Foes & Families: Love & Friendship, Lady Susan, and How Jane Austen’s Victorian Family Built a Squeaky-Clean Celebrity Brand

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To talk about the 2016 film Love & Friendship we have to tell the story of Lady Susan, the Jane Austen novella it’s based off of. At the time of Austen’s death, this early work was both unpublished and untitled. Thus changing the name for the film seems fair enough, though exchanging Lady Susan for Love & Friendship, already the posthumously-assigned title of an entirely different piece of Austen’s juvenilia is really confusing. The marketing team probably did it to get that familiar ‘Noun & Noun’ Austen Title Formula on the posters. According to Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman’s excellent survey of the history of Austen reception, this was already a noted, copied characteristic of her work in 1821, only four years after her death.

The exact period of Lady Susan’s composition remains a matter of some debate. William Baker’s Critical Companion to Jane Austen: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work proposes drafting dates ranging from between 1795 to 1805, as well as providing an incredibly useful synopsis of major critical readings of the novella. What we can know definitively is that Lady Susan was first published in 1871, when it acquired its current title, by Jane’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, “as an appendix to the second edition of his A Memoir of Jane Austen”. (p. 124)

The story’s publication date and circumstances render it in some ways as much a Victorian text as a Georgian one. Harman observes that “Jane Austen’s novels were not essential reading for the high Victorians, and certainly were not ‘beloved’. She had become a hand forgotten niche writer[.] … In the fifty-two years between her death and the publication of the first biography in 1870, only six essays were published on the subject of Jane Austen and she was hardly mentioned in the public sphere.” Austen did however enjoy the high esteem of a few critics, writers and fans: ironically her high Victorian ‘fandom’ was somewhat comparable in shape to that enjoyed by Georgette Heyer, the Austen imitator par excellance, today. These fans sometimes came into contact with the Austen family, Austen-Leigh’s memoir represents the head of the family’s attempt to settle the “vexed question between the Austens and the Public”, and as Harman makes clear, the Austens were interested in defending the propriety and status of their family. Austen-Leigh’s account talks up his aunt’s womanly virtues because he was a clergyman, and the sermon was his most familiar form, but it is also born of class anxiety and changing notions of celebrity and privacy.

As Marina Cano-López points out in her very readable article “The Outlandish Jane: Austen and Female Identity in Victorian Women’s Magazines” (Victorian Periodicals Review, Volume 47, Number 2, Summer 2014,pp. 255-273)):

Austen-Leigh published this account of his aunt’s life based on his early recollections and the testimonies of other family members. The book was an immediate success, and a second edition was published in 1871. In his Memoir, Austen-Leigh creates a saccharine version of his aunt as a model of perfect domesticity whose “sweetness of temper never failed” and whose “life had been passed in the performance of home duties, and the cultivation of domestic affections.

This characterization was soon echoed in the Times: “There was about her [Austen] nothing restless or vehement; her chief trait was that domesticity which secured her happiness and content.” This ideology of domesticity, Boardman reminds us, was a central part of middle-class Victorian life: women were expected to regulate the household while men braved the world of commerce and provided for the family. Thus, as Boardman puts it, domesticity “helped form a cohesive identity, [as]the family represented a secure productive and reproductive unit.” […] Austen-Leigh’s Memoir was one of the few available sources of information on Austen’s life. The book could be endorsed, sidelined, or questioned, but it could not be ignored.” The popular biography created something of a cult around ‘Divine Jane’, which has evolved into in the author’s modern ‘tourist site and tote bag’ popularity.

The Jane Austen Centre gift shop via janeausten.co.uk

Whatever Austen-Leigh’s motives, his account ultimately promotes a conservative, domestic, womanly reception of Austen. He recuperated her by defanging her. This undercut the inherent impropriety of Austen’s writing-while-female and the danger her mocking irony posed. As Margaret Atwood famously observed, “[m]en are afraid that women will laugh at them.” They are very, very afraid of it, and need a figure like Austen-Leigh (retroactively figuring in a masculine custodial role for his departed female relation) to come along and assure them that one the most astute satirists ever to skewer a character wasn’t mocking actually them, or indeed anyone. Not really, not Jane. Due to being out of copyright, Austen-Leigh’s Memoir is now printed by a variety of discount publishers in lieu of a more rigorous, still-copyrighted biography such as Harman’s. Because of this easy availability you can’t throw a rock in Bath without breaking a window and hitting a copy inside a shop. Austen-Leigh’s Memoir is still both omnipresent and presented as though it’s authoritative.

