klenck details places where a conversation in the book could just as easily have been a series of letters. For this, she suggests the exchange between John and Fanny Dashwood where they whittle down the assistance John should feel obligated to provide the Dashwoods. “An epistolary rendition of the selfish minuet between the competing avarice of the John Dashwoods that nearly opens Sense and Sensibility can easily be imagined.” (Knuth Klenck p. 43).

Finally, Knuth Klenck suggests something that might be present in Pride and Prejudice but missing in Sense and Sensibility. This is the presence of a mentor for Elizabeth and Elinor. “Evidence from other novels, notably Persuasion, shows that an Austen heroine, often lacking a sensible mother—or any mother at all—looks to a woman her mother’s age…” (Knuth Klenck p. 45). For Elizabeth, this would be Aunt Gardiner. For Elinor, Knuth Klenck suggests that “… there must have been a logical correspondent to collude with Elinor in that satire [of sensibility]. And to whom could Elinor have vented her strictures on the mismatched pastimes of Sir John and Lady Middleton or on the Miss Steeles’ sycophancy?” (Knuth Klenck p. 44). This mentor has been written out of the revised version of Sense and Sensibility. Only an echo remains in Elinor’s feelings as they move to the cottage.

“Elinor’s happiness was not so great. Her heart was not so much at ease, nor her satisfaction in their amusements so pure. They afforded her no companion that could make amends for what she had left behind, nor that could teach her to think of Norland with less regret than ever. Neither Lady Middleton nor Mrs. Jennings could supply to her the conversation she missed; although the latter was an everlasting talker. . . .”. (Knuth Klenck p. 45).

Perhaps, suggests Knuth Klenck, the missing companion would have been the letter-writing mentor.

There's much more in the paper, but, alas, it is all speculation, although it is fun. As I sit here scratching off a lottery ticket I was given as a birthday present, I can only feel that I have a better chance of winning the lottery than understanding how Jane Austen originally wrote her novels. 

1. Deborah J. Knuth Klenck, “Fun and Speculation: Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice as Revisions”, Persuasions, No. 27, 2005, http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number27/klenck.pdf

Post Script: I did win $2.

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