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From Phyllida's Desk

Fay Weldon's Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen

Letters to Alice on first reading Jane AustenLetters to Alice on first reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Alice" is a fictional character, the author, Fay Weldon, signs her letters to this nonexistent niece "your aunt Fay" and most of the book reads more like essays than a novel. Sounds ghastly, right? It probably is if you read it at the wrong moment.

Like many people who loved this book, I received it as a gift, put it aside, and then started reading one day when I was in the right mood. And BAM! I was hooked and read this short piece in an afternoon (127 pages in this edition). It definitely helps to like Jane Austen; it's hard to imagine someone who hasn't read Austen or doesn't like her work enjoying this book.

Most of the "story" consists of Aunt Fay "explaining" Austen's life and times to her niece, a young woman of eighteen who has dyed her hair punkette style (the book was first published in 1984) and who has to read Austen for school--and isn't looking forward to it. The conceit is cleverer than it sounds, and there's a neat twist at the end. Fay delivers some lofty and, for some readers, pretentious-sounding passages on the meaning of Great Literature, while discouraging her niece from writing a novel before she has had anything in the way of a life.

But the real meat of this work is the discussion of Austen as a person and a writer who lived in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and into the first two decades of the nineteenth as an Anglican clergyman's daughter in village England. As Weldon (or Aunt Fay) describes it, all these facts are inseparable, and essential, in understanding Austen's work. And if you aren't familiar with the horrible realities of that time and place, even for a middle-class woman (as best we can define Austen's level for today's world), then you lack the necessary background to appreciate her fiction--and you will be troubled by all those questions whose answers elude junior-high school students: Why didn't "they" (Austen, her sister, her fictional characters, middle- and upper-class women in general) just "get a job" instead of remaining trapped in shabby-genteel poverty? Why does Austen almost never refer to current events, among the most dramatic in English history (the Napoleonic Wars, great stuff!)? Why does she not describe all those peculiar articles of clothing that we would like to visualize, or elaborate on all those bizarre two-hundred-year-old customs? And why would anyone willingly marry Mr. Collins?

For someone like me, who spent years immersed in Pride and Prejudice and who has spent even longer than that reading and thinking about Austen as a person, woman and writer, reading this book was like an alcoholic's finding a case of Jack Daniel's outside the kitchen door. I was flabbergasted as Weldon put forward every last one of what I thought were my unique opinions about Austen and her works and times. The obvious explanation is that my opinions aren't unique or even all that unusual, but even among my fellow Janeites I often feel alone in my outlook. Seeing all my ideas laid out one after the other and presented as Gospel--bam bam BAM BAM BAM--was, let us say, highly addictive.

Many readers who love this book cite the "City of Invention," Weldon's beautifully-imagined metropolis of all the lasting literary works, with the reeking slums of porn huddled somewhere near the docks and the prefabricated suburbs of genres like romance and mystery rising far too quickly on the outskirts. It is a nice metaphor, but it's also fair to say that times have changed. We feel very differently now about porn and genre fiction than we did almost thirty years ago. Not only do many more of us read and write it unashamedly, but the idea of a strict division between Literary and Genre is as dated for many of us as "separate but equal" as a sound basis for a public school system. And when Aunt Fay starts railing against "word processors" and decrees that longhand is the only way to write fiction ... oh, please!

No, the stuff that makes me want to run down the street waving this book and shouting "Read this now!" is the wealth of insight about Austen. I could fill this generous review space several times over with my favorite quotes, but I will have to content myself with picking out two or three of Weldon's major themes.

First: her discussion of fiction as different from, and superior to, nonfiction. It "rais[es] invention above description" (p. 52). Almost anyone can be taught to write a detailed, accurate description. The genius of fiction is the author's imagination (thus the literary "City of Invention"). Weldon rejects the well-worn advice always to "write what you know," seeing it as the source of Austen's duller passages when she followed it too faithfully. "Fiction, thank God, is not and need not be reality" (p. 32). "Novels are not meant to be diaries" (p. 90). "You do not read novels for information but for enlightenment" (p. 29).

Second: Weldon's feminism, beginning with her accounts in the early letters of the harshness of women's lives at that time, especially the dangers they faced from constant childbearing in a world without modern medicine or access to birth control. She takes "a tender view of Mrs. Bennet" of Pride and Prejudice, with her five unmarried daughters, saying that "Women were born poor, and stayed poor, and lived well only by their husbands' favour." "Enough to give anyone the vapours!" (p. 27)

Weldon's assessment of Mr. Bennet ("callous and egocentric," p. 109) and Mr. Woodhouse of Emma ("irritating, difficult and hypochondriacal," p. 80) is refreshingly harsh and accurate, even if not necessarily the way Austen meant us to see them, characters who may have been based on her own beloved father. As in her sympathetic attitude toward Mrs. Bennet ("tenderer than her creator's"), Weldon is "looking at [Austen's world] from the outside in, not the inside out" (p. 30).