Essentially Austen-Leigh wrote, and sold abundantly, a whitewashing hagiography that attempted to render his aunt unthreatening, unambitious, unworldly (wholly untravelled, totally ignorant of contemporary issues affecting the masculine public sphere), and in her own person, humorless and uncritical. These efforts fly in the face of both her literary production and the bare facts of her life. Denying her novels’ tempered cynicism (or judgment) and their keen awareness of the manifold effects of class on social interaction is too stupid to contemplate. On the biographical front, Jane’s friendship with her cousin Eliza, who had lived in India, England and France, and whose surviving correspondence describes her personal experiences of French court life and the Reign of Terror, to which she lost her husband, can hardly have left Jane prelapsarian. And unless Jane literally never listened to a word her sailor brothers spoke, she probably had a good idea what the Napoleonic wars were all about. These scattered facts aside, in asking us to believe that someone as obviously intelligent and observant as Jane Austen remained stubbornly clueless about the world as it affected her personally, Austen-Leigh is demanding rather a lot.

The potential for monetary gain from something like Austen-Leigh’s Memoir aside, a family’s truths and memories and public, scholarly and readerly truths often clash, and almost must come into conflict, given the differences in their aims. Various ideas of a person are cultivated to serve different needs. The first-hand memory of a friend or relation is fragile, partial and decays. The Austens wanted or needed to remember their relation, who so informed their own living legacy, in a certain light, and thus sought to control her public memory. Even if the Jane the remaining Austens were determined to promote in 1871 didn’t quite harmonize with what we think might most accurately portray and best serve her literary reputation, we can understand the impulse. Besides, a writer’s survivors might not understand what does best serve that. Or perhaps Austen-Leigh had a keener understanding than we do now of what was needed in his moment, of what would preserve her reputation through to the present, when even a star as bright as George Eliot’s glows far dimmer than it once did. Perhaps Austen needed to be what she was to Victorian readers in 1871 if she was going to survive, in the sense of a literary afterlife, to be what she is to us in 2016. Perhaps she needed a promoter like Austen-Leigh.

“Portrait of Jane Austen, from the memoir by J. E. Austen-Leigh (1798-1874). All other portraits of Austen are generally based on this, which is itself based on a sketch by Cassandra Austen.” via wikipedia

People loved ‘the Divine Jane’ without necessarily understanding why or acknowledging what was best in her, and those people evidently wanted to buy a biography with her ‘rough edges’ smoothed out, explained away, shown to be firmly captured in her books and not allowed out into the world. To an extent, such efforts to keep up appearances when presenting authors as public figures were a celebrity culture commonplace of the period. Recall Charles Dickens’ contrite public explanation of his own marital issues. Mamie and Henry Dickens would both go on to write what have been called ‘idealizing’ memoirs of their father Charles, obfuscating his own foibles and domestic irregularities, and his best friend John Forster’s landmark biography discreetly concealed the existence of Ellen Ternan, the partner Charles spent the last 12 years of his life with.

Harman points out that Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë created a female-author cult and paved the way for Divine Jane, but to my thinking Harman doesn’t do enough to acknowledge the way the intervening years prepared the reading public for Austen’s ascendency. Dickens is a particularly interesting figure to consider when contemplating the rise of Austen’s literary reputation. By 1870, the reading public was more used to reading female writers working in a variety of modes. Novelists such as George Eliot had published to great success. In addition to her watershed biography, Gaskell also published extensive fiction and journalism in Dickens’ magazines, including the social novel/romance North and South. Note that title formula and the intersection of interests. Such fiction in Dickens’ very popular news magazines was credited, but journalism and short essays didn’t have bylines. Only in 2015 did someone turn up Dickens’ office copy of the master collection of issues, in which he’d scribbled attributions in the margins. “[T]he biggest surprise from the notes is the sheer number of women who wrote anonymously for the magazine, making up as much as 40 percent of the writers. Eliza Lynn Linton […] the first female journalist in Britain to hold a salaried position—had over 100 articles published anonymously in the magazine.” As much flack as women writers get today, imagine the extent to which anonymity protected these pioneers. Without realising it, the British reading public had grown far more accustomed to reading women’s opinions on social issues, to écriture féminine.

