Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen


Fay Weldon

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Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen: Letter 12 Summary & Analysis

Fay’s next letter is also from 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 angry. Fay suggests that the opposing personalities of Miss Crawford and Fanny might illuminate “the split between good and bad” that Austen was never quite able to reconcile within herself.
In her discussion of Mansfield Park, Fay provides an example of how the many realities of fiction offer a particularly useful opportunity for women living in oppressive societies. For Austen, the creation of fiction provided a way to resolve the impossible contradictions of being an intelligent, imaginative woman; writing gave her the chance to experience life as a “good woman” and a “bad woman” at the same time, which she could never have done in her lived reality alone.
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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 hard to be good without his guiding moral presence. In the book, the sweet Fanny wins the loving husband who will always protect her, showing what Fay calls the “wishful thinking” that behaving well leads to happiness.
The example of the virtuous Fanny demonstrates how fiction like Austen’s can reinforce oppressive social norms as much as it can challenge them. This adds nuance to Fay’s claims about the relationship between literature and society and demonstrates that that relationship is neither inherently good nor bad.
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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 to teach their readers. She notes that in some countries, fiction is commonly viewed as an instrument of morality, and she sympathizes with that idea.
In this conclusion, Fay reiterates her view of authors’ immense responsibility, elevating it to something “sacred” and thus emphasizing the author’s importance to a degree she has not previously.
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