"Austen's books are studded with [examples of] male whims taking priority ... over female happiness," says Weldon. "[Austen] does not condemn. She chides women for their raging vanity, their infinite capacity for self-deception, their rapaciousness and folly; men, on the whole, she simply accepts" (p. 19-20). Weldon finds examples in the Austen family history that reflect the way of that world, that "when a man has a principle, a woman pays for it," as when one of Austen's aunts was accused of shoplifting and her husband refused to buy the shopkeeper off, insisting on a trial. "He believes in honour; she stays in prison" (p. 94).

Finally, there is the most fascinating argument of all, one that explores ideas I have been wrestling with literally for years: whether Austen was truly "good," really accepted the morality of her times, or simply had her spirit crushed. Austen lived her forty-one years as a dutiful spinster daughter, at home with her (eventually) widowed mother and fellow-spinster sister, never allowed to achieve independent adulthood. Did she embrace this restricted existence happily and cheerfully because she believed it in her heart to be right and just? Or did she bow to necessity, accepting defeat with the good manners her society required of women? I disagree with Weldon's idea that Austen brought on the Addison's disease that killed her as a sort of auto-immune response to frustration and years of repressed anger. Claire Tomalin's biography has established the most likely cause as tuberculosis caught by nursing one of her brothers.

But apart from psychobabble, there is a real sense in the arc of Austen's life and career of a brilliant, fierce, angry rebel caught, beaten down and stifled into docility. Weldon suggests that there was another reason besides the obvious financial one that Austen never married: that in the woman and the writer there was a "ripple of merriment, this underground hilarity" and that "something truly frightening rumbled there beneath the bubbling mirth." "She knew too much … for her own good" (p. 97-98).

Weldon presents an interesting theory in her interpretation of Mansfield Park, the first book Austen wrote after the death of her father. In the contrast between the "unspeakably good" heroine, Fanny Price, and the "witty, lively, and selfish" Mary Crawford, Weldon suggests that Austen was working out her own internal struggle between her "good" and "bad" sides that was "never quite reconciled." The "rebellious spirit" in Austen learned the "defences of wit and style" like Mary, while the "dutiful side accept[ed] authority, endur[ed] everything with a sweet smile and [found] her defence in wisdom" (p. 109).

William Deresiewicz, in his book A Jane Austen Education (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), accepts the dutiful Austen as the real one, the "good" side her only side. "Usefulness and kindness," he says, "those same standards of decency she had championed in Mansfield Park … mattered to her more than all the wit in the world" (p. 192). But this, I am convinced, is a man's view, even two hundred years later still preferring what Virginia Woolf called the "Angel in the House," "utterly unselfish," "sacrificed herself daily," "never had a mind or a wish of her own" (p. 22), to the uncomfortable reality of a genius in a woman's body.

Like Weldon, I say an emphatic No! to so depressing a view. That wit is too ferocious and too powerful, too great a triumph of art and inspiration to be discarded so casually. Weldon reminds us of "Lady Susan," Austen's unpublished epistolary novella, in which a thoroughly "wicked woman" romps through genteel society but is never punished as fictional morality demands (p. 85). It's unlikely that Austen's family approved of "Lady Susan;" certainly Austen's father never tried to have it published as he had Pride and Prejudice.

"If it's approval you want, don't be a writer," Aunt Fay warns her niece (p. 112); earlier she has said that "A writer writes opaquely to keep some readers out, let others in. It is what he or she meant to do. It is not accidental - obscurity of language, inconsistency of thought ... it's not for everyone, it was never meant to be" (p. 106).

Rather than believe in a Jane Austen who rejected her greatest gifts in favor of a dubious piety, I accept Aunt Fay's version: "I think indeed she bowed her will and humbled her soul, and bravely kept her composure ... and escaped into the alternative worlds of her novels ... and her self-discipline was so secure [that] 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" (p. 40, emphasis mine).

Anyone who loves Jane Austen's work and has wondered what the person was really like, or why she wrote what she wrote, should not miss this book. Whether or not you agree with all of "Aunt Fay" 's conclusions, you will be left with some excellent food for thought--or, if you prefer, several cases of superior bourbon.

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