Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen

by

Fay Weldon

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Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen: Letter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Fay writes Alice another letter from Cairns, this one dated December. Fay sets out to inform Alice about Jane Austen’s life, beginning with her childhood. Fay relates that Austen was the youngest of eight children of a clergyman in Hampshire, England. Noting that many books about Austen paint her family as idyllic, Fay believes instead that their life together was as complex and gritty as any modern family. Still, Fay describes the Austen family as well-read, intelligent, and affectionate with one another. The family lived in a small town called Steventon, which may seem isolated by modern standards but was relatively close to London. Fay speculates that the Austens may have traveled often to the city and other nearby towns.
Expressing her suspicion that the Austen family could not have been as idyllic as some biographies would suggest, Fay hints that history is not as far-off or simple as one might imagine. Rather, it has all the nuance and reality of the present, and Fay argues that modern observers have a duty to respect that complex truth when looking at historical figures.
Themes
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Fay goes on to contend that Austen probably knew a fair amount about politics and international relations, but that the Church would have instructed her to worry more about the afterlife than the ills of her society. Fay points to Austen’s interest in her own definitions of morality as evidence that she was “socially aware” by the definitions of her own time, if not by the definitions of the present day.
Again, Fay points out that Austen’s work should be evaluated in the context of her own time’s values. Additionally, by making morality and social awareness a key part of her analysis of Austen, Fay returns to the theme of the author’s moral responsibility and suggests that this kind of leadership is an essential aspect of true authorship.
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The Influence of History Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Fay also tells Alice the details of Georgian parenting practices, including sending children out of the home to be nursed or even raised through childhood. Fay notes that Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra was two and a half years older and known to have a temper, and then she goes on to tease Alice about Alice’s own childhood attempt to drown her new baby sister. Children, Fay concludes, are the same now as they were in Austen’s time, but there may have been less of an effort to save them from each other back then.
Pointing out the possible similarities between Austen’s childhood and Alice’s, Fay again emphasizes that history is as much a living reality as the present. This connection between literature and real life is also an example of the book’s constant blending of multiple realities, in which fact and fiction overlap and reflect each other.
Themes
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The Influence of History Theme Icon
When Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra were children, they were sent away to be educated by an older widow, in whose care they both became very sick. They returned home with their parents soon thereafter but were then sent away to another boarding school. Fay speculates that such early trauma may have influenced the Austen girls’ development, but she believes that the Austen parents would not have viewed these experiences as traumatic.
Fay’s description of the Austen sisters’ early separation from their family subtly mirrors the hints that she provides about her own childhood with Enid. Fay suggests that a fractured family is a form of trauma and seems to demonstrate, through her letters to Alice, how literature might be a way of healing such real-life wounds.
Themes
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Fay tells Alice that most of the brothers of the Austen family remained at home while Jane and Cassandra were away at school. The sisters were said to be “happy enough” at their school and returned home a year later. Fay admits to being “distressed for the child Jane,” worrying that these childhood tribulations may have driven Jane to invent the worlds of her novels in order to escape the pain of her lived reality.
By showing how gender standards affected even the most basic facts of Jane Austen’s childhood, Fay provides evidence for her claims about the way that female writers are shaped by social oppression of women.
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According to Fay, Jane Austen would have also needed to learn how to take care of her home and manage her household’s servants. She notes that women’s work is commonly viewed as worthless, but warns Alice not to look down on domestic tasks, saying that they have real value and dignity. Fay also notes that Jane and Cassandra studied the classics and other academic subjects, and were likely well-behaved, as the clergyman’s daughters.
Here, Fay points out how restrictive gender roles and systemic misogyny can devalue even important, meaningful forms of work. This observation about housework is implicitly connected to Alice’s criticisms of Austen’s work; because her novels seems concerned with stereotypically feminine things, Alice thinks they are worthless.
Themes
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Reflecting on Austen’s seeming indifference to the “disease, hunger, and distress” of the world around her, Fay argues that Austen was actually trying to rise above these ills in a quintessentially English way, rather than complaining about them. She imagines the Austen household as “busy, cheerful, and self-disciplined,” but guesses that Jane nonetheless likely felt stifled by living with her parents and their expectations. Reflecting on the idea that Austen’s work may have been a reaction to this repression, Fay notes that this interpretation may be too simplistic. She suggests instead that a gifted writer like Austen would have felt compelled to develop her skills no matter what. “The writer’s life is work, and the work is the life,” Fay tells Alice.
Drawing an explicit connection between the lives of writers and the works they produce, Fay advances her argument that it is impossible to separate works of fiction from the personal and historical contexts of their authors; the author’s life is part of the essential scaffolding of fiction. However, the author also holds a unique internal motivation to write, which cannot be ascribed entirely to outside circumstance. According to Fay, the personal and the historical must always join to create real literature.
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The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay goes on to describe Austen’s first book, a satirical novel written at age fourteen. Fay admires Austen’s grasp of narrative and imagines how exhilarated she must have been to complete the novel, but also guesses that Austen’s family may not have been particularly admiring of it. Fay concludes her letter by telling Alice that she plans to return home to England soon, but that Alice should not be afraid of having to meet her. Fay encloses a population breakdown of Georgian England for Alice’s reference.
Imagining how the Austen family might have reacted to Jane’s early work, Fay implies that their feedback must have shaped Jane’s less satirical choices in her later works. Again, the audience is a key collaborator in the creation of literary work.
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