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. Fay notes that she is far from home and hopes that she knows enough to be helpful to Alice. She has not seen Alice since the girl was two, and now hears from Alice’s mother—Fay’s sister, later revealed as Enid—that Alice dyes her hair black and green and is in conflict with her mother. Fay wonders if Alice’s letter to her might somehow play a role in helping reduce conflict between mother and daughter.
From the first paragraph of Fay’s first letter, Fay draws a connection between the written word and solutions to real-world problems. Even though she barely knows Alice, she still speculates that the power of the letters between them may be strong enough to bring Alice and Enid back together. By noting that Alice’s unconventional hair is also part of the trouble between the two, Fay also brings the notion of how respectable women should behave into the conversation from the start.
Alice has asked in particular for advice about Jane Austen, whose works she is reading for her 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 of Austen’s novel Emma that she finds in her hotel room, noting that the book is not as worn as the thrillers and romances also present. Fay suggests that although these often-read genre novels are more popular, they are ultimately “interchangeable” and lack Emma’s depth of meaning.
Fay immediately addresses Alice’s reservations about Jane Austen, indicating how strongly she feels that high-quality literature is among the most meaningful things in life. By noting that Emma has been read less frequently than the popular genre novels, Fay introduces the idea that literature can be challenging and requires genuine effort and engagement from readers.
Fay admits to Alice that she herself sometimes feels “a nervous dread” of reading serious literature, but that she nonetheless wishes to convince Alice of “the pleasures of a good book.” Fay is skeptical of Alice’s college’s ability to teach her these pleasures and notes that even though she is herself a novelist, she may also fall short. Nonetheless, she asks Alice to read her letters carefully and at least consider her advice.
Again, Fay acknowledges that creating meaning from her letters will be in part Alice’s responsibility, highlighting the idea that the reader contributes to literature’s power as much as the author does.
Fay implores Alice to read good literature, noting that she defines literature “by what it does, not by what it is.” To illustrate this point, Fay explains what she calls the City of Invention. In this glorious city, Fay writes, authors build Houses of the Imagination and readers visit to explore and learn from the houses.
Fay’s magnificent City of Invention serves as an especially pointed argument for the way that literature leads readers toward a multitude of intriguing truths, all of which exist simultaneously like the various houses throughout the city. By using a geographical metaphor, Fay also hints at the importance of physical and historical location in the analysis to come.
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 poem by Francis Thompson, betting Alice 500 pounds that she has not read the poem. Fay then goes on to celebrate the shared experience that readers find in visiting the City together, noting that this endless discussion and debate forms “the real history” of civilization.
Emphasizing the importance of the visitors to the City, Fay again insists on the reader as a key component of literature’s power. She elevates the rich dialogues of readers over the idea of one literal history, introducing the reciprocal link between literature and historical context that she goes on to develop in subsequent chapters.
Fay points out the house that Jane Austen built in the City of Invention and suggests that Austen’s works constitute a second life for the novelist, one that extends far past her actual lifetime. Fay also expresses her opinion that it was not necessarily Austen’s lack of a husband and children that allowed her to write so successfully, noting that domestic duties can provide their own “surging energy” to a writer.
Again, Fay discusses literature as if it were its own form of history, providing a new way of being for Austen that both conflicted with and enlivened her life outside of writing. Fay notes that Austen’s role as an author was not to shut out the world around her, but to use it to inform her fiction and imagine an improved world that might shape the years to come. Fay also introduces a complication to the image of the feminist writer, noting how the traditionally feminine burdens of husband and children could actually be assets to creativity under some circumstances.
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 that Fay went away with their father while her sister stayed home with their mother. Fay suggests that part of Alice’s lack of interest in reading stems from her mother, who is not interested in literature.
Here, Fay suggests that one task of the reader of literature is to pass on an appreciation for reading to others. Again, literature cannot function with an author alone; it requires a reader in order to gain its full power.
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, some more dangerous, some more popular with tourists. Readers, in Fay’s model of literature, can be demanding and unappreciative visitors, but authors nonetheless continue to build house and invite those visitors in. She continues to explore the neighborhoods of the city, telling Alice about the unique features of each, from the suburb of Sci-Fi to Romance Alley.
Fay’s tour through the City of Invention is perhaps the book’s most vivid example of the multiple realities that literature creates. Fay describes an incredible array of worlds, all of which are equally real. For Fay, truth is not absolute but rather varied and constantly changing, and the City provides a vision of how reading allows one a unique path through this complex idea of truth.
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 wonders if this particular conformity is one of the reasons that Austen’s 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 not write a novel until she has gained more life experience and thoroughly explored the City of Invention.
By noting that Austen’s books’ tendency to uphold traditional gender values may be a key to their continued success, Fay wryly hints at the pervasive nature of gender roles in the present day. Her discouragement of Alice’s ambitions also clarifies Fay’s belief that only readers can truly be writers, again privileging the act of reading as crucial to any exploration of humanity.