Article on Letters to Alice Essay
Advice to a Green-Haired Punker
By HILMA WOLITZER
| LETTERS TO ALICE
On First Reading Jane Austen.
By Fay Weldon. |
he premise of “Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen” is that literature matters in the larger scheme of things, that reading can inform and alter ones life. This slender volume is its own best argument. Billed as an epistolary novel, it is more a study of a writer (and reader) thinking aloud about art and civilization.
The letters, from “Aunt Fay,” are addressed to an imaginary niece away at school, a green-haired punker who rebels against reading Jane Austen and who is busy writing her own novel. “Letters to Alice” was probably inspired by a series of instructive letters Austen sent to an actual niece on the occasion of her first attempts at novel-writing. Fay Weldon, the gifted and prolific British novelist, has a clear debt to Austen; her own fiction reveals a dry wit and is devilishly incisive in its portraiture. In this book, she refers to the “City of Invention,” where novelists build “Houses of the Imagination” and readers explore for pleasure and illumination.
“Here in this City of Invention, the readers come and go, by general invitation, sauntering down its leafy avenues, scurrying through its horrider slums, waving to each other across the centuries, up and down the arches of the years.” Critics, we are told, are mere bus drivers here.
The fictitious Miss Weldon tries to lure Alice into this metropolis, “between the Road to Heaven and the Road to Hell,” acknowledging the competition of the local McDonalds, of certain books with empty calories and even of Alices own “nervous dread of literature.” She approaches the city as both a builder and a visitor, with appropriate measures of awe and trepidation.
Woven into the narrative is a kind of fiction. Aunt Fay is estranged from Alices parents, and although she hopes to become reconciled with them, she deliberately gives their daughter subversive advice and aid. In the single letter she writes to her sister, Enid, Fay defends herself. “Of course I am not encouraging your daughter Alice to write a novel. Of course she should concentrate on her studies.” Still, she offers her niece outrageous rewards for literary effort and does encourage rebellion against the conventions that stifle the creative spirit.
Most of all she makes Alice think. She draws her attention, and ours, to the inevitable connections between art and life by alternating passages from Austens novels with the facts of her real experience. In the most moving sections she describes the conditions under which women lived in early 19th-century England. The details of domesticity, the fact of womens total financial dependence on fathers and husbands and the statistics on mortality in childbirth are equally affecting. At once there is a sense of the general tenor of the times and of the particular personal history of one writer – a spinster in her parents Georgian household – inventing and recording other lives at a modest round table between the hearth and the window. Miss Weldon persuasively defends Austen for excluding certain worldly concerns from her work and praises her for her moral courage and for independence of thought and expression. “It is true that the world of politics and power, dissent and revolution, feature almost not at all, in Jane Austens novels, but this was surely from choice rather than from ignorance.”
The main concentration in “Letters to Alice” is on the life and work of Jane Austen. We witness her childhood, her evolution as a writer and even her early death from Addisons disease, which is now treatable. But this is a generous book, with a broader scope – one that evokes the various joys and responsibilities of the artist and the consumer of art. It defines and celebrates their shared experience, and perhaps it should be required reading, a prerequisite for students of literature.
Aunt Fay writes to Alice: “Only endure! Loveless marriages turn again to loving ones; unwanted children become wanted; the study that bores you today may enlighten you tomorrow. Do not change courses in mid-stream, Alice. Do not abandon Eng. Lit. for Social Studies. Simply write your own book to counteract the danger of too much analysis; synthesize as much as you analyze, and you will yet be saved.” W E can only make assumptions about Alices response to such impassioned urging. (This reader immediately sought out and read Austens lesser-known “Lady Susan.”) We do learn that Alice plugs away at her novel and then submits it for publication, risking painful rejection. Her aunt has prepared her for that likelihood too. The eventual commercial success of Alices book – it far outsells all of Aunt Fays – is reported with rueful pride. Lucky Alice, to be saved from her own inclinations toward indolence and arrogance by Miss Weldons seductive invitation to the City of Invention. For anyone without such a wise and loving aunt, there is this splendid little book.