Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen

by

Fay Weldon

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Aunt Fay Character Analysis

The book’s narrator, Fay, is eighteen-year-old Alice’s aunt. Fay is a successful novelist who travels the world writing and publicizing her books. She considers herself a feminist and also believes strongly in the power of fiction, creating the metaphor of the City of Invention to express the beauty and value of reading. Much of her letters to Alice center on Jane Austen’s life and novels. Although she reveals few of her own biographical details, the reader learns that Fay’s parents separated when she was a child, and that Fay left her childhood home with her father, while her sister Enid stayed behind with their mother. She has not seen her niece Alice, Enid’s daughter, for sixteen years, indicating that Fay is largely estranged from her family. Fay also appears to be single and without children of her own, though these facts are not explicitly stated. Fay’s reliability as a narrator is ultimately uncertain, as she sometimes contradicts herself and even tells Alice not to listen to everything she says. At the novel’s conclusion, Fay seems to be hoping for a reconciliation with Enid and her husband, Edward, even though their values differ greatly from her own.

Aunt Fay 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 Aunt Fay or refer to Aunt Fay. 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

The Angel of the House stood at Jane Austen’s elbow, that is my guess, and she never quite learned how to ignore her—except perhaps in the early Lady Susan, for the writing of which, I imagine, she was gently chided by her family, and drew back quickly as at the touch of a cold, cold hand, and never tried that again.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Jane Austen
Page Number: 29-30
Explanation and Analysis:

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 6 Quotes

You are not the model for Chloe in Female Friends. Too many of my friends claim that role, in any case, for you to be able to do so sensibly. Any woman who waits upon her husband as a servant upon a master—and they are legion—all too easily sees herself in Chloe. But I made her up. I promise.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Enid, Edward
Related Symbols: Bread Rolls
Page Number: 87
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

Journalists, in particular, who work so cleverly from the real world, understand description, but not invention. It is not surprising. They lose their jobs if they do invent—novelists get sued if they don’t invent. So I, Grace, D’Albier, must go round the world, stared at as a victim of paternal and maternal incest: and though my parents still speak to me, they do so in a rather stiff way. They can comprehend that I made it up, but their friends can’t.

Related Characters: Grace D’Albier (speaker), Aunt Fay, Enid
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

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 12 Quotes

The rebellious spirit, raging at being so cast out by mother and father, learning the defences of wit and style—Miss Crawford. The dutiful side, accepting authority, enduring everything with a sweet smile, finding her defence in wisdom—Fanny. So tempting, in fact, that I shan’t resist. I shall offer it to you as an explanation of Jane Austen’s determination to make the unctuous Fanny a heroine.

Related Characters: Aunt Fay (speaker), Jane Austen
Page Number: 134-135
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

