We went to Afternoon Tea. And you know what that means. We snacked. We sipped. We wished we were friends with Gretchen. And we swooned over dresses. This month found us watching Love and Friendship, an underseen 2016 gem that AM will insist she had never heard of, despite it being an entry on Brooke’s Top Ten list. It was #9, by the way, and it is utterly delightful. And so, we’re going to indulge in what amounts to an installment of Required Viewing where we talk more about dresses than anything else.
Tell us, AM, what did you think of Lady Susan’s (Kate Beckinsale) mission to find a man for herself (and one for her daughter) and the trail of sick burns she left in her wake?
A: Jane Austen stories, as we both know, are filled with subtle burns. Lady Susan is not subtle. She’s a freight train of sick burns and snark, and I loved every minute of it. Beckinsale is so so delightful to watch, as are the cadre of bewildered hosts and neighbors reacting to her wonderful snark.
Before we talk about the clothes (I know, I know), let’s make sure I understand what this story was about. Lady Susan is a widow and also, her daughter is of marriageable age. It seems that Lady Susan has fallen for Reginald DeCourcy, but we later come to understand that she perhaps had him in mind for her daughter all along? Lady Susan ends up with the rich idiot (sorry, he is), but maneuvers her main sidepiece to live with them with no one but the sidepiece’s ex-wife calling foul. If you ask me, it seems all of her machinations fall perfectly into place, but am I missing anything?
B: You have absolutely nailed the broad strokes. Allow me to add a bit of color commentary. The aforementioned Reginald DeCourcy is Susan’s deceased husband’s brother’s wife’s brother. Yes, I’m well aware there’s an easier way to say that, and I know it (he’s her sister-in-law’s brother), but it brings me such joy to imagine you working the former out, dear readers.
Anyway. Young DeCourcy is quite handsome and the heir to rather a considerable fortune, so Susan’s friend, Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) advises that he should be the man for her. But Susan seems to sense, as you suggest AM, that she might have her own heart’s desire (Lord Manwaring) as well as all sorts of money and an amusing husband who is so daft as to be VERY permissive. You called him the rich idiot (that was apt), but for clarity’s sake, let’s note here that his name is Sir James Martin. The one area where Lady Susan isn’t extraordinarily successful is in losing contact with her friend, Alicia. That connection is arguably the only genuine one she has in the whole story and is severed by Alicia’s husband, who takes the side of the slighted Lady Manwaring, his former ward. Meanwhile, her daughter is wed to Reginald, who truly loves her, so her future is insured in any number of ways. It’s all really rather brilliantly pulled off, other than the ugliness with the Johnsons.
Alright, now that we’re up-to-date with the comings-and-goings and the ins-and-outs, let’s get down to the important stuff. Of all the men-folk Susan et al entertain as prospects in this picture, which one would you pick for your own? And do tell us why.
A: I mean, Reginald is clearly the prize here. Rich and handsome and young? Triple threat. I found him quite cute. Would choose. Which one do you want?
What is the ugliness with the Johnsons? Is that what kicks off the whole thing? Or is that a reference to Alicia? Forgive me for not following the Austenian politics…
I’d agree that the connection Susan and Alicia have is the only real friendship in this film. I don’t even think Susan and her daughter have much of a relationship outside of the formal mother-daughter bond. I get the impression that Frederica spends much of her time at boarding school or with relations, and probably doesn’t even know her mom that well. Thoughts on this? This was so common I believe amongst the British and the rich, but I can’t imagine having no relationship with my closest blood relative.
B: Girl, you know I am also all about Reginald. Not only is he a triple threat, his family seems to actually like each other. I would call the inciting action for this whole thing the ugliness with Lady Manwaring. The ugliness with the Johnsons is a reference to Alicia’s fate, but it’s definitely not too far off of the whole Manwaring affair, so you can be forgiven for your uncertainty.
I definitely agree with you that Lady Susan is not an Austenian mother who is particularly maternal. She’s great at social maneuvers, but her daughter is so unlike her that the pair just don’t rub along together all that naturally. Like you, I cannot imagine that situation for myself, but I dare say the tight-knit DeCourcys are more the exception than the rule in that era.
Alright, enough of this pretext of analyzing the social commentary of the film. I’ve no doubt we’ll come back to it, but let’s talk about the dresses for a bit.
A: I think I follow the family drama, but as you hinted, it largely doesn’t matter because as per the usual in an Austen story, we end with a wedding and everyone lives happily ever after. Let us talk clothing now!
Lady Susan certainly doesn’t quite dress the part of grieving widow, with her vivid colors and opulent hats. And why should she? She knows that we all know she’s not really grieving, but in a society with such stringent rule about husbands dying and how women should react, she certainly is bucking the rules.
