We are not born into a savage wilderness but into a beautiful mansion of the Lord that the Lord and those who have gone before us have built. We must avoid neglecting this mansion but rather glorify and preserve it—as we should all of the Lord’s Creation.
Whit Stillman, in the novel version of his film, Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated, has Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica visit a church at a key moment in the plot. This happens in the film too, but the novel supplies us with some extra information that the film does not.
As Frederica speaks there to the young curate, Thomas Edward Braddock, he makes some interesting remarks to her, both in the film and in the book, that she finds comforting. But only in the book do we learn that the following remarks cause Frederica briefly to entertain in her imagination the notion of a marriage with Braddock, because they reveal him to be “a young man who might have been a truly sympathetic companion over a long life”:
We are not born into a savage wilderness but into a beautiful mansion of the Lord that the Lord and those who have gone before us have built. We must avoid neglecting this mansion but rather glorify and preserve it—as we should all of the Lord’s Creation. The superb Baumgarten has outlined the aesthetic trinity as ‘Truth,’ ‘Beauty,’ and ‘Good.’ ‘Truth’ is the perfect perceived by reason; ‘Beauty’ by the senses; and the ‘Good’ by moral will (p.99).
What significance are we to find in this? First and foremost, I think we must take this speech as a hilarious little bit of pedantry being offered by the curate. The pretentious observation about “the superb Baumgarten” and his “aesthetic trinity” is a total non sequitur coming after the sentence that precedes it. On its own, that is enough to perfectly satirize the common habit of some bookish members of the clergy to speak in this disconnected way.
But the observation in the first sentence, about how we are all born “into a beautiful mansion of the Lord,” given the surrounding context of the film, is quite arresting. To my ear, it seems to suggest a metaphor concerning the familiar Austenian theme of the institution of marriage. In other words, the sacrament of matrimony, and all the families linked by it, is the metaphorical “house” that “those who have gone before us have built.”
In making this connection, I also point to the fact that one of the meanings of “house” in English is a family or “family lineage.” In one sense, then, this remark of the curate’s could be taken as reinforcing the argument Lady Susan makes to Frederica about her need to honor her parents. That is, Frederica might be said to be obligated to listen to her mother about whom to marry, in order to “glorify and preserve” her family’s “house.”
The use of the word “mansion” is a nice touch by Mr. Stillman, in that it also captures Lady Susan’s crass interest in securing material comfort for her family by means of her various marriage schemes. Of course, “mansion” is also immediately associated with Churchill, the estate in Surrey of Charles and Catherine Vernon, which supplies the proximate physical context for these metaphorical remarks about family.
While the curate exhorts Frederica to “avoid neglecting this mansion,” he also exhorts her in general to recognize that “one should apply this sentiment of Gratitude and Loyalty to every aspect of our lives.” Again, while I think the form of these remarks is meant to be comical, in that they are being delivered by an earnest and idealistic young clergyman, I do think that their content is nonetheless serious. The wider theme of the film seems to concern whether happiness is won through diabolically clever machinations (like those of Lady Susan) or rather through sincere “Gratitude and Loyalty.”
In “What is Art?” (1897), it is interesting to note how Tolstoy criticized Baumgarten’s aesthetic trinity. However, Mr. Stillman seems to be siding with Baumgarten, because of the artistic construction of his own plot. My conjecture in this regard is made due to the pattern I see in the story’s structure, both as it occurs in the film and in the novel. In making this conjecture, I am taking, as a deliberate artistic clue planted by the author, the hilarious sentence about “the superb Baumarten.”
Because it is such a non sequitur, it stands out for our attention. Either we can laugh at it as a young curate merely aping erudition, or we can also take it as a clue to the plot’s deeper aesthetic principles. I believe we should do both, because it performs both functions. Like Frederica, we can fall in love with the curate’s ideas, as I believe the author invites us to do, through a kind of indirection, by placing the infatuation within Frederica’s mind, with his intention being for us to imitate her attraction to this aesthetic philosophy. In other words, with his story, Mr. Stillman is offering his sensibilities as those of a “truly sympathetic companion.”
I can outline the case for my conjecture by outlining the plot structure in terms of Truth, Beauty, and Good. The first three instances involve Lady Susan. Together, they supply examples of Truth, Beauty, and Good that amount to deceptive simulations of each one of these three transcendentals. The final three instances, however, are not counterfeits; they involve Reginald DeCourcy and Frederica. Together they supply examples of Truth, Beauty, and Good that are in fact genuine.
The first un-Truth is when Reginald initially meets Lady Susan and confronts her by way of an allusion to her infamy: “Your reputation as an ornament to our society” (p.25). The skilled manner in which she rebuffs him, by politely upbraiding him, serves to cast doubt in his mind on the truth of what has been reputed to be her character. More importantly, she has begun to inflame his desire, simply by (falsely) communicating her total disregard for him. In short, the un-Truth necessary in her pursuit of him is established at this first key plot point.
The first instance of non-Beauty is the way Lady Susan then makes her daughter Frederica appear when she arrives at Churchill. Lady Susan says she “would never represent” her daughter as being worse than she really is (p.45), but ironically this is in fact how Lady Susan operates. Lady Susan is consistently able to enhance her own beautiful appearance in the eyes of others, but at the expense of her daughter. In this light, we can savor the exquisite irony of the author when he places these words in wicked Susan’s mouth, which are funny enough on their own, but even funnier given the irony involved:
That’s the parent’s lot! We bring these delightful creatures into the world—eagerly, happily—and then before long they are spying upon and judging us, rarely favourably. Having children is our fondest wish but, in doing so, we breed our acutest critics. It is a preposterous situation—but entirely of our own making (p.51).
The first instance of the un-Good is the next plot point, where Lady Susan manipulates Reginald’s will by suggesting to him Sir James is a rival of his, thereby stoking Reginald’s passion for her. The novel also makes clear that she employs the same tactic with Sir James, manipulating his will too, by making him feel Reginald is his rival for Frederica (p.66).
However, the instances of Truth, Beauty, and Good that all occur with the next three plot points are authentic examples of the transcendentals.
The instance involving a genuine realization of Truth is when Frederica confides in Reginald about her situation and completely exposes her feelings (p.84). Her candor here is the complete opposite of Lady Susan’s lived un-Truth with respect to the opposite sex. Frederica’s exhibition of truth here is virtuous. It makes her genuinely attractive to Reginald, on the basis of her virtue.
The instance involving a genuine realization of the Good happens at the moment of “undeception” (to use C.S. Lewis’ apposite term, from his essay, “A Note on Jane Austen”) where Lady Lucy Manwaring discloses a startling revelation about Lady Susan to Reginald. A revelation of truth is indeed involved here, but because the issue is not settled (since Lady Susan tries to gaslight Reginald in a brilliant follow-up scene that is one of Kate Beckinsale’s finest moments in the film) the more important thing to notice is Reginald’s response to the accusation; namely, he reveals that he has a good will. He is a man of virtue, who is genuinely shocked, because he desires only to will the Good. This, I would suggest, is the quality that makes him genuinely attractive, in turn, to Frederica.
Finally, the instance involving a genuine realization of Beauty happens at the very end of the film, where Frederica sings the song “Love Will Find Out the Way,” and also when Reginald praises her with his poem. Frederica appears genuinely beautiful here. The apotheosis is well prepared for by many of the preceding scenes, which have foreshadowed how her singing ability is to be viewed. In short, with a tellingly loaded literary image, Frederica is described repeatedly as our beautiful “Kentish nightingale” (pp.127, 128, 135, 148); but Lady Susan herself is tone-deaf to such poetic beauty. Her hilariously prosaic comment suggests as much: “Is this really Kent?” (p.128)
Nonetheless, setting the seal on Mr. Stillman’s subtle treatment of Truth, Beauty, and Good, at the story’s aesthetically satisfying conclusion, our lovely songbird sings:
But if she, whom Love doth honour,
Be concealed from the day
Set a thousand guards upon her,
Love will find out the way (p.150).
Accordingly, I hope that I have helped you to find your way to a greater aesthetic appreciation of this fine book and its fine film.
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