Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen

by

Fay Weldon

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Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen: Letter 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Fay writes to Alice from London in February, noting how shocking it is for her to be back in a “real city” after so long in the idyllic landscape of Australia. She suggests that being in Australia hints at the existence of a “slow, blank, powerful unconscious within” the country, filling the surface world with a sense of intrigue.
Fay’s descriptions of the differences between Australia and England again reiterate how much impact external settings can have on a writer’s inner life and, consequently, her creative work.
Themes
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Fay returns to her discussion of Jane Austen by recounting the infamous story of a London publisher, Cadell, who turned down Austen’s father’s request to read Pride and Prejudice. Fay says that she doesn’t blame Cadell for turning down a book that must have sounded boring, and notes that reading novels of any kind was, at the time, “a highly suspect activity.” Educated women often wrote them, but were only expected to encourage virtuous, moral behavior in their readers.
Relating how reading fiction was viewed in Austen’s time, Fay provides a new illustration of the idea that there is something inherently threatening or dangerous in fiction, as it can offer readers new ideas of reality instead of simply reproducing existing social structures. In particular, the ingrained gender roles of women in Georgian England meant that even when they did write novels, there were clear limits on what those stories could represent. Fay seems here to categorize these genteel, inoffensive works as just books, rather than real literature as she defines it.
Themes
The Purpose of Fiction Theme Icon
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
On the subject of Alice’s novel, Fay warns Alice that she might find it hard to finish it, because on a subconscious level she might not want it published after all. Fay predicts that Alice might come up with extravagant ways to delay finishing, due to the terrifying responsibility of building a house in the City of Invention. The presence of the house, Fay says, will change Alice’s life in unpredictable ways, no matter how the novel is received. She also notes that success, for a woman, means giving up the need to rely on men, a change that may be difficult.
By exploring the hesitation that Alice may feel in completing her novel, Fay further develops the themes of both the responsibility of the author and the interaction between authorship and female identity. Ceasing to depend on men, Fay argues, is a form of hardship for women as well as a form of freedom, and the risk involved may keep some women from pursuing their creative ambitions.
Themes
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
Feminism Theme Icon
Fay goes on to quote a 1515 letter by Thomas More, author of Utopia, about his hesitation to publish his book. More worries that he will never be able to satisfy his picky, irrational readers, and that even those who do enjoy the book may never show their gratitude. Fay concurs with More, adding that writing novels also makes friends and family suspicious of the author, as they constantly worry that their lives will be turned in to fiction. Fay concludes by bemoaning Enid’s continued belief that the bread rolls in one of Fay’s novels indicate that the story is based on Enid and Edward.
Here, Fay again emphasizes the importance of reading as an act of collaboration with the author, rather than an act of criticism or consumption. Fay also betrays her ongoing preoccupation with the persistent effect of her novels on her real-life relationship, demonstrating how fiction’s influence on the shape of personal and societal histories can be negative as well as positive.
Themes
The Author and the Reader Theme Icon
The Influence of History Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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