During the lull in Austen’s reputation Dickens himself claimed not to have read her, but it’s worth noting that John Forster, for decades his closest literary collaborator, the man with so much influence over Dickens’ writing that he could save a character from death if he fancied it, was a huge fan. The publisher Bently also simultaneously handled early Austen reprints while employing the young Dickens to edit his magazine. People who liked her liked him, and Dickens, the simultaneous victim and beneficiary of a driving pathological need to be the entire reading public’s best friend, did the work of ten men to create both an appetite for writers with some of his humour or taste for social and character analysis and a perception of an author as the reader’s familiar confidant. Dickens’ serialised fiction, regular editorial addresses, annual Christmas publications and groundbreaking speaking tours alike represented fresh developments in the crafting of a public persona. When he died without a full Victorian public funeral, a bewildered and grieving crowd practically tore his Gad’s Hill home to shreds, trying to secure some mementos of the author. I don’t think it’s entirely incidental that Austen-Leigh’s Memoir came out the very year Dickens died, without even offering the public he’d fostered the conclusion of his final novel or the closure of a funeral. There was suddenly a giant, familiar-and-familial hole in the popular literary imagination, and the Divine Jane, a consoling fantasy that adapted itself to the shape of people’s need, may well have helped to plug it.

Legacies are tricky, shifting things, matters of chance rather than inevitable recognitions of undeniable talent and contribution. Virginia’s Woolf’s contrasting portrait of a deeply canny Jane Austen in Room of One’s Own is just as much of a contingent construction as Austen-Leigh’s, and just as ideologically motivated (albeit in a more contemporarily sympathetic direction). While Woolf’s Austen is infinitely richer, the character is not necessarily a more definitive reading of the biographical subject. It’s difficult to assign any of these ‘Janes’, familial or feminist, scholarly or readerly, the burden of representing some singular and ultimate truth about the person and her work.

And Jane Austen has long been saddled with the burden of representing more even than herself (or selves). According to Cano-López, British women’s magazines of the 1870s, 80s and 90s used Austen as a means of discussing female authorship and the status of women generally in ways that reified or contested Austen-Leigh’s project.

The “Jane Austen” constructed in late Victorian periodicals is an unambitious, domestic woman who inhabits the circumscribed world of the country parsonage. Yet at the same time she is a professional writer whose novels deserve serious textual analysis. Halsey argues that Austen became the professional ideal against which female writers measured themselves and were measured, but my analysis shows that she also became the yard-stick for the ordinary middle-class woman at the end of the nineteenth century.

These efforts, often careless with facts and sometimes even unafraid to be outright incorrect (one article breezily claims, falsely, that Austen had never even been to London–she was that pure, and/or confined, inexperienced, rural and uninterested in world affairs), can speak more to the personalities of the publications they appeared in and the perceived demands of their audiences (and thus their period) than they can about their titular subject.

As Cano-Lopez tells us, from “the 1870s to the 1890s, Austen was defined as a model of ideal femininity: Katie Halsey notes that over the course of the nineteenth century, Austen became a model of the respectable woman writer—and by extension, the model Victorian woman. In journals and reviews, literary women were frequently compared (or compared themselves) to Austen. Mary Russell Mitford, Harriet Martineau, and Charlotte Brontë were all haunted by the ghost of Jane Austen and tried to define themselves in relation to this paradigm.”

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Where does that leave Lady Susan, the bold, unscrupulous, somewhat Becky Sharpish anti-heroine of the novella that’s come to be called after her, who is feminine in a different, dangerous, and decidedly unrespectable mode? The novella is comprised of a series of letters, mostly from Lady Susan to, Mrs. Johnson, her friend in London, and from Lady Susan’s sister-in-law Mrs. Vernon to her own mother, Lady De Courcy. For financial reasons, some years before the action of the plot Lady Susan schemed to prevent the marriage of her husband’s brother Mr. Vernon and his now-wife. Mrs. Vernon is thus reasonably prejudiced against Lady Susan, who is publicly known to have been a negligent wife and mother and to have spent her husband’s money at an alarming rate.

