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 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Fay’s next letter is sent in January, again from Cairns. She begins by correcting a fact she told Alice in the previous letter, having found a new historical source with different information. She muses that “fiction is much safer than non-fiction,” because a fiction writer can be boring but never actually wrong.
Fay again expresses her belief in the imaginative power of fiction, while hinting at the dangers of non-fiction. Because Fay’s letters are non-fiction within the world of the novel yet fiction in the real world, they carry aspects of both safety and danger, muddying the boundaries between realities and providing the reader with an example of the kind of multiplicity that Fay argues for throughout the book.
Themes
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
Continuing to refer to an 1813 encyclopedia, Fay relates its information about childbirth in Georgian England, focusing in particular on its dangers and the misogyny that surrounded it. She tells Alice to be “thankful that you live now,” noting that the Church would prioritize saving the baby over the mother during a difficult birth. Fay also notes that neither Jane nor Cassandra Austen ever had children, suggesting that perhaps Jane avoided marriage because she was imaginative enough to think ahead to the horror of childbirth.
Fay continues to outline the dangers of life as a woman in Georgian England, continuing the discussion she began in the last chapter. This time, she links the power of imagination to the ability survive these dangers, illustrating a new aspect of the reciprocal connection between fiction and reality.
Themes
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Fay returns to her discussion of Jane Austen’s youth and notes that she seemed to be happy as a young adolescent. She describes Austen’s work on a satirical history of England and points out how even as a teenager, Austen “raises invention above description.” Around the same time, Austen also wrote an unfinished novel in letters and jokingly demanded that her brother pay her for it, which Fay takes as evidence of young Austen’s awareness that writing was genuinely valuable. However, she acknowledges that the demand may have been only a joke after all, and that it is impossible to know whether interpretations of Austen’s actions have any real merit.
By explicitly tying Austen’s satirical attempt at historical analysis to the value of imagination, Fay advances her argument that it is the author’s responsibility to invent the world anew rather than simply describe it as it is. Fay also points out the difficulty of separating fact from fiction in historical analysis, suggesting that an element of satire could be present in nearly any historical document. In detailing her own struggles to understand the past, Fay provides an especially immediate example of the constant interaction of imagined and literal realities.
Themes
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Fay goes on to note that not everyone who knew Jane Austen liked her, pointing to a letter from a cousin of Austen’s that describes her as “whimsical and affected” while admiring Cassandra. However, Fay also points out the difficulty of drawing conclusions about Austen from sources like these, and calls speculating about the past “in a way parasitical.” Nonetheless, she goes on to speculate a bit more, wondering whether the men that Austen met may have found her too independent, as her cousin did.
Even though Fay is completely aware of the futility and even immorality of trying to draw definite conclusions about the realities of history, she nonetheless continues to engage in this practice. In doing so, she enacts the reader’s role in creating meaning, bringing her own perspective into her experience of reading documents from Austen’s past.
Themes
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Get the entire Letters to Alice LitChart as a printable PDF.
Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen PDF
Fay informs Alice that she has to stop writing and pack for her trip back to England. She states that she will return to the rest of Jane Austen’s life in detail in later letters, but summarizes it quickly for Alice in the meantime. She notes that the Austen family moved several times after Jane’s father retired and then died, and that Jane herself died in 1817 of Addison’s disease. Her books, Fay points out, live on in the City of Invention.
After focusing in such detail on Austen’s childhood and early adulthood, Fay skips over the details of her later life, presenting Alice with only basic facts. The lack of emotion in this section provides a form of evidence for the idea of history as a kind of story, which requires a reader’s attention to come to life. Without Fay’s active engagement, Austen’s life becomes a flat series of facts rather than a narrative, demonstrating the need for the reader in the creative process.
Themes
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon