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.

Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen: Letter 10 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Fay writes to Alice from London in April. She begins with a story, which she warns Alice will seem unbelievable, about getting a ride home from an art dealer and touching a paper package in the car. The package feels hot to the touch, and when Fay points this out to the art dealer, he says that it’s because the painting inside is by a famous artist. Fay concludes that even though she does not admire the painter, the combined intensity of other people’s admiration must alter the physical properties of the painting.
With this anecdote, Fay claims that the presence of an engaged, appreciative audience actually has the power to change the material form of an object. This claim is her strongest yet about the importance of a reader’s perspective in making meaning out of fiction.
Themes
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Fay goes on to claim that though it seems incredible, publishing professionals often report being able to tell just from touching a manuscript whether or not it will be 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 book while sensing something perhaps too powerful within it, “something capable of taking the world by its heels, and shaking it.” Fay draws a parallel to her own work, which readers often accuse of being “horrible about men,” when all Fay means to do is report the actions of men as she witnesses.
Fay acknowledges that Alice might not believe her claims about the near-magical power of enthusiastic readers, but she remains devoted to the idea nonetheless. Additionally, she gives an example of how the capacity to change the world is not always an asset for a novel, because that very power may frighten readers who do not welcome the change. With the mention of her own novel, Fay implies that those frightened readers may often have been men, and that their reluctance has historically stood in the way of women’s writing.
Themes
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
From there, Fay argues for the importance of Northanger 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 with her friend. Fay includes a quote from the book about women’s tendency to be ashamed of reading novels, in which Austen asks: “If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?” Fay takes the passage as evidence of Austen’s regard for the magic of the City of Invention.
The discussion of the importance of novels within the plot of Northanger Abbey adds a new dimension to the idea of a multilayered reality, in which different fictions coexist and inform each other. Quoting Austen, Fay also reveals the underlying feminism of this idea, showing how connection through fiction can empower women and strengthen their bonds with each other and their creative work. Notably, Fay, Alice, Austen, and perhaps even Weldon herself all inform each other through their literary pursuits, giving the reader a detailed example of this very phenomenon.
Themes
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
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 even though his father disapproves. She emphasizes how Jane Austen addresses the reader directly throughout, and recommends that Alice keep her audience in mind as well when she writes. Fay concludes that this generosity toward readers is what turns the craft of writing into an art.
Fay uses the example of Northanger Abbey’s success as yet another piece of evidence to convince Alice of the author’s responsibility to consider the needs of their real, living readers.
Themes
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Get the entire Letters to Alice LitChart as a printable PDF.
Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen PDF