A Jane Austen Expert on 'Love and Friendship' and How You Can Party Like It's 1799 in the Bay Area

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The comediennes of the modern era certainly have a lot to thank Jane Austen for. While her humor is much milder than the Schumers and Dunhams of this modern era, Austen was witty before women showing off their funny bone was socially acceptable. Her undeniable mark on popular culture has inspired a slew of adaptations, from everyone’s favorite '90s teen flick, Clueless, to the deplorably tasteless Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. With the offensiveness of the latter still lingering on our palettes, the latest Austen film adaptation, Love and Friendship, could not have arrived at a better time.

Based on one of Austen’s lesser-known works, the early epistolary novella, Lady Susan, tells the tale of an unscrupulous, newly widowed woman and her quest to marry off her lackluster daughter to a wealthy man and to bag an even richer husband for herself. Written as a series of letters, some have argued that this is perhaps Austen’s wittiest work, which would explain why audiences and critics have been so pleased with the film adaptation.

Directed by Whit Stillman, Love and Friendship finds Kate Beckinsale portraying the beguiling Lady Susan Vernon with her confidante, Alicia Johnson, played by Chloë Sevigny (for those who may have forgotten, Chloë and Kate were also paired up in Stillman’s 1998 cult classic The Last Days of Disco). Without delving too much into the plot, Beckinsale delivers an exquisite performance that captures the charmingly appalling nature of Lady Susan, serving up memorable line after memorable line – my personal favorite being Susan’s description of Alicia’s husband as “too old to be governed and too young to die.” It is this wit that takes center stage in the film and will leave theater-goers with an appreciation of the subtlety of Austen’s humor that is rarely found in modern times.

For Austen aficionados, the film is obviously a must see and will probably spit them out of the theater wishing they could find the essence of Austen in the real world. To figure out how to do that best, we caught up with the Coordinator of the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Northern California Region, Danine Cozzens, for her insights into the latest film and beyond.


KQED Pop: What characteristics of Jane Austen's writing do you think give it such timeless appeal for the young and old alike? 

Danine Cozzens: Jane Austen saw into the truth of the human heart. What truly drives character, and causes us to make decisions that may not have the best outcome? You can read the novels over and over and see this happen anew each time. The characters, their motivations, all the fine points the narrator's voice was telling you point blank were there all along, even while you were captivated by the unfolding plot line. 

As the English countryside and its estates are several thousand miles in distance from our beloved Bay Area, which locales and establishments would you recommend for an Austen-inspired sojourn? 

We are fortunate to have some grand estates in the Bay Area that are open to the public, with the scale and elegance of a Georgian manor house. You can't stay there, but do take a day trip to Filoli (near Woodside). Although built in 1915, it was modeled on a Georgian estate in Ireland, and has the grand expanse of gardens and woodlands of an English estate. If you can get into Carolands, which has very limited hours, it is more French but Mr. Darcy would have felt quite at home there.

Villa Montalvo (near Saratoga) is Mediterranean in style, but has an excellent Regency-style "folly" -- a charming wedding cake of a pavilion -- at the bottom of the great lawn. The Pelican Inn in Muir Beach replicates an English coaching inn. The Berkeley City Club provided a gracious site for an afternoon ball. All worth a visit.

Each fall, our friends in Oregon take over the Oregon Caves Chateau, a small rustic lodge from the 1930s, for a "great house" weekend. We dress in Regency era attire and enjoy various period activities. Another memorable experience has been sailing on the tall ships (Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain) on their semi-annual tour, with everyone -- passengers and crew -- in costume. And of course teas, balls, and picnics are held in many places. The Los Angeles Jane Austen Evening sells out every year.

Though a fantastic piece of literature, Lady Susan is one of Jane's lesser-known works. Out of her novels that haven't received a worthy film adaptation, which would you be most excited to see produced (or reproduced) and why? 

Personally, I'd vote for Mansfield Park, because the anachronisms and plot alterations set my teeth on edge. I'm fine with adaptations like Clueless or Bride and Prejudice, but when you are playing it straight, please do not introduce nonsensical plot changes and impossible things which make no sense, like tiered wedding cakes in a world where baking powder had not yet been invented. Don't turn Fanny's ball into a picnic.

What scene in Love and Friendship are you most excited for viewers to watch brought to the screen? 

This may sound odd, but what blew me away was the attention to detail in all the costumes. No skimping on horses and carriages, either. The costumes on the servants -- the starched caps and fichus on the maids, the livery and wigs on the footmen -- just as much care was taken with them as with the principal actors. And the working people underfoot, laying paving stones in their filthy smocks -- it was transporting to see the entire screen come alive.

I loved the scene in which Sir Reginald De Courcy is reading a letter aloud to Lady De Courcy. Letter writing was such a key part of life for the leisured class; it was the social media of the day. I thought that scene, with the handwriting projected over the screen, conveyed how intense letters were at the time. Quite fitting, since Lady Susan was constructed as a series of letters.



Love and Friendship is out now in select theaters. If you would like more information on the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Northern California Region, please visit jasnanorcal.org.