Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen

by

Fay Weldon

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Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen: Letter 7 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Fay writes to Alice from Singapore in February, having stopped there for a long layover in the middle of her trip from Australia to England. She notes that she has been in touch with Enid and Edward and may reconcile with them, which causes her to wonder briefly “why any of us read novels, life being so novelettish.” Fay also describes her unease in Singapore, where “the concept of the group soul” feels so prominent and threatening to her individualistic Western sensibilities.
Fay’s apparent excitement at the idea of reconciling with Alice’s parents brings immediacy to her argument that literature can shape reality. Here again, writing has introduced a new possible reality, in this case one in which Fay and Enid are on good terms again. Though Fay’s letters to Alice are ostensibly nonfiction, they nonetheless seem to hold the same capacity for shaping real-life events that Fay ascribes to novels.  Fay’s remarks about the very different feeling of being in a new place—in this case, Singapore—also add depth to the theme of external context’s influence on an individual’s writing.
Themes
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay then turns to telling Alice what books she should read in order to understand Jane Austen better, listing several of the authors that Austen herself read and musing on the difficulty of knowing how Austen truly felt about them. She digresses into wondering whether Alice is politically minded, quickly concluding that she is probably too privileged to think about the ills of her society. She also imagines that Alice has not read widely enough to be truly empathetic.
Again, Fay explicitly argues for reading fiction as a prerequisite for empathetic thought. She also seems to draw a parallel between Alice and Jane Austen herself, ascribing Alice’s lack of political awareness to her privileged upbringing—which is similar to the way in which Fay explains Austen’s relative unconcern with the ills of her own society.
Themes
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Describing the societal conditions under which Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, Fay paints a picture of the desperate poverty and famine that struck England. She contrasts this with the light-hearted images of the Bennet sisters’ romances and predicts that Alice will call Pride and Prejudice nonsense because of this disparity between reality and fiction. However, Fay then argues that the value of Austen’s work lies in the need for the ruling classes to read fiction and so gain the empathy to understand the rest of society.
Fay expands on her idea that fiction can still play a role in shaping society even when its content is not outwardly political. Rather than discounting Pride and Prejudice for its emphasis on emotions and relationships, Fay argues that it is these very qualities that make it useful within oppressive societal contexts. Again, fiction’s power lies in its ability to imagine a different reality, rather than its ability to recreate the existing one.
Themes
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Fay pauses to reflect further on her stay in Singapore, in particular the idea that she deserves whatever happens to her as a result of her choice to travel alone as woman. She acknowledges the danger she may face but tells Alice that she feels responsible for accepting it, even though it may not be fair that traveling is harder for her than for a man.
Fay expresses a somewhat harsh perspective on the responsibilities of women to protect themselves within a dangerous society. She seems here to enact some of the same tension between being a “good woman” and a “bad woman” that she imagines Jane Austen struggled with, in that she blames herself for dangers that are not her fault. This moment hints at the way writing helps Fay resolve this tension around her role as a woman, much as it may have helped Austen.
Themes
Feminism Theme Icon
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Fay returns to discussing Jane Austen’s work, in particular Emma, which Alice claims is too boring to continue reading. Fay summarizes the plot, in particular admiring the way the opening sentences draw the reader immediately into the City of Invention. She likens Emma to an inviting, welcoming house full of touches that make the reader feel at home. However, Fay also acknowledges that Austen’s personal challenges and frustrations may have affected her writing of the book, making parts of the middle harder for the reader—in this case, Alice—to connect with.
Speculating about how Austen’s personal life may have impacted her creative work, Fay reiterates that fiction is always constrained by the outside world. However, she also celebrates the undiminished power of the City of Invention, in which Austen was able to turn difficult personal circumstances into a novel that still rewards—and challenges—readers.
Themes
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Concluding her analysis of Emma, Fay acknowledges how the novel reinforces some objectionable social norms. She still finds joy, however, in watching Jane Austen judge her characters over and over again, rewarding and punishing them accordingly. She concludes by suddenly reversing her position on Alice’s desire to write a novel, telling her at last: “By all means, try.”
Here, Fay expresses delight in fiction’s endless moral judgments and logical developments, which she values even when their content goes against her ideas of how society should be. For Fay, the joy of acting as an instructive author or engaged reader seems to outweigh even the need for fiction to push society forward. This somewhat irrational turn in Fay’s thinking is reflected in her sudden encouragement to Alice, whom she has previously told not to work on her novel.
Themes
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon