Just as the audience collaborates with the author to bring life to written works, so too does historical context shape literature and its meanings. Aunt Fay presents Alice with an in-depth analysis of the pressures of history on Jane Austen’s work, while also hinting at how external context has shaped Fay’s own novels. However, Fay also makes it clear that history is not a straightforward oppressive force on literature. Rather, it is a lens for understanding an author’s works and bringing them into conversation with the present. Through Fay’s argument to Alice, Weldon suggests that readers and writers have a duty to examine history’s influence on literature, as well as the reciprocal influence that literature may also have on history.
Throughout the novel, Aunt Fay cautions Alice against judging Jane Austen by modern standards and implores her to consider the many effects that Austen’s context might have had on her work. What’s more, Fay also suggests that Austen’s novels played their own role in shaping history. The push and pull between literature and history in the case of Jane Austen illustrates the idea of a dynamic bond in which each shapes the other. Of Austen and her family, Fay tells Alice: “They may have lived in the past but they were just as real to themselves as we are to ourselves, and as complex.” With these words, Fay rejects simplistic interpretations of the past. She argues that each moment in history was as multifaceted as the present, with countless—sometimes mysterious—ways of shaping those who lived through it. Through her detailed descriptions of life in Georgian England, Fay demonstrates how the customs of the era—in particular, the social roles available to women—would have influenced how Austen wrote about her heroines and their adventures. Even though the plots and characters may seem inconsequential to Alice, Fay notes: “Jane Austen’s lifestyle (as they call it now) was very different, and her call to moral arms more muted; but it was there.” By considering Austen’s works from the perspective of their historical context, Fay seeks to uncover their continued relevance for modern readers. Fay also notes the innumerable smalls ways in which Austen’s works subverted the values of their time. Of Northanger Abbey, for example, Fay suggests that the gothic plot parodies popular novels of that genre, throwing their values into question and hinting that Austen possesses “something capable of taking the world by its heels, and shaking it.” Though Fay acknowledges that tracing the exact influence of works of literature through history is impossible, she maintains that books like Austen’s do have the power to shape society slowly over time.
Weldon also uses the life of Aunt Fay herself to illustrate the effect of context on a writer’s work. Even as she analyzes Austen’s work and the history surrounding it, Fay’s own letters show how she is influenced by the world around her, and vice versa. Several times, Fay notes how the local traditions and literary communities of the places she visits affect her work. The “slow, blank, powerful unconscious” of Australia intrigues her, while the idea of contemplating “the group soul” in Singapore terrifies her. Fay’s own travels underscore the idea that specific places and times carry unique modes of being that have the power to influence writers. On a more personal level, Fay’s writing also shifts the context of her own life in both positive and negative ways. In particular, Fay’s sister Enid is angry at her for using details of Enid’s life in one of her novels—that is, the fact that Enid makes bread rolls for her husband, Edward—which causes a falling out between the two sisters. However, it is also Fay’s writing that seems to bring the women back together, as Fay’s correspondence with Alice builds a bridge to communicating with Enid. The causes and effects of Fay’s own writing enact a small-scale version of the historical dynamic that Fay perceives in Austen’s work, providing the reader with a relatable modern example of how books and the outside world can shape each other.
Ultimately, Fay seems to conclude that the interplay of history and literature is neither something to celebrate nor something to bemoan. It is simply something to understand and, crucially, bring to one’s interpretation of the present. Writing of Austen’s tragically young death, Fay calls for perspective, noting that death is only a natural component of a complete life, “part of the whole and not the definition of the whole.” She implies that while readers should not ignore the darker truths of an author’s history, neither should they exaggerate their significance. Of her bleak descriptions of childbirth in Georgian England, Fay writes to Alice: “I tell you all this so you don’t forget to be thankful that you live now.” By learning about the history surrounding Jane Austen’s works, Fay believes, Alice will be better equipped to understand and appreciate the unique context that affects her own life and writing.
The Influence of History ThemeTracker
The Influence of History Quotes in Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen
But no one burns Emma. No one would dare. There is too much concentrated here: too much history, too much respect, too much of the very essence of civilization, which is, I must tell you, connected to its Literature. It’s Literature, with a capital ‘L’, as opposed to just books.
It takes great courage and persistence to swim against the stream of communal ideas. The stream itself is so much part of daily existence, it is hard to see it for what it is, or understand that it flowed in a quite a different direction in other decades.
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.
You see! The born novelist. She is raising invention above description; what she makes herself above what the real world has to offer. She will put up with writing a history so long as she doesn’t have to get the dates right, and mocks those who take the whole thing seriously, and so long as she can be biased.
But I do dislike all these ‘ifs’, and ‘may haves’; they can only be speculation; and are in a way parasitical: the present sucking nourishment from the past, the living from the dead, as if there wasn’t enough emotion and event now to sop up all our desire for analysis and explanation.
Fiction, on the whole, and if it is any good, tends to be a subversive element in society. Elizabeth Bennet, that wayward, capricious girl, listening to the beat of feeling, rather than the pulsing urge for survival, paying attention to the subtle demands of human dignity rather than the cruder ones of established convention, must have quite upset a number of her readers, changed their minds, and with their minds, their lives, the society they lived in: prodding it quicker and faster along the slow, difficult road that has led us out of barbarity into civilization.
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.
So what are you going on about? I hear you repeat. Why this reverence for Jane Austen, who was blind (in our terms) to so much? I will tell you. The gentry, then as now, has to read in order to comprehend both the wretchedness and ire of the multitude. It is not only ignorance in the illiterate we need to combat, it is insensitivity in the well-to-do. Fiction stretches our sensibilities and our understanding, as mere information never can.
As if it were decreed that your mother Enid should put bread rolls to rise every night for your father Edward’s breakfast, in order that a certain paragraph in a certain novel should be written. As if the City of Invention, little by little, using a chapter here, a paragraph there, is waking from its slumber and will eventually be more real than life itself, and we its servants, its outrunners.
All over the country irons were held in suspension, and car exhaust bandages held motionless and lady gardeners stayed their gardening gloves, and cars slowed, as Emma spoke, as that other world intruded into this. It does more and more, you know. We join each other in shared fantasies, it is our way of crossing barriers, when our rulers won’t let us. ET and his like is our real communication. Hand in hand the human race abandons the shoddy, imperfect structures of reality, and surges over to the City of Invention.
Journalists, in particular, who work so cleverly from the real world, understand description, but not invention. It is not surprising. They lose their jobs if they do invent—novelists get sued if they don’t invent. So I, Grace, D’Albier, must go round the world, stared at as a victim of paternal and maternal incest: and though my parents still speak to me, they do so in a rather stiff way. They can comprehend that I made it up, but their friends can’t.
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.
Sometimes, I think, the exhilaration of all this being so great—of ideas, notions, fantasies, speculations, claims false and valid, advice good or bad, the pattern made by altering truth as day melts into day, is great enough to make us immortal. These things have been, and so in a sense always will be: they are not finite in time. Only our bodies are that. Let them blow us all up if they want, reduce the planet to ashes (as they say)—the leap between nothing and something, once made, is always made.