This epistolary novel is made up of sixteen letters from our narrator (Fay—who, yes, apparently shares some similarities with the book’s author) to her niece, Alice, who is eighteen and studying literature and feeling grumpy about having to read Jane Austen. Fay’s letters endeavor to explain why Austen is still relevant, and to give Alice some context about Austen’s life and times, but end up being more wide-ranging than that: they contain a lot of advice about reading and writing (Fay is a novelist, and Alice is working on a novel too), and also bits about Fay’s life and travels and family history. I found it to be smart and funny and fun, and it made me want to read Emma (which I’ve never read) or re-read Northanger Abbey or Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility (all of which I read in school, years and years ago). Fay is rather didactic, but in a way that I think works: I like how she mixes pronouncements on literature in general with details of the plots of Austen’s novels, or details about the circumstances of their writing or publication. I like the funny bits, like when Fay refers at one point to “Shelley and his wife Mary of Frankenstein fame,” then immediately follows it by referencing “Byron and his sister Augusta, of incest fame” (103). Or like this, when she’s slightly-condescendingly talking to Alice about wanting her to enjoy literature:

I know no one’s ever set you a proper example. (Your mother reads books on tennis, I know: I doubt she’s read a novel since an overdose of Georgette Heyer made her marry your father. Books can be dangerous.)(20)

I also like that Fay writes to Alice about things like empathy, and in particular about empathy as something we can cultivate by reading novels; the narrative voice of this book is concerned with the transformative possibilities of fiction/literature, and I find that emphasis pretty pleasing.

2 Responses to “Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon
Carroll & Graf, 1990 (Originally Taplinger Publishing Company, 1984)”

  1. Jenny @ Reading the End Says:

    Aw, this sounds wonderfully sweet. And I can’t believe you’ve never read Emma! It’s so wonderful! Oh I hope you read it and you love it — I had to read it maybe three times before I clicked into it, but now it’s my favorite Austen. You’re okay with not-completely-likeable protagonists, right?

  2. Heather Says:

    Yeah, I think I tried Emma in high school and couldn’t get into it, but that was a long time ago/I should give it another chance. And yes, I’m totally okay with not-completely-likeable protagonists :)

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