Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen


Fay Weldon

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Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen: Letter 14 Summary & Analysis

Fay 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 so upsetting. Addison’s disease, an adrenal deficiency, had not yet been identified in Austen’s time and had no cure, which would have made the disease seem completely mysterious to Austen and her family. Fay writes that Austen would have slowly wasted away, eventually going into shock and cardiac arrest. Though she says that “the dying should be accorded some privacy,” Fay nevertheless imagines the painful details of Austen’s death.
In deciding whether or not to go into the details of Austen’s death, Fay appears to be conflicted about how much of this historical detail is relevant or appropriate to discuss. Fay seems certain that the manner of Fay’s death is significant but is not sure how to make meaning out of it. Her confusion here hints at the limits of trying to trace the connections between history and literature; they are certainly connected, but the mechanisms by which they influence each other remain mysterious.
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Fay goes on to speculate that perhaps Jane Austen preferred her fictional worlds to her real life, and that she might have welcomed an earlier death in order to live fully in the City of Invention. She tells Alice that while thinking of Austen’s death is unpleasant, death should be viewed as only a part of life, in proportion with everything else. Accordingly, she urges Alice to make a lasting impression while she is alive, and to send her novel out for publication even though she fears rejection.
By wondering whether Austen might have preferred it to real life, Fay underscores the unique beauty of the City of Invention and again reiterates her belief in its value. Her final analysis of Austen’s death also emphasizes the need for a balanced interpretation of history, in which the events of history inform one’s understanding of literature but do not wholly define it.
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Fay concludes by asking how Alice’s exams went. Fay also says that she will soon be having tea with Enid and Edward. She worries that the tea will be unpleasant, but says, “you never know.” However, she adds a postscript saying that tea has been cancelled and she is sorry to hear about Alice’s exams. She wonders if the exams are her own fault and offers to pay Alice’s way at an American university.
This moment of uncertainty for both Fay and Alice is an especially potent example of the many simultaneous realities that can exist in fiction. Fay’s relationship with Enid may be strong or weak; Alice’s academic future may be secure or not. Here, the lives of both characters illustrate the themes for which Fay has argued throughout the novel.
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