Thursday, 11 November 2021

A generous and wise aunt

Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen How brilliant it would be to have an aunt like Fay Weldon in her epistolary novel, Letters To Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen. She not only dispenses advice to her niece Alice on literary criticism and the art of writing, but she's also generous with her money; £500 for a word processor, and covering the cost of studying at UCLA.

The first of sixteen letters explains that Alice is "doing a college course in English Literature, and ... obliged to read Jane Austen" Alice finds Austen boring, petty and irrelevant and sees no purpose in reading her books, but Weldon attempts to persuade her niece otherwise. Austen represents "literature", which is enlightening, as opposed to "Thrillers and romances". The former makes the reader reflect on ideas, history and life. The latter "can never enlighten ... they are unimportant".

In later letters Weldon considers individual novels of Jane Austen in order to expand on her thesis. She also spends time explaining what is involved in being a writer, since Alice expresses a desire to write a novel.

All but one of the letters is addressed to Alice, the odd-one-out being written to Alice's mother Enid, a fictional sister for Weldon. The letters are a useful device for writing about academic ideas in an informal, conversational manner, with a good dose of humour too. The book feels a little dated in these days of the Internet and email, but the content is still valid, "enlightening" too.

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