Said husband is sadly recently deceased (well, it’s sad for someone, I’m sure, if not his wife). Lady Susan has lately been lodging with a couple of friends at their country house. While there, she spoiled the prospects of a young lady, made an idiotic wealthy young man she cared nothing for violently attached to her in order to foist him on her unwilling daughter (who refuses to play the game of matrimony with her mother’s flair and calculation, and must be supported somehow), and threw a wrench in her hosts’ marriage by heavily flirting and/or having it off with the handsome, charming man of the house.

Departing under a cloud, Lady Susan foists herself on her affable brother-in-law and his less forgiving, wiser to her bullshit wife. Unfortunately Mrs. Vernon has a hot younger brother, Mr. De Courcy, who will be well off when their father dies and the family estate comes inexorably to him. For the rest of the story Lady Susan toys with marrying Mr. De Courcy, schemes with her friend Mrs. Johnson, runs around with her married lover, tries to make her daughter’s life hell so that she’ll accept the proposals of the rich idiot Susan’s picked out for her, and engages in a drawn-out subtle-spiteathon with her sister-in-law. Even though some of her plans go awry, at the end of the story Lady Susan can “safely assure” her confidant (and thus the reader) from atop her heap of infamy that “I never was more at ease, or better satisfied with myself and everything about me than at the present hour.” I’m not inclined to trust Lady Susan about much, but this I pretty much believe.

Lady Susan manages her triumphs (and saves herself from exposure in every situation right up until she doesn’t, whereupon she shrugs and turns to her Plan B) through her superb ability to control every conversation. Lady Susan gaslights everyone before gas lighting was even invented. While understanding nothing of others’ psychology in terms of their finer qualities, Lady Susan understands their weaknesses minutely. She also enjoys making people react according to her designs for its own sake. Susan (or perhaps it’s fairer to say Austen) uses her mastery of conversation and her feminine, dependent position to enact a scary, brilliant, screwball critique of the social forms and governing sentiments of her era.

In many ways Susan must have been just as on-point, disturbing and attention-catching when the world met her in 1871 as she was when Austen wrote her. According to Baker, “Richard Hold Hutton reviewing J.E. Austen-Leigh’s Memoir in 1871 considers Lady Susan as “interesting only as the failures of men and women of genius are interesting.” […yet Baker feels that] the “feline, velvet-pawed, cruel, false, licentious” Lady Susan has clearly aroused [Hutton’s] interest.” (pg.)

There’s an enormous danger in positioning the present age as a ‘cure’ for the problems of an earlier one, but one nonetheless feels Susan’s powers might have been harnessed and her intelligence and energy directed to some greater project if she’d had more scope—if she hadn’t been told her story was done because she’d married, and that, when, her husband died, flirtation and marriage were the only new stories possible for her. As Susan says herself, “[c]onsideration and esteem as surely follow command of language as admiration waits on beauty, and here I have opportunity enough for the exercise of my talent, as the chief of my time is spent in conversation.” You do feel the lack of other activities with which Susan might fill her time, or at least of other conversations she might have. As rebellious against respectability as she covertly is, Susan can’t escape this system of social judgment if there’s nowhere for her to escape to. You’d never excise her selfishness or her loose, self-serving view of the truth, but it’s all too easy to imagine Lady Susan in something with shoulder pads, a scarily successful barrister or estate agent, sleeping with scores of hook-ups, orchestrating a thousand schemes and clam-happy as a result.

Austen never implies her own youthful creation is anything like a good person, but there’s an element of relish in Austen’s depictions of her goings on that cannot be suppressed. Austen also never quite says Lady Susan is wrong about the way the world works, or at least the way it can work. Susan has, from her own skewed, mercenary angle, a shrewd understanding of her social sphere, and her strategies for dealing with it are effective. Lady Susan’s certainly not wrong about the financial and gendered pressures exerted on her behaviour. If affection is commodified in some of the ways Silvia Federici would later articulate, if marriage is a market, and if duty and respectability are external systems riddled with hypocrisy that we’re forced to internalize, which enforce a stifling dependence, why not work these systems? Why not master them? Earnest participation in these systems of affect, being the Jane Bennet and triumphing thus, is only one way to skin a cat.

