Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen

by

Fay Weldon

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Letters to Alice can help.
Alice is Fay’s eighteen-year-old niece. She is in her first year of a university literature course in England, and although she aspires to write a novel herself, she is not convinced of the value of studying literature, in particular the works of Jane Austen. Alice dyes her hair black and green and seems to rebel against her parents, Enid and Edward, by initiating a correspondence with Fay, who is estranged from the family. Through Fay’s letters, the reader learns that Alice enters into a series of seemingly melodramatic affairs involving her boyfriend and one of her professors. Alice bases her novel on these affairs and, although Fay initially cautions her to avoid writing about her own life, the novel turns out to be an immediate bestseller. Despite her success as a writer, Alice fails her exams and at the novel’s conclusion, she is considering whether to continue studying literature at a different college in the United States. Aside from her relationship with her parents, Fay reveals little about Alice’s life, mentioning only that she has a younger sister whom she once tried to drown when the two were children.

Alice Quotes in Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen

The Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen quotes below are all either spoken by Alice or refer to Alice. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Carroll & Graf edition of Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen published in 1984.
Letter 1  Quotes

But no one burns Emma. No one would dare. There is too much concentrated here: too much history, too much respect, too much of the very essence of civilization, which is, I must tell you, connected to its Literature. It’s Literature, with a capital ‘L’, as opposed to just books.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice, Jane Austen
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Here in this City of Invention, the readers come and go, by general invitation, sauntering down its leafy avenue, scurrying through its horrider slums, waving to each other across the centuries, up and down the arches of the years. When I say ‘the arches of the years’ it may well sound strange to you. But I know what I’m doing: it is you who are at fault.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice
Related Symbols: The City of Invention
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Some build because they need to, have to, live to, or believe they are appointed to, others to prove a point or to change the world. But to build at all requires courage, persistence, faith and a surplus of imagination. A writer’s all, Alice, is not taken up by the real world. There is something left over: enough for them to build these alternative, finite realities.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice
Related Symbols: The City of Invention
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:
Letter 2  Quotes

It takes great courage and persistence to swim against the stream of communal ideas. The stream itself is so much part of daily existence, it is hard to see it for what it is, or understand that it flowed in a quite a different direction in other decades.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice, Jane Austen
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:
Letter 3 Quotes

In the days of the Empire, women followed their husbands around the globe, and shipped their children back to England to live in unspeakable boarding schools, where they were as like as not sexually abused, beaten, and starved, without apparent alarm to anyone. You do not know, little Alice, how recent or how lucky you are.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice, Jane Austen
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

I think indeed she bowed her will and humbled her soul, and bravely kept her composure, as a good nun in a good convent might, and escaped into the alternative world of her novels: and simply because she was so good, or did become so, and her self-discipline was so secure, she brought into that inventive world sufficient of the reality of the one we know and think we love, but which I think she hated, to make those novels outrun the generations.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice, Jane Austen
Page Number: 50-51
Explanation and Analysis:
Letter 4 Quotes

You see! The born novelist. She is raising invention above description; what she makes herself above what the real world has to offer. She will put up with writing a history so long as she doesn’t have to get the dates right, and mocks those who take the whole thing seriously, and so long as she can be biased.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice, Jane Austen
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

But I do dislike all these ‘ifs’, and ‘may haves’; they can only be speculation; and are in a way parasitical: the present sucking nourishment from the past, the living from the dead, as if there wasn’t enough emotion and event now to sop up all our desire for analysis and explanation.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice, Jane Austen
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:
Letter 5 Quotes

Fiction, on the whole, and if it is any good, tends to be a subversive element in society. Elizabeth Bennet, that wayward, capricious girl, listening to the beat of feeling, rather than the pulsing urge for survival, paying attention to the subtle demands of human dignity rather than the cruder ones of established convention, must have quite upset a number of her readers, changed their minds, and with their minds, their lives, the society they lived in: prodding it quicker and faster along the slow, difficult road that has led us out of barbarity into civilization.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice, Jane Austen
Related Symbols: The City of Invention
Page Number: 81-82
Explanation and Analysis:

We do not need offices and a muted typewriter and no disturbance—we need a table half-way between the fire and the window, and the muted sound of the world around: to be of that world, and not apart from it. It is easier for women than for men, and the world being what it is, and women writers, to their great advantage, are not allowed wives.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice, Jane Austen
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:
Letter 7 Quotes

So what are you going on about? I hear you repeat. Why this reverence for Jane Austen, who was blind (in our terms) to so much? I will tell you. The gentry, then as now, has to read in order to comprehend both the wretchedness and ire of the multitude. It is not only ignorance in the illiterate we need to combat, it is insensitivity in the well-to-do. Fiction stretches our sensibilities and our understanding, as mere information never can.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice, Jane Austen
Page Number: 93-94
Explanation and Analysis:

I am trying to explain that writing must be in some way a shared experience between reader and writer: the House of Imagination built with doors for guests to enter in, and pegs for their coats, and windows for them to look out of: it is no use being a recluse. You will die of hypothermia and malnutrition if you live alone in your house, however beautifully constructed it is. It must be a welcoming place, or exciting, if dangerous, or educative, if unpleasant, or intensely pleasurable.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice, Jane Austen
Related Symbols: The City of Invention
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:
Letter 8 Quotes

As if it were decreed that your mother Enid should put bread rolls to rise every night for your father Edward’s breakfast, in order that a certain paragraph in a certain novel should be written. As if the City of Invention, little by little, using a chapter here, a paragraph there, is waking from its slumber and will eventually be more real than life itself, and we its servants, its outrunners.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice, Enid, Edward
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:
Letter 9 Quotes

All over the country irons were held in suspension, and car exhaust bandages held motionless and lady gardeners stayed their gardening gloves, and cars slowed, as Emma spoke, as that other world intruded into this. It does more and more, you know. We join each other in shared fantasies, it is our way of crossing barriers, when our rulers won’t let us. ET and his like is our real communication. Hand in hand the human race abandons the shoddy, imperfect structures of reality, and surges over to the City of Invention.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice, Jane Austen
Related Symbols: The City of Invention
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:
Letter 10 Quotes

Now, inasmuch as those engaged in particle physics will assure us that a particle alters by virtue of being observed, so we can never really know what anything is like, because the knowledge interferes with what we wish to know, it doesn’t surprise me that a painting, so imbued with the force of attention, changes its nature. Heats up. Hot property!

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice
Page Number: 116-117
Explanation and Analysis:
Letter 11 Quotes

Writers are not so rational about the writing of their books, you see, as students of English Literature like to think. They write what they write and if it was different, it would be a different book and have a different title, so fault-finding is self-defeating. And if you think your brain is dying slowly, that your head is held trapped by iron bonds of boredom, it is no more than you deserve. When you study a writer’s work in depth you are stealing from that writer: so much he or she offered to you gladly, but you are greedy: you are demanding more.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:
Letter 13 Quotes

The novel must be used to set before the reader examples of good behaviour. I am frequently asked why I write about anti-heroines and anti-heroes, and not role models, and all I can say in my defence is that what I write is what I write and there is not much I can do about it.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice, Jane Austen
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:
Letter 14 Quotes

Alice, we will, as they say, be a long time dead. You must carve your living self as sharply into the Rock of Eternity as you can. Please send your novel off; don’t do as you threaten and forget it. Of course it’s more than likely to be rejected and come back, and of course you will then feel rejected and discovered in your presumption. But if you embark on these things, you can’t draw back.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice, Jane Austen
Related Symbols: Alice’s Novel
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:
Letter 16 Quotes

Sometimes, I think, the exhilaration of all this being so great—of ideas, notions, fantasies, speculations, claims false and valid, advice good or bad, the pattern made by altering truth as day melts into day, is great enough to make us immortal. These things have been, and so in a sense always will be: they are not finite in time. Only our bodies are that. Let them blow us all up if they want, reduce the planet to ashes (as they say)—the leap between nothing and something, once made, is always made.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Alice, Jane Austen
Related Symbols: The City of Invention
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Letters to Alice LitChart as a printable PDF.
Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen PDF

