The next letter that Fay writes to Alice comes from Somerset in March. Fay begins by wondering how she can possibly give Alice life advice, and after listing a few rules, she tells Alice that it is better for Alice to fill in the rest of the rules herself and revise them often. Fay states that “the real Secret of Life lies in Constant Revision.”
By advocating for constant revision of life’s rules, Fay denies the existence of any one absolute truth, providing further support for her point that the multiple truths of fiction are as valid as reality. She also underscores the importance of the reader’s role again by calling on Alice to fill in the blanks in Fay’s own writing.
Fay goes on to offer Alice advice about writing instead. In particular, she tells Alice not to share her work with others before it is finished and to remember that, when others do criticize her, it is actually her seeming weaknesses as writer that may become unique strengths. Then, she tells Alice that the plot of Alice’s novel sounds “perfectly dreadful,” but reminds her that the plot of Pride and Prejudice sounds dreadful as well. She advises Alice against writing about her own love life or those of her friends, saying that doing so is “the main fault of young writers.” Nonetheless, she encourages Alice to continue her work writing and in school, admitting that she, Fay, is wrong half the time anyway.
Fay seems here to deny the importance of fiction’s link to reality by telling Alice to avoid writing about her own life. However, her immediate denial of her own expertise foreshadows the eventual success of Alice’s novel, which proves that readers find her life very interesting after all and reiterates the idea that fiction draws on reality for its success.
Fay summarizes Alice’s novel, which is about a young woman who falls in love with her English professor. Fay notes that the book must be based on Alice’s own life and suggests that maybe Alice has only fallen in love as a way to distract herself from writing. She cautions Alice against rewriting constantly to update the novel as her life changes, remarking that “novels are not meant to be diaries.”
Fay’s analysis of Alice’s novel demonstrates her belief that even though life is a crucial ingredient of fiction, a novel must do more than simply reflect the real world; it must create its own reality, which can then act as a complement to the real world.
Returning to the subject of Jane Austen, Fay expresses her wish to discuss Northanger Abbey. However, she then discovers that her own copy is missing and tells Alice about getting upset and having to go buy a new one. While in the car on the way home from the bookstore, Fay listens to a radio adaptation of Emma and ponders Emma’s unkindness to the character Miss Bates. She notes how persistent the pain of such embarrassments can be in real life, with one’s mind often lingering for decades on what she calls “small, scraping memories.” Thinking of all the other listeners hearing that same version of Emma on the radio at the same time, Fay tells Alice that this kind of “shared fantasy” in the City of Invention is one of the most extraordinary forms of human connection.
Fay’s experience of listening to the adaptation of Emma is one of the novel’s most vivid depictions of the connections that novels can create between people in the real world. Imagining all the different people across England listening at the same time, Fay creates a vibrant image of how the City of Invention manifests in readers’ lived experiences. This small-scale example also hints at Fay’s idea that fiction can quite literally shape the course of real-world history.
Fay examines her new copy of Northanger Abbey and notices that the editor’s note likens Jane Austen to Robert Browning. She finds the comparison odd and warns Alice to be careful deciding what to believe when reading nonfiction and to rely on her own feelings about literature. Fay’s own letters, she points out, are also nonfiction, and she expresses the hope that Alice will only use what she needs from the letters, as if Fay’s words were “a sack of rather dusty brown rice.” She concludes by saying that Northanger Abbey will have to wait until the next letter.
This moment is one of the few times that Fay addresses the differences between fiction and nonfiction. It seems in previous passages that Fay includes nonfiction works among the houses of the City of Invention, but here she seems to undercut their importance, emphasizing that readers bear an especially large share of the responsibility for creating meaning from nonfiction. By calling her letters nonfiction and implying that that makes them suspect, Fay calls her own credibility into question and further blurs the lines between the novel’s multiple, overlapping fictions.