P&P and Letters to Alice: Tension between context and text

Both texts engage with the tension between the author’s personal values and those of their society.

How has your exploration of this connection between the texts enhanced your understanding of the values and contexts of each text?

 .            Both Jane Austen and Fay Weldon write against the values of their respective contexts. Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, and Weldon’s epistolary text Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen epitomise the opposing values each had to her own society, and express similar opinions on the topic of education for women; similarly each writes in a style that undermines her own form in the hopes of morally educating readers. These connections between the two texts highlight the values and contexts of each text, as well as exposing the tension between each author’s personal values and those of their society.

.            Education for Georgian women was generally limited to the art of accomplishments that were undertaken in order to better attract a husband. Austen, however, is at tension with her society’s values of education. In Pride and Prejudice, she expresses her disdain for the tradition of accomplishments when Caroline Bingley’s enthusiasm for Mr Darcy’s ideal list of accomplishments is met with ironic authorial intrusion: “’Oh! certainly,’ cried [Mr Darcy’s] faithful assistant, ‘no one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with.’” Caroline Bingley then proceeds to list an extensive range of arts and wiles that a woman of the era ‘must’ possess to be accomplished. The ideas communicated by Miss Bingley are familiar to the society of the time, and are acceptable values regarding the expectations of women, but Austen’s humorous interjection portrays Miss Bingley as overeager and sycophantic. Miss Bingley is already an established unlikeable character: therefore, any opinions she expresses are treated with equal dislike. Austen’s respect for accomplishments is further diminished when supposedly ‘accomplished’ Miss Bingley does not marry Mr Darcy, but unorthodox, independent Elizabeth Bennet does instead. However, the values of Austen’s society were not entirely redundant, as Weldon exposes in Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.

.            As Austen discloses at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, “The business of [Mrs Bennet’s] life was to get her daughters married.” A society central to marriage is certainly out-dated, but Weldon, in her epistolary text Letters to Alice, exposes the reasons why marriage was imperative in Austen’s time. Weldon extensively lists numerous professions Georgian women were able to pursue, most of them either highly laborious, unsafe, or disgraceful, concluding with the ultimatum “Or you could marry.” Marriage was thus the most respectable source of income a woman of the Regency period could pursue, and any means to make oneself more desirable to prospective husbands were taken. The most effective means of attracting a match was to be accomplished. Thus, the education a woman in Austen’s period received served the same purpose that an education does today – to make one more qualified to earn money. Weldon hereby highlights the importance of accomplishments in Austen’s society as a path to marriage and therefore financial security (security having been identified as one of the most basic elements in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).

.            Letters to Alice was published in 1984, during the decade of feminist backlash. The previous decade was an era of vehement feminist protests such as public bra-burnings. By the 1980’s, however, feminism had gained women of the developed world more rights than they had ever had before, and the guerrilla tactics of feminism protests were no longer required. In the absence of such aggressive feminism, conservatism could return without fear; hence the feminine backlash. Weldon expresses her disdain for women’s inability to appreciate the education that had been fought for them, and their inability to use it to further themselves morally. “You must read, Alice, before it’s too late,” Weldon constantly implores her fictional niece, emphasising the importance Weldon places on reading. Aunt Fay uses second person when talking directly to Alice, but this second person is also directed at the reader. Her didacticism is accessible to us in its directness and modern language. Weldon’s insistence for Alice, and by extension, the reader to read Literature with its capital L is necessary for moral development: just as Austen’s characters attain moral development through experience, Weldon highlights Literature’s ability to enlighten; to give us the experience necessary for moral development. The tension between Weldon’s canonical appreciation and the postmodern world she writes out of is thus exposed.

.            During the Georgian period, novels were a relatively new medium of writing, and were still considered secondary to the more highbrow form of literature: the poem. Most novels read by Georgian women were works of domestic fiction – often melodramatic works that had a concentration on domesticity, children, and courtship. Pieces of domestic fiction reinforced the Georgian expectations of femininity. The idea of ‘The Angel of the House’ embodied these values. The term was first coined by Coventry Patmore, but is better recognised in Virginia Woolf’s criticism of the idea. Woolf described ‘The Angel of the House’ as one who ‘slips behind her’ while writing: “[the Angel] whispered, ‘My dear, you are a young woman…Be sympathetic: be tender: flatter: deceive: use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own.’” In the words of Weldon, Austen “learned how to get round the Angel, how to soothe her into slumber and write while she slept.” By writing Pride and Prejudice as domestic fiction, Austen thus manages to convey the radical feminist ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft with neoclassical rationality without disgracing herself. By using the new medium of the novel as a way of instructing women morally, Austen changed the art of the novel: she recognised that the new form had the ability to simultaneously entertain and educate, and reformed the way novels were written. The tension Austen creates between the reformed domestic fiction style of writing and her true purpose in writing it creates an interesting juxtaposition between the thoughts of the characters and authorial intrusions. The feminine attributes expressed in Austen’s time were further aided by the Conduct Books, such as Fordyce’s Sermons, a popular instructional piece Mr Collins reads from. Austen expresses her disdain for their qualities by authorial intrusion: “…after some deliberation [Mr Collins] chose Fordyce’s Sermons…before he had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, [Lydia] interrupted him…”. Austen interrupts Mr Collin’s narration with humorous narration of her own: by describing his reading of the sermons as monotonous, she implies they are boring, out-dated, and as ridiculous as the well-established, repulsive sycophant who reads them. She thus educates her readers morally in how they perceive the Conduct Books by authorial intrusion. Weldon similarly undermines her own form.

.            While Austen undermines her conservative form with radical ideas, Weldon undermines her radical form with her conservative values of canon preservation. Weldon writes out of the postmodern tradition. Postmodernism was an age of experimentation with form and storytelling: irony, meta-fiction, playful narratives, and pluralism were common features of the postmodern era, and Weldon subverts many of these concepts in Letters to Alice. Letters to Alice is postmodern in its self-reflective discussion of writing, its playfulness with the epistolary form, its reliance on intertextuality, and the verisimilitude created in the blending of fact and fiction. The tension Weldon illustrates between her values and the values of her postmodern context are exposed in her appreciation for the literary canon. Postmodernism values high literature as equally as it values lowbrow fiction, a concept rejected by Weldon. “And because [works of lowbrow fiction] don’t enlighten,  they are unimportant,” Weldon remarks, contrasting her values to the central ideas of blending of high and low culture that postmodernism represents. Weldon upholds the ability of