Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen

by

Fay Weldon

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Jane Austen Character Analysis

The British novelist Jane Austen is such a central part of the correspondence between Fay and Alice that she becomes a fully realized character herself. The reader knows much more about Austen’s life than those of either Fay or Alice, and Fay describes Austen as the lively, intellectual daughter of a pastor of a village in Georgian England. Though Austen’s family was cultured and relatively well-off, the surrounding world was full of suffering, danger, and misogyny. Fay argues that Austen’s fiction, though seemingly inane at times, is in fact a thoughtful and meaningful reaction to that context and especially to the rigid social roles imposed on women. Austen and her sister Cassandra were sent to a series of boarding schools in their childhood, where they may or may not have been happy. After her father died at a relatively young age, Austen spent the rest of her life living with her mother and never married. Austen died at the age of 41 from Addison’s disease, which the medicine of her era could not diagnose or treat. Although Fay admits that ascribing specific intentions and emotions to historical figures like Austen is somewhat futile, she imagines that Austen may have ultimately preferred to live on through her novels rather than continuing to live a life in which she could never fully express her intellect and creativity.

Jane Austen 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 Jane Austen or refer to Jane Austen. 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:
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 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 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 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

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

The timeline below shows where the character Jane Austen 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
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Alice has asked in particular for advice about Jane Austen, whose works she is reading for her college courses in English literature. Alice does... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Fay points out the house that Jane Austen built in the City of Invention and suggests that Austen’s works constitute a second... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Returning to the subject of Jane Austen, Fay comments that Austen’s works tend to reflect real-life gender dynamics rather than challenge... (full context)
Letter 2 
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
...external forces can actually result in creative energy for the writer. Fay tells Alice that Jane Austen’s work in particular seems to come from “the battle the writer wages with the... (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.... (full context)
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
...to give Alice a detailed overview of Georgian England, so that she can better understand Jane Austen’s world. She focuses particularly on the harsh consequences of every action, and of how... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
...on the dangers of childbirth and the constant threat of venereal disease. The works of Jane Austen, however, hide these dark realities, which Fay takes as an example of the power... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Given the dangers of marriage and childbearing, Fay contends that it was not irrational for Jane Austen herself to remain single and celibate, and asks Alice to remember this fact while... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Fay acknowledges that it’s difficult to track how the world has changed since Jane Austen’s time, but theorizes that perhaps more people reading better novels could have caused the... (full context)
Letter 3
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...another letter from Cairns, this one dated December. Fay sets out to inform Alice about Jane Austen’s life, beginning with her childhood. Fay relates that Austen was the youngest of eight... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay goes on to contend that Austen probably knew a fair amount about politics and international relations, but that the Church would... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...out of the home to be nursed or even raised through childhood. Fay notes that Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra was two and a half years older and known to have a... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
When Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra were children, they were sent away to be educated by... (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 Cassandra were away at school. The sisters were... (full context)
Feminism Theme Icon
According to Fay, Jane Austen would have also needed to learn how to take care of her home and... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Reflecting on Austen’s seeming indifference to the “disease, hunger, and distress” of the world around her, Fay argues... (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 admires Austen’s grasp of narrative... (full context)
Letter 4
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
...saving the baby over the mother during a difficult birth. Fay also notes that neither Jane nor Cassandra Austen ever had children, suggesting that perhaps Jane avoided marriage because she was... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay returns to her discussion of Jane Austen’s youth and notes that she seemed to be happy as a young adolescent. She... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay goes on to note that not everyone who knew Jane Austen liked her, pointing to a letter from a cousin of Austen’s that describes her... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...her trip back to England. She states that she will return to the rest of Jane Austen’s life in detail in later letters, but summarizes it quickly for Alice in the... (full context)
Letter 5
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
...beliefs.” She notes that this enthusiasm from readers also puts a burden on writers that Jane Austen and her contemporaries never experienced. While writers like Austen focused on writing rather than... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
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... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
...apart the meaning of literature lead to misguided conclusions. She points to an anecdote of Jane Austen writing in a room where she was often interrupted, which is often interpreted by... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
...admiringly describes the moral directives of the Russian novelist Nicolai Chernyshevsky and tells Alice that Jane Austen is, in her own quieter way, just as instructive to her readers. (full context)
Letter 6
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...that she is not encouraging Alice to write a novel but only helping her understand Jane Austen. (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Using an example from Jane Austen’s Emma, Fay argues that fictional characters drawn directly from real life tend to be... (full context)
Letter 7
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 the authors that Austen herself read and musing on the... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Describing the societal conditions under which Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, Fay paints a picture of the desperate poverty and famine... (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... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...how the novel reinforces some objectionable social norms. She still finds joy, however, in watching Jane Austen judge her characters over and over again, rewarding and punishing them accordingly. She concludes... (full context)
Letter 8
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Fay returns to her discussion of Jane Austen by recounting the infamous story of a London publisher, Cadell, who turned down Austen’s... (full context)
Letter 9
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Returning to the subject of Jane Austen, Fay expresses her wish to discuss Northanger Abbey. However, she then discovers that her... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Fay examines her new copy of Northanger Abbey and notices that the editor’s note likens Jane Austen to Robert Browning. She finds the comparison odd and warns Alice to be careful... (full context)
Letter 10
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
...good. Fay speculates that something like this may have happened to the publisher who bought Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey but did not immediately publish it. She wonders if he enjoyed the... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
...Abbey. She sees in it a satirical rejection of the expectations placed on women of Jane Austen’s time, noting especially how the protagonist, Catherine, unabashedly spends lots of time reading novels... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
...detailing Catherine’s success in marrying her suitor even though his father disapproves. She emphasizes how Jane Austen addresses the reader directly throughout, and recommends that Alice keep her audience in mind... (full context)
Letter 11
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
...counteract the danger of too much analysis.” Finally, Fay tells Alice that many people say Jane Austen made only 700 pounds during her lifetime from writing, though Fay’s own calculations indicate... (full context)
Letter 12
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
...London in May. Fay immediately begins with a description of Miss Crawford, a character in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. The character “behaves very badly” and makes the righteous protagonist, Fanny, very... (full context)
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Fay goes on to note that Mansfield Park was the first novel that Jane Austen wrote after the death of her father, and that perhaps she was trying especially... (full context)
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Reflecting on the moral instruction that Jane Austen seems to have attempted in Mansfield Park, Fay reflects that maybe writers of fiction... (full context)
Letter 13
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 without letting... (full context)
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...moral instruction. Then, Scott notes the difficulty of representing true reality in fiction and compliments Jane Austen’s Emma as an admirable example of a new style of fiction, in which realistic... (full context)
Letter 14
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...writes Alice another letter from London in June. She begins immediately with a description of Jane Austen’s death from Addison’s disease, saying that she wants “get it over” because it is... (full context)
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay goes on to speculate that perhaps Jane Austen preferred her fictional worlds to her real life, and that she might have welcomed... (full context)
Letter 16
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
...of all this” might even make them immortal. She celebrates the longevity of works like Jane Austen’s Emma and states her belief that the City of Invention will exist even if... (full context)