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

The timeline below shows where the character Aunt Fay 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... (full context)
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...college courses in English literature. Alice does not see the point of studying Austen, which Fay attributes to a childhood spent watching television instead of reading. Fay reflects on the copy... (full context)
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Fay admits to Alice that she herself sometimes feels “a nervous dread” of reading serious literature,... (full context)
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Fay implores Alice to read good literature, noting that she defines literature “by what it does,... (full context)
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Describing the City of Invention in great detail, Fay introduces Alice to its various neighborhoods and landmarks. She also digresses into a short discussion... (full context)
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Fay points out the house that Jane Austen built in the City of Invention and suggests... (full context)
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Fay pauses to consider her own childhood with her sister, Alice’s mother (Enid). She tells Alice... (full context)
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Fay continues to give examples of the kinds of houses and neighborhoods that Alice might find... (full context)
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Returning to the subject of Jane Austen, Fay comments that Austen’s works tend to reflect real-life gender dynamics rather than challenge them, and... (full context)
Letter 2 
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Fay writes Alice another letter from Cairns, this time in November. She begins by extolling the... (full context)
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Returning to the idea of the novel that Alice wishes to write, Fay discusses the idea of the Muse and how oppressive the idea of it can be... (full context)
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Fay goes on to warn Alice of all the forces in the real world that will... (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... (full context)
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Fay sets out to give Alice a detailed overview of Georgian England, so that she can... (full context)
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Fay goes on to describe the continuing hardships that a woman would face after marriage, focusing... (full context)
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Given the dangers of marriage and childbearing, Fay contends that it was not irrational for Jane Austen herself to remain single and celibate,... (full context)
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Fay acknowledges that it’s difficult to track how the world has changed since Jane Austen’s time,... (full context)
Letter 3
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Fay writes Alice another letter from Cairns, this one dated December. Fay sets out to inform... (full context)
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Fay goes on to contend that Austen probably knew a fair amount about politics and international... (full context)
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Fay also tells Alice the details of Georgian parenting practices, including sending children out of the... (full context)
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...home with their parents soon thereafter but were then sent away to another boarding school. Fay speculates that such early trauma may have influenced the Austen girls’ development, but she believes... (full context)
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Feminism Theme Icon
Fay tells Alice that most of the brothers of the Austen family remained at home while... (full context)
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According to Fay, Jane Austen would have also needed to learn how to take care of her home... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
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...on Austen’s seeming indifference to the “disease, hunger, and distress” of the world around her, Fay argues that Austen was actually trying to rise above these ills in a quintessentially English... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Fay goes on to describe Austen’s first book, a satirical novel written at age fourteen. Fay... (full context)
Letter 4
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Fay’s next letter is sent in January, again from Cairns. She begins by correcting a fact... (full context)
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Continuing to refer to an 1813 encyclopedia, Fay relates its information about childbirth in Georgian England, focusing in particular on its dangers and... (full context)
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Fay returns to her discussion of Jane Austen’s youth and notes that she seemed to be... (full context)
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Fay goes on to note that not everyone who knew Jane Austen liked her, pointing to... (full context)
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Fay informs Alice that she has to stop writing and pack for her trip back to... (full context)
Letter 5
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Fay’s next letter to Alice comes from Canberra in January. Fay admits that the additional stop... (full context)
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Fay goes on to describe the differences between North Queensland and Canberra, remarking in particular that... (full context)
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Fay relates how valuable it is for audiences to connect with an author in order to... (full context)
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Thinking of the differences between her writing life and Jane Austen’s, Fay wonders what made Austen believe that people beyond her family would want to read her... (full context)
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Fay then details the modern tendency of academics and journalists to try to pick apart the... (full context)
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Fay turns to the subject of Alice’s novel, about which Alice has asked for advice. Fay... (full context)
Letter 6
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Fay writes another letter from Canberra in January, this time to her sister Enid instead of... (full context)
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Fay asks Enid if she remembers when their mother found a copy of a novel Fay... (full context)
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Fay insists that Enid is not the model for a character in one of her own... (full context)
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Using an example from Jane Austen’s Emma, Fay argues that fictional characters drawn directly from real life tend to be less interesting and... (full context)
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Fay concludes by asking Enid to send love to Edward, whom Fay hopes will forgive her... (full context)
Letter 7
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Fay writes to Alice from Singapore in February, having stopped there for a long layover in... (full context)
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Fay then turns to telling Alice what books she should read in order to understand Jane... (full context)
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Describing the societal conditions under which Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, Fay paints a picture of the desperate poverty and famine that struck England. She contrasts this... (full context)
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Fay pauses to reflect further on her stay in Singapore, in particular the idea that she... (full context)
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Fay returns to discussing Jane Austen’s work, in particular Emma, which Alice claims is too boring... (full context)
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Concluding her analysis of Emma, Fay acknowledges how the novel reinforces some objectionable social norms. She still finds joy, however, in... (full context)
Letter 8
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Fay writes to Alice from London in February, noting how shocking it is for her to... (full context)
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Fay returns to her discussion of Jane Austen by recounting the infamous story of a London... (full context)
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On the subject of Alice’s novel, Fay warns Alice that she might find it hard to finish it, because on a subconscious... (full context)
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Fay goes on to quote a 1515 letter by Thomas More, author of Utopia, about his... (full context)
Letter 9
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The next letter that Fay writes to Alice comes from Somerset in March. Fay begins by wondering how she can... (full context)
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Fay goes on to offer Alice advice about writing instead. In particular, she tells Alice not... (full context)
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Fay summarizes Alice’s novel, which is about a young woman who falls in love with her... (full context)
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Returning to the subject of Jane Austen, Fay expresses her wish to discuss Northanger Abbey. However, she then discovers that her own copy... (full context)
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Fay examines her new copy of Northanger Abbey and notices that the editor’s note likens Jane... (full context)
Letter 10
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Fay writes to Alice from London in April. She begins with a story, which she warns... (full context)
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Fay goes on to claim that though it seems incredible, publishing professionals often report being able... (full context)
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From there, Fay argues for the importance of Northanger Abbey. She sees in it a satirical rejection of... (full context)
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Noting that Alice must be busy continuing her own novel, Fay summarizes the plot of Northanger Abbey for her, detailing Catherine’s success in marrying her suitor... (full context)
Letter 11
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Again writing from London, this time in May, Fay tells Alice about her travels to Denmark for a publishing tour. Her description takes the... (full context)
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The protagonist of Fay’s story is a woman named Grace D’Albier, who has written a popular first novel about... (full context)
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Fay tells Alice that she stopped the story at that point and again challenges her to... (full context)
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Fay concludes by telling Alice to continue with her classes anyway, noting that her studies may... (full context)
Letter 12
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Fay’s next letter is also from London in May. Fay immediately begins with a description of... (full context)
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Fay goes on to note that Mansfield Park was the first novel that Jane Austen wrote... (full context)
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Reflecting on the moral instruction that Jane Austen seems to have attempted in Mansfield Park, Fay reflects that maybe writers of fiction should consider their work a “sacred charge” and strive... (full context)
Letter 13
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Writing again from London, this time in June, Fay tells Alice that she views literary critics as bus drivers and tour guides within the... (full context)
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Fay tells Alice that Jane Austen was wisely considerate of the opinions of her readers, listening... (full context)
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Fay goes on to acknowledge the pressure that writers, especially women, feel to get things “right,”... (full context)
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To emphasize her point, Fay quotes at length from a letter written by the novelist Walter Scott in 1816. Scott’s... (full context)
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...experiences like 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... (full context)
Letter 14
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Fay writes Alice another letter from London in June. She begins immediately with a description of... (full context)
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Fay goes on to speculate that perhaps Jane Austen preferred her fictional worlds to her real... (full context)
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Fay concludes by asking how Alice’s exams went. Fay also says that she will soon be... (full context)
Letter 15
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Fay’s next letter comes from London in July. She congratulates Alice on her “wonderful, astonishing and... (full context)
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Fay asks Alice whether she will settle down to “be a writer” or go to UCLA... (full context)
Letter 16
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Fay’s final letter comes from London in August. She tells Alice that she is planning to... (full context)
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Fay tells Alice that she plans to send her a reading list, even though Alice’s novel... (full context)
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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 them immortal. She celebrates the... (full context)
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In conclusion, Fay tells Alice to think nonetheless of “here and now” more than the future. She notes... (full context)