I remember a line from Gone with the Wind when Scarlett is widowed for the first time at age 16. Of course, I don’t have it memorized, but it was something about shuttering women away for the foreseeable future when their husbands pass away. It’s slightly different with Lady Susan, but also exactly the same. Young women were expected to wear all black, stop dancing and pretend like they were dead as well when their husbands met an untimely end. This makes sense when there was genuine love between the couple, but in a society where love was really not the object of marriage, I can only imagine how stifling that must have been. So good on Susan for doing her and seeming not to care about the rules. She’s crafty enough not to pay for her crime, and that’s probably my favorite thing about her.
Brooke, what thoughts do you have on mourning culture, and do you have a favorite look from the film?
B: I remember that moment from Gone with the Wind as well, and I have thought of it many times in the intervening years. I am fully on Scarlett’s side here. What’s the point in losing what amounts to a second life in the name of propriety? If there’s truly love in the marriage, the widowed bride doesn’t need any help feeling her grief. It’s cruel to force a public performance of acceptable grief and I won’t have any of it. I remember practically swooning when Rhett asked Scarlett to dance and damn the rules. It was unbearably romantic of him to use his maleness to give her a kind of permission to live again. Of course, it was a scandal, but dammit if it wasn’t a moment of such powerful emotion that I still feel it years later. But, this isn’t about Scarlett. It’s about Lady Susan, who never needed any help doing her own thing. And who wears one of the most magnificent rosters of dresses we’ve yet seen.
Let’s get into some of the frocks on display here. And not just Lady Susan’s! Alicia Johnson and Catherine DeCourcy Vernon get some stunners as well.
Because I am who I am, it’s no contest that my favorite dress in this picture is Lady Susan’s deep purple dress. It’s unapologetically luxurious and bold. However, there is a part of me that also pines for Catherine’s understated pale green ensemble. It has subtle accents and feels rather timeless, but I think my favorite feature is the sort of lacy tulle that drapes from the back shoulders up to the front of the chest. And though her life is a bummer, there’s something rather enchanting about the blue and gold gown that Alicia Johnson wears while everything is falling apart around her. I think it’s the vertical stripes on the bodice that took me by surprise during the close shots, somehow they feel exceedingly cutting edge for a period piece look.
AM, do you think you could get on board with wearing so many hats? And whose wardrobe would you raid?
A: I would wear all of the hats, since I don’t really wear any hats as a modern lady. I have to stick with the obvious choice here too, and go with Lady Susan’s closet. For all of the reasons stated above, although my coloring is closer to Chloë Sevigny’s and I don’t know if I would be able to pull off the dark purples.
Obviously, next we should discuss the fabulous mansions in which the story take place, which are on-par with the best Austen adaptation, and perhaps better. It’s borrowed luxury for Lady Susan and her daughter, but that doesn’t seem to really faze her or anyone. It’s another interesting thing about this society. Yes, you have to be locked up and dressed all in black when your husband dies, but it seems like if you have rich friends, you can live with them and mooch off of them indefinitely? That’s actually not the worst deal. Then you add some cute Brits in the mix like Reginald? I’m there for it. Brooke, any thoughts on the setting or any additional, final thoughts on this film? I do see why this made it into your Top of 2016 list, it’s quite the delightful romp.
B: It’s been pretty well documented to this point, but I’ll say it again. The British countryside is all I want in my life. So the home of the Vernons (which comes complete with frequent visits from Reginald) is absolutely my jam. Lady Susan seems not to agree with me on this, as she laments the need to leave London. But I’d take the DeCourcy Mansion or the Vernon Estate over anything we see in London 100 percent of the time. And it is quite a fascinating thought that being good company could be a profession for someone in this era. For an eternal single like yours truly, that’s comforting.
I like to think that my couple friends would be content to have me bounce between them every few months, bringing nothing but comic relief and a certain kind of charm to the goings-on. We’ve discussed many times that we would be great at living the lifestyle of the landed gentry or idle rich, and I think this scenario proves it most of all. We can make an event out of the simplest gathering, and with unlimited time and resources, we could have some epic fetes.
A final question: If we had a huge house and pretty dresses and lots of time, what kind of party would you plan? I think I’d go for a masquerade.
A: I’m imagining some sort of Life & Death Brigade party, minus the death-defying stunts. A glamping party in the woods next to the fab mansion would be super fun. I also could do a laid-back PJ night with games and snacks. Charcuterie is delicious in our modest homes, so I’m thinking the cheese quality level for mansion-dwellers is even better. And of course, Brooke, in our 40-room manse? You’re always welcome to a wing!
B: I’m honored. I’ll make sure to have the kitchens get the best cheese assortments of all ready for whenever you might pay my portion of the estate a visit.
Next time our annual scary-adjacent selection takes center stage. We’re getting our Anne Rice fix with Interview with the Vampire.