Susan is allowed to escape the fallout of her many, many machinations without enduring overly unpleasant consequences for her actions (nothing she can’t deal with at any rate). She looks likely to make the best of her new situation. There is a kind of poignant irony (or perhaps appropriateness) in a biography like Austen-Leigh’s trying to domesticate and render presentable an oeuvre that includes Lady Susan, a particular master of retconning others’ impressions of her in the teeth of evidence, of strategically-employed respectability politics. After all, Susan is an artist who crafts stories out of rumours and appearances, who plays with letters (the very stuff used to construct Jane Austen’s biographies), who plays on what people want her to be and who elegantly controls what information everyone around her has access to.

Austen finally directs our attention to her anti-heroine’s unreliability. “Whether Lady Susan was or was not happy in her second choice, I do not see how it can ever be ascertained; for who would take her assurance of it on either side of the question?” Indeed, even Susan’s letters to her confidant Mrs. Johnson are partial and suspect. Susan changes her mind based off the exigencies of the moment, and may at times in part believe her own stories. This isn’t quite a mark of psychological implausibility: people like Susan are all too real, and doubtless over the course of your life you’ve known them better than you’d like to have done. But Austen’s gesture is a neat one. The authorial voice at last comes to bear, strong and clear, on this epistolary tale. Austen coyly directs you to think about the fictionality of this narrative and the limits of what you can know of either Susan or of her authoress, who alone could tell you whether Susan was happy, and render Schrodinger’s Protagonist ultimately miserable or triumphant. Instead Austen just winks at you and says, no, I don’t think I shall. It’s all a story anyway, you know.

***

So how well does the 2016 film adaptation, this new Love & Friendship, succeed in capturing what’s engaging about this novella or in reworking this material to give us something new?

In some ways it’s hampered from the start by the over-familiar mechanics of the Literary Adaptation Period Drama: a way of seeing ‘canonical’, ‘heritage’ texts as somewhat aesthetically and thematically interchangeable. There is a system of plotting and organizing visual information that renders Austen, Brontë (any of them), Thackeray, Dickens, Hardy, and Downton Abbey as naturalistic high-end soap for the sort of people who look down on soap (remember that strange, golden hour before Downton slipped out of the Prestige Television category, just as seamlessly as though it had never occupied that reception demographic?). Shakespeare via The Hollow Crown might partake gaze of this as well. In Theatres of Memory, Raphael Samuel said valuable things about Dickens adaptations and the fetishization of a museum-quality mode of period-accuracy, coupled with a cleanliness (aka, classlessness), that can undermine the storytelling and push against the work under adaptation in unprofitable ways. You could expand that thought to discuss the homogenizing effects of all these period dramas, and talk about what use they make of the past and the works they derive from.

Personally I think there’s almost not a worse way to handle Dickens than to make po-faced naturalistic adaptations that drain the humor and grotesque fantasia out of everything and ask you to treat spontaneous combustion as a fully serious matter. Correspondingly, there may not be a worse way to handle Austen than to film her like the 2007 Mansfield Park (Billie Piper for Fanny Price? Really?). There have been two excellent and very different Pride and Prejudices: the Ehle and Firth miniseries, acclaimed by all for a reason, and the utterly batty Aldous Huxley version, with no reverence for the original’s plot and a strange, vibrant comedic spirit all its own. You can take these adaptations in several directions, but you can’t successfully take them in absolutely no direction, as so many attempt. At least the 1999 Mansfield Park had the courage to make decisions: all the wrong ones, but at least there were some!

I appreciate that Love & Friendship commits to a degree of acknowledgement of its status as a filmic production. It introduces its dramatis personae in a stylized way, for example. But really this mediated quality could and should have been ramped up. Love & Friendship drags because it’s so positioned, even down to its new fake title, as An Austen Romance, here to fill that market niche (this may be what brings adaptations of the quite different Mansfield Park to an especially sharp cliff-edge). In Love & Friendship the original narrative’s epistolary frame is broken into endless scenes of Susan telling people her evil plans in person while they in turn tell her how clever she is. It—isn’t good enough, I’m afraid. Come up with something gimmicky to represent the letters, or several somethings, before doing this. I can see how it works in terms of Susan dominating these conversations, but instead of being so charming her speaking partners lose the ability to understand what is real, Susan is rendered a bit of a boor.

Page from the manuscript of Lady Susan. Via janeausten.ac.uk

Filmed too naturalistically, Susan’s escapades collapse a little, like a chiffon cake you walked through the room while baking. Is Susan a bad, destructive mother? Yes, who cares, and why is the production asking me to consider that? It’s like asking me to think hard about property destruction in Dude, Where’s My Car? It’s also the sort of question we wouldn’t really ask of a male rake. We don’t inquire after every girl Don Juan’s seduced, and we know there are enormous social consequences there. Susan isn’t allowed to be a comedic evil genius: she has to be a Bad Mom. Naturalism! (I.e. a series of inflected choices which sees violence applied along uneven, ‘innacurate’ lines, like how rape functions in the grimdark Game of Thrones, which advocates have long insisted is simply realistic about combat: not quite).

Without the letters, we don’t get quite the same insight into Susan’s double-think. Without others’ gaze on her, and with the narrative altered to include dopey interlocutors, Susan’s power is diminished. Susan also has seemingly endless money and time to visit people in London in this film? In the book she’s in straitened circumstances: this is fairly important to the plot. A new friend has been drafted in for Susan to monologue at in the first half: at some point she goes away. Why? Money, I guess? Eh. Mrs. Johnson is now an American, expressly so she can be played by Chloë Sevigny, who is my favorite animate block of wood working in the industry today, but who makes the role of First Toady Responding to Letter Monologues in Real Time even more, well, blocky. Her husband Mr. Johnson is Stephen Fry, given all of nine lines so that he can be put on the posters and draw in even more of the sort of upper middle class people who would go to an art house cinema, think Jane Austen’s vaguely Cultural and like Stephen Fry. For some reason a variety of otherwise intelligent (and, admittedly, some dim) English people living in 1795 don’t know who King Solomon was. Somehow.

It’s really not a crap film from start to finish. It’s beautifully shot, in the aforementioned problematic way a lot of these are (a la 2015’s pretty but muted Far from the Madding Crowd). The film capitalizes at points very well on the humor of the original: the way it picks up on Austen’s line “Mr. Vernon, who, as it must already have appeared, lived only to do whatever he was desired” is very cute. The way it makes these indiscrete letters part of the mechanic of Lady Susan’s downfall, thus positioning Love & Friendship as, like Northanger Abbey, a parody of its genre, gives Lady Susan the relationship to the epistolary novel that Northanger has to the gothic. That’s clever and adds something. And there are some distinctly good jokes! Not enough, but Mr. Vernon is generally fun, and Sir James provides an easy but full laugh every time. The pacing and tone are consistently off in ways a film student could probably tell you about. I am not a film student. Suffice it to say these elements go a bit Merchant Ivory, leaving the rest of the project behind.

I don’t mean to sophomorically rage against all adaptations because I somehow expect, like we do when we’re children, a magical transformation of the book into a film-experience that loses and gains nothing in the translation process. This film was fine, but not especially entertaining. I don’t know whether I quite recommend the Netflix experience to you, even, but certainly do not shed £13 of your precious pounds a year for a ticket to a hipster indie cinema screening as part of their Austen Season or whatever. That’s like a horse or something in Regency. (Free horse with showing!)

People have praised this film to the skies, probably because people play limbo with their expectations for adaptations when they love an author, and they play it to win. It’s just sad because these adaptations are all the same damn movie. So much money is spent on them, and the homogenization feels distinctly like part of a project to reproduce Britishness (this is more of an EU production effort, but these films are often funded in part by UK government bodies) or canonicity. That project feels exactly as misguided as Austen-Leigh’s attempt to make his aunt presentable—and strangely akin to that endeavour, in its misunderstanding of what’s interesting in Austen. When 19th century writers and the rest of the canon are presented in a variety of styles (some that even suit the works in question!) and are filmed with the courage and diversity with which people approach Shakespeare production, I’ll be happy—and so will you: watching a much better Lady Susan set on Mars or something. Or just in 1795, but, you know, funnier.

~~~

This week’s Gutter Guest Star is Erin Horáková. Erin is a southern American writer who lives in London. She’s working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time. She blogs at Charmed Life.

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