Fay writes Alice another letter from Cairns, this time in November. She begins by extolling the miracle of fiction writing, noting with excitement that she has just finished a novel of her own. She states that she longs to return home to England and may see Alice there soon. She also thanks Alice for her letter and commends her for having read the Francis Thompson poem mentioned in the previous chapter, saying that the 500 pounds should reach her soon.
Fay’s excitement upon completing her novel exemplifies the way that fictional worlds can reflect and add value to the real world. Her desire to return to England also underscores the importance of place in the creation of literature; Australia was the appropriate place for Fay to write this latest novel, but now that the novel is complete, she no longer feels attached to its landscape.
Returning to the idea of the novel that Alice wishes to write, Fay discusses the idea of the Muse and how oppressive the idea of it can be to the writer. She also mentions a related term, The Angel of the House, coined by Virginia Woolf to describe the presence that lurks behind female writers and warns them to be sweet and charming instead of expressing their own ideas. Fay describes abstract concepts such as Truth and Beauty as being similarly antagonistic to authors, all competing for attention as the writer tries to work.
Describing the Angel of the House, Fay explicitly mentions for the first time how the pressures of traditional gender roles stand in the way of female writers. She also depicts the negative aspects of the various pressures on writers more generally, beginning to show Alice that part of the author’s role is to work under the constraints of a variety of external expectations.
Fay goes on to warn Alice of all the forces in the real world that will appear to distract her from her work as a writer. She mentions the hardship of managing friends, colleagues, critics, and family, but then tells Alice that all of these 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 real world,” and that the battle created Austen’s novels even as it slowly killed the author herself. Fay also recommends that Alice read Austen’s little known early novel, Lady Susan, which Fay believes was never published because it was not considered respectable and ladylike enough.
After warning Alice of the range of pressures that might affect her writing, Fay complicates her vision of the writer’s audience by introducing the idea that pressure from readers is part of what brings fiction to life. Additionally, Fay ties the constraints of gender roles to Jane Austen specifically, hinting at Austen’s struggle to reconcile her respectable exterior with her rebellious inner life.
In order to fully appreciate Jane Austen’s work, Fay argues, Alice must know more about the era in which she lived. Fay states that the time period writers live in may be even more influential in their fiction than their own personalities and lives. She begins by exploring the concept of unquestioned beliefs, suggesting that one’s beliefs come more from the standards of their social context than from the individual’s own inner motivation. Although the truths expressed in Jane Austen’s work may seem obvious to the modern reader, Fay writes, their values were much less obvious in Austen’s time.
Here, Fay highlights her belief in the strength of cultural and historical context in shaping works of literature. She introduces Alice to the idea that books should not be evaluated only on their content, but also on how that content relates to the circumstances of the era in which the author wrote.
Fay sets out 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 vulnerable women were to poverty and death. Fay describes what Alice’s options as a young woman would have been, from working long days on a farm to marrying and surrendering her power and identity to her husband. Because women had so few options for ensuring basic survival, Fay argues, it is only natural that Austen’s heroines would have been obsessed with marriage. She also notes that writing was one of the few ways that women could respectably earn money at the time.
Delving more deeply into Austen’s historical context, Fay illuminates not only the circumstances that could have shaped Austen’s novels, but also the very present danger of being a woman in Georgian England. By presenting basic facts about the realities Austen and her heroines faced, Fay offers explanations for behavior that may seem silly to a modern reader like Alice, underscoring the importance of both history and feminism in Fay’s analysis of Austen’s work.
Fay goes on to describe the continuing hardships that a woman would face after marriage, focusing in particular 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 of the City of Invention. Austen would not have considered her society particularly bad, Fay argues, and so it makes sense that she would have focused instead on writing about the interpersonal matters that interested her.
Again, Fay’s vivid depictions of women’s lives enhance her argument for a feminist interpretation of Austen’s work. She also ties these historical facts to her understanding of the City of Invention, in which Austen was able to create a happier version of her own world and perhaps provide a model for improvement in the real world.
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 reading Austen’s novels. Fay also notes that the natural world and architecture of Austen’s time would have been very beautiful, even as the people living in it were frequently malnourished and diseased. She interprets Austen’s works as efforts to bring out the beauty of this harsh reality and encourages Alice to suspend her disbelief as she reads.
Having established the realities of Austen’s world, Fay again invokes the idea of Alice’s own responsibility. Unless Alice suspends her disbelief and reads Austen’s works through a lens of compassion and understanding, the novels cannot come to life. Without an active reader, Fay argues, even great fiction is incomplete.
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 broad societal change that eventually led to the modern day. She concludes by telling Alice that she has heard from Alice’s mother, Enid, who is concerned that Fay is “un unsettling influence on Alice.” Fay also notes that Alice’s father, Edward, thinks that Fay, as a feminist, is dangerous to society. Nonetheless, Fay states that her goal is only to be “responsible and informative and helpful” and asks Alice to reassure her parents.
Here, Fay explicitly states the mechanism by which novels can create change in the real world. She immediately reiterates that point by describing the effect of her own writing on Enid, offering Alice a form of proof of the power of literature to enact new realities. Fay also points to the continued misogyny of the modern day when she paraphrases Edward’s anti-feminist opinions.