The unique experience of being a woman in both the personal and professional spheres recurs throughout Aunt Fay’s letters in Letters to Alice. At times, female identity is depicted as a liability, while it is an asset in other instances. Through the examples of Fay, Alice, and Jane Austen, Weldon builds an argument for reading and writing as feminist pursuits, through which individual women can reconcile conflicting sets of societal expectations and construct their own identities.
Fay notes that Jane Austen herself sometimes seems to reproduce the misogynist attitudes of her society. Fay speculates that Austen’s novels reflect both the oppressive gender roles of her society and her own efforts to forge an identity within them. In her very first letter to Alice, Fay writes that Austen’s novels generally reflect the realities of gender roles, rather than criticizing them: “She chides women […] men, on the whole, she simply accepts.” Fay also invokes Virginia Woolf’s concept of the “Angel of the House,” who whispers in the ear of young women and reminds them to be sympathetic and charming rather than confrontational. Austen’s genteel works, in Fay’s opinion, demonstrate the persistent presence of that oppressive figure. In her discussion of Mansfield Park, Fay suggests that the presence of two completely opposite female characters—sweet Fanny and disrespectful Miss Crawford—might point to Austen’s struggle to accept her own identity as both a “good woman” and a “bad” one. Fay notes that the real Austen was both intellectually rebellious and loyal to her family, and wonders whether “the split between good and bad never, in Jane Austen, quite reconciled.” In this case, even where Austen’s work reproduces oppressive gender roles, it may also give its author a chance to come to terms with them.
However, Aunt Fay also identifies countless examples of writing working to counter sexism and misogyny, in both Jane Austen’s time and in the 1980s, when Letters to Alice is set. In each case, the act of writing serves as a form of rebellion, in which a female author is able to use her work to shape her own reality rather than accepting the oppressive rules of her society. The immediate physical danger that women faced in Jane Austen’s era, especially from childbirth, is perhaps the most striking example of the oppression that Fay describes throughout her letters. She notes that Austen is often criticized for seeming to ignore these dire circumstances, but Fay argues that by creating thoughtful heroines and happy endings, Austen was successfully imagining a different, less dangerous model of womanhood. In Pride and Prejudice especially, Austen turns the stark reality of a woman’s practical need to marry into a pleasant, often comical romance. Living in a world that limited her agency as a woman, Austen seems to use her novels as a way to regain the power of self-determination. Although Fay does not face the same kind of peril that women of Austen’s day did, she is still burdened by expectations tied to her identity as a female writer. She hints at the danger she faces when traveling alone for her work, and at the idea that readers take issue with her unflattering descriptions of men and boys. Fay also tells Alice that Alice’s father, Edward, views Fay as “dangerous to the structure of society” because she is a feminist. Nonetheless, Weldon shows Fay continuing to write her way toward an improved society, in this case by directly rebelling against Alice’s father and advising his daughter to become a feminist writer herself.
Although Fay does not claim that literature has the capacity to erase oppressive gender roles, she nonetheless concludes that it is a meaningful way for women to gain power and live out feminist ideals. Discussing Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey, Fay describes the protagonist’s love of reading novels and quotes a section in which Austen writes: “If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?” The inclusion of this text hints at the literary bonds between Fay, Alice, Austen, and even Weldon herself, underscoring how works of literature can bring women together and help them find shared strength in their creative powers. At the novel’s conclusion, Fay tells Alice that she expects her reconciliation with Alice’s parents to go well as long as she does not talk about writing or feminism, among other subjects. Clearly, the world in which Fay lives continues to challenge her attempts to define her own identity as a woman. But again, Fay nonetheless insists that “the City of Invention will stand,” finding joy and selfhood in the continued process of creation and exploration that literature affords her.
Feminism Quotes in Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen
The Angel of the House stood at Jane Austen’s elbow, that is my guess, and she never quite learned how to ignore her—except perhaps in the early Lady Susan, for the writing of which, I imagine, she was gently chided by her family, and drew back quickly as at the touch of a cold, cold hand, and never tried that again.
In the days of the Empire, women followed their husbands around the globe, and shipped their children back to England to live in unspeakable boarding schools, where they were as like as not sexually abused, beaten, and starved, without apparent alarm to anyone. You do not know, little Alice, how recent or how lucky you are.
I think indeed she bowed her will and humbled her soul, and bravely kept her composure, as a good nun in a good convent might, and escaped into the alternative world of her novels: and simply because she was so good, or did become so, and her self-discipline was so secure, she brought into that inventive world sufficient of the reality of the one we know and think we love, but which I think she hated, to make those novels outrun the generations.
We do not need offices and a muted typewriter and no disturbance—we need a table half-way between the fire and the window, and the muted sound of the world around: to be of that world, and not apart from it. It is easier for women than for men, and the world being what it is, and women writers, to their great advantage, are not allowed wives.
You are not the model for Chloe in Female Friends. Too many of my friends claim that role, in any case, for you to be able to do so sensibly. Any woman who waits upon her husband as a servant upon a master—and they are legion—all too easily sees herself in Chloe. But I made her up. I promise.
The rebellious spirit, raging at being so cast out by mother and father, learning the defences of wit and style—Miss Crawford. The dutiful side, accepting authority, enduring everything with a sweet smile, finding her defence in wisdom—Fanny. So tempting, in fact, that I shan’t resist. I shall offer it to you as an explanation of Jane Austen’s determination to make the unctuous Fanny a heroine.
Alice, we will, as they say, be a long time dead. You must carve your living self as sharply into the Rock of Eternity as you can. Please send your novel off; don’t do as you threaten and forget it. Of course it’s more than likely to be rejected and come back, and of course you will then feel rejected and discovered in your presumption. But if you embark on these things, you can’t draw back.