Alice Character Timeline in Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen

The timeline below shows where the character Alice appears in Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Letter 1 
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Aunt Fay begins a letter to her eighteen-year-old niece, Alice, who has asked for advice. The letter is dated October and sent from Cairns, Australia.... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Alice has asked in particular for advice about Jane Austen, whose works she is reading for... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Fay admits to Alice that she herself sometimes feels “a nervous dread” of reading serious literature, but that she... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay implores Alice to read good literature, noting that she defines literature “by what it does, not by... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Describing the City of Invention in great detail, Fay introduces Alice to its various neighborhoods and landmarks. She also digresses into a short discussion of a... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Fay pauses to consider her own childhood with her sister, Alice’s mother (Enid). She tells Alice that their parents separated when the sisters were young, and... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Fay continues to give examples of the kinds of houses and neighborhoods that Alice might find in the City of Invention. She notes that some districts are more respectable,... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
...books continue to be popular in all corners of modern society. Fay concludes by addressing Alice’s claim that she plans to write a novel soon. She tells Alice that she should... (full context)
Letter 2 
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay writes Alice another letter from Cairns, this time in November. She begins by extolling the miracle of... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Returning to the idea of the novel that Alice wishes to write, Fay discusses the idea of the Muse and how oppressive the idea... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Fay goes on to warn Alice of all the forces in the real world that will appear to distract her from... (full context)
The Influence of History Theme Icon
In order to fully appreciate Jane Austen’s work, Fay argues, Alice must know more about the era in which she lived. Fay states that the time... (full context)
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Fay sets out to give Alice a detailed overview of Georgian England, so that she can better understand Jane Austen’s world.... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...it was not irrational for Jane Austen herself to remain single and celibate, and asks Alice to remember this fact while reading Austen’s novels. Fay also notes that the natural world... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
...the broad societal change that eventually led to the modern day. She concludes by telling Alice that she has heard from Alice’s mother, Enid, who is concerned that Fay is “un... (full context)
Letter 3
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay writes Alice another letter from Cairns, this one dated December. Fay sets out to inform Alice about... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay also tells Alice the details of Georgian parenting practices, including sending children out of the home to be... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Fay tells Alice that most of the brothers of the Austen family remained at home while Jane and... (full context)
Feminism Theme Icon
...her household’s servants. She notes that women’s work is commonly viewed as worthless, but warns Alice not to look down on domestic tasks, saying that they have real value and dignity.... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...matter what. “The writer’s life is work, and the work is the life,” Fay tells Alice. (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
...family may not have been particularly admiring of it. Fay concludes her letter by telling Alice that she plans to return home to England soon, but that Alice should not be... (full context)
Letter 4
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
...is sent in January, again from Cairns. She begins by correcting a fact she told Alice in the previous letter, having found a new historical source with different information. She muses... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
...England, focusing in particular on its dangers and the misogyny that surrounded it. She tells Alice to be “thankful that you live now,” noting that the Church would prioritize saving the... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay informs Alice that she has to stop writing and pack for her trip back to England. She... (full context)
Letter 5
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Fay’s next letter to Alice comes from Canberra in January. Fay admits that the additional stop in Australia makes her... (full context)
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
...robust reading community whom she met at a book presentation the previous evening. She tells Alice that she used to hate public speaking, but that now she understands the value of... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
...Fay are duty-bound to make public appearances and answer directly to readers. Accordingly, Fay tells Alice that if her goal is to be a writer, she should give up, but that... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
...audience would have helped her learn the dramatic techniques that characterize her novels. Fay instructs Alice to pay similar attention to audience in her own writing, and to remember that the... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Fay turns to the subject of Alice’s novel, about which Alice has asked for advice. Fay advises her to offer her reader... (full context)
Letter 6
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...writes another letter from Canberra in January, this time to her sister Enid instead of Alice. She notes that she will be leaving for London the next day and assures Enid... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...She then tells her sister that she hopes they can reconcile, despite Enid’s fears that Alice will begin writing fiction, in particular about Enid and her husband, Edward. (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
...using the couple’s bread rolls in her fiction. She also notes that when she sent Alice 500 pounds, she only wanted to pay her gambling debts, not upset the couple’s marriage. (full context)
Letter 7
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay writes to Alice from Singapore in February, having stopped there for a long layover in the middle of... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay then turns to telling Alice what books she should read in order to understand Jane Austen better, listing several of... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...She contrasts this with the light-hearted images of the Bennet sisters’ romances and predicts that Alice will call Pride and Prejudice nonsense because of this disparity between reality and fiction. However,... (full context)
Feminism Theme Icon
...choice to travel alone as woman. She acknowledges the danger she may face but tells Alice that she feels responsible for accepting it, even though it may not be fair that... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay returns to discussing Jane Austen’s work, in particular Emma, which Alice claims is too boring to continue reading. Fay summarizes the plot, in particular admiring the... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...over again, rewarding and punishing them accordingly. She concludes by suddenly reversing her position on Alice’s desire to write a novel, telling her at last: “By all means, try.” (full context)
Letter 8
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay writes to Alice from London in February, noting how shocking it is for her to be back in... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
On the subject of Alice’s novel, Fay warns Alice that she might find it hard to finish it, because on... (full context)
Letter 9
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The next letter that Fay writes to Alice comes from Somerset in March. Fay begins by wondering how she can possibly give Alice... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay goes on to offer Alice advice about writing instead. In particular, she tells Alice not to share her work with... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay summarizes Alice’s novel, which is about a young woman who falls in love with her English professor.... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...discuss Northanger Abbey. However, she then discovers that her own copy is missing and tells Alice about getting upset and having to go buy a new one. While in the car... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
...editor’s note likens Jane Austen to Robert Browning. She finds the comparison odd and warns Alice to be careful deciding what to believe when reading nonfiction and to rely on her... (full context)
Letter 10
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Fay writes to Alice from London in April. She begins with a story, which she warns Alice will seem... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Noting that Alice must be busy continuing her own novel, Fay summarizes the plot of Northanger Abbey for... (full context)
Letter 11
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Again writing from London, this time in May, Fay tells Alice about her travels to Denmark for a publishing tour. Her description takes the form of... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Fay tells Alice that she stopped the story at that point and again challenges her to figure out... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Fay concludes by telling Alice to continue with her classes anyway, noting that her studies may become more interesting even... (full context)
Letter 13
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Writing again from London, this time in June, Fay tells Alice that she views literary critics as bus drivers and tour guides within the City of... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Fay tells Alice that Jane Austen was wisely considerate of the opinions of her readers, listening to them... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
...points out that novelists cannot actually be wrong in depicting an imagined world. She encourages Alice to listen carefully to her readers and understand their responses to her writing, but to... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...unrequited love, which can shape individuals in unexpectedly positive ways. Using this idea, Fay urges Alice to look for the upsides of her tumultuous relationship with her professor, and to not... (full context)
Letter 14
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay writes Alice another letter from London in June. She begins immediately with a description of Jane Austen’s... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...an earlier death in order to live fully in the City of Invention. She tells Alice that while thinking of Austen’s death is unpleasant, death should be viewed as only a... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
Fay concludes by asking how Alice’s exams went. Fay also says that she will soon be having tea with Enid and... (full context)
Letter 15
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Fay’s next letter comes from London in July. She congratulates Alice on her “wonderful, astonishing and gratifying news” and gives her advice about how to negotiate... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Fay asks Alice whether she will settle down to “be a writer” or go to UCLA as she... (full context)
Letter 16
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Fay’s final letter comes from London in August. She tells Alice that she is planning to start a new novel herself. She reveals that writing to... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Fay tells Alice that she plans to send her a reading list, even though Alice’s novel The Wife’s... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Reflecting on all that is left for both her and Alice to read and write, Fay wonders if “the exhilaration of all this” might even make... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
In conclusion, Fay tells Alice to think nonetheless of “here and now” more than the future. She notes that Alice... (full context)