The narrator, Aunt Fay, begins writing to Alice, her eighteen-year-old niece, because she has heard from her sister Enid (Alice’s mother) that Alice finds reading Jane Austen in her college literature courses to be “boring, petty, and irrelevant.” Though Fay concedes that reading serious literature can sometimes be arduous, she implores Alice to continue her studies anyway, arguing over the course of the epistolary novel for the value of fiction as a means of exploration, self-improvement, and enhanced engagement with the world. Particularly because Alice herself wishes to write a novel, Fay feels that reading them must be an essential part of Alice’s self-actualization. However, Fay does not argue for fiction as a simple doorway into straightforward truth; rather, she builds a case for reading fiction as a means of grasping that there are, in fact, many different truths that can all exist at the same time. For Fay—a novelist herself—countless realities exist simultaneously, and her letters to Alice seek to demonstrate how fiction can reveal that multitude of realities.
Fay’s argument begins with an examination of the ways fiction can change its readers for the better. Depicting the act of reading as a process of exploration and exposure to new ideas, Fay focuses at first on the moral and instructional power of fiction. Throughout the book, Aunt Fay illustrates her points with the metaphorical City of Invention, where books are houses, authors are their architects, and readers are curious visitors who explore the neighborhoods. Her vivid descriptions of the City evoke the wealth to be found within books, depicting readers as explorers of a hidden geography, lit “by day by the sun of enthusiasm and by night by the moon of inspiration.” She tells Alice that the City is where “we understand ourselves and one another, and our pasts and our futures.” With such strong language and rich imagery, Fay makes it clear that she considers fiction a destination for new and essential learning. Fay also sets literature apart as a more effective form of learning than any other; she describes how reading brings the reader into a reflective space created by the author, where the reader is challenged to expand their thinking while still remaining physically safe. Fay notes that exploring the City of Invention is “all, really, education is about, should be about.” According to Fay, fiction improves the world as a whole, beyond just the individuals who actually read. She notes that “if society is to advance then those that hath must empathize with those that hath not,” recommending that people in positions of power should read more novels in order to use that power in a more humane way. Then, Fay argues, additional lives will be bettered, rather than just the reader’s.
However, as Fay’s letters to Alice continue, it becomes clear that Fay is not arguing that readers of fiction are any closer to understanding some absolute truth. They are instead learning to accept the notion that truth is not fixed, but rather infinite and constantly changing. For Fay, only the vast and varied works that make up literature as a whole can fully reflect this complex, sometimes paradoxical reality. Several times throughout the book, Fay points out to Alice that failing to question assumed truths is one of the biggest mistakes a person can make. She guesses at the so-called truths that Alice may not have examined and advises her that “the real Secret of Life lies in Constant Rule Revision.” This repeated insistence on reevaluating truth underscores Fay’s core argument that no absolute truth exists. Fay’s analysis of Jane Austen’s many novels also provides a detailed example of exactly what it looks like to use multiple texts as a window into simultaneous and even conflicting truths. Fay finds different insights into Austen’s inner life from every one of her books, building a portrait of the author that is both happy and unhappy, kind and cruel, obedient and revolutionary. There is no one correct or accurate interpretation of Jane Austen, an implication which seems to drive Fay’s preoccupation with discussing her. At the novel’s conclusion, Fay reflects on the surprisingly successful novel that Alice has written and contemplates writing a new one of her own. Thinking about all the many books that she and Alice have yet to read and write, Fay says that “the exhilaration of all this being…is enough to make us immortal.” Here, the immense variety of fiction is more than just valuable; it actually transcends human life. Again, the very notion of truth depends on the combination of countless simultaneous truths.
While the character of Aunt Fay argues for the use of fiction in understanding the multifaceted nature of reality, the book itself also backs up that claim. The book includes multiple fictions within fictions and blurs the line between these different levels of reality, starting with the name shared by Aunt Fay and the author, Fay Weldon. Reading the book requires accepting all of these layered fictions at once, putting the real-life reader through a lived example of Aunt Fay’s idea of simultaneous truths. The novel overlaps with literal reality in a number of ways: in addition to sharing a name with her main character, Weldon bases the exchanges between Aunt Fay and Alice on a real-life exchange between Jane Austen and one of her nieces. The real and fictitious elements are almost interchangeable throughout, illustrating the idea that imagined realities are every bit as real as lived experience. The characters of both Fay and Alice write novels that may or may not be based on their “real” lives. The protagonist of the short story draft that Fay sends Alice is also a novelist, but in contrast, she insists that her novel is not based on her life, even though her audience believes that it is. With so many layers of fiction and reality even within the lives of the characters, it becomes necessary for the reader to accept all of these intertwined realities as one coherent whole, even though the details remain uncertain and conflicting. At the novel’s end, Fay’s feud with her sister and brother-in-law seems to be ending, but Fay’s statement that she will “be very happy” to avoid talking about novels, writing, and feminism rings false given Fay’s outspoken character throughout the rest of the book. The reader is left wondering whether this happy ending is genuine or if, like the happy endings of some of the Austen novels that Fay analyzes, it is intended instead to make a point to the reader. By leaving the book’s readers without a tidy ending and forcing them to accept multiple possible interpretations, Weldon again reiterates fiction’s unique power to illustrate the complexity of reality.
The Purpose of Fiction ThemeTracker
The Purpose of Fiction 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.
Here in this City of Invention, the readers come and go, by general invitation, sauntering down its leafy avenue, scurrying through its horrider slums, waving to each other across the centuries, up and down the arches of the years. When I say ‘the arches of the years’ it may well sound strange to you. But I know what I’m doing: it is you who are at fault.
Some build because they need to, have to, live to, or believe they are appointed to, others to prove a point or to change the world. But to build at all requires courage, persistence, faith and a surplus of imagination. A writer’s all, Alice, is not taken up by the real world. There is something left over: enough for them to build these alternative, finite realities.
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.
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.
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.
I am trying to explain that writing must be in some way a shared experience between reader and writer: the House of Imagination built with doors for guests to enter in, and pegs for their coats, and windows for them to look out of: it is no use being a recluse. You will die of hypothermia and malnutrition if you live alone in your house, however beautifully constructed it is. It must be a welcoming place, or exciting, if dangerous, or educative, if unpleasant, or intensely pleasurable.
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.
Now, inasmuch as those engaged in particle physics will assure us that a particle alters by virtue of being observed, so we can never really know what anything is like, because the knowledge interferes with what we wish to know, it doesn’t surprise me that a painting, so imbued with the force of attention, changes its nature. Heats up. Hot property!
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.
Writers are not so rational about the writing of their books, you see, as students of English Literature like to think. They write what they write and if it was different, it would be a different book and have a different title, so fault-finding is self-defeating. And if you think your brain is dying slowly, that your head is held trapped by iron bonds of boredom, it is no more than you deserve. When you study a writer’s work in depth you are stealing from that writer: so much he or she offered to you gladly, but you are greedy: you are demanding more.
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.
The novel must be used to set before the reader examples of good behaviour. I am frequently asked why I write about anti-heroines and anti-heroes, and not role models, and all I can say in my defence is that what I write is what I write and there is not much I can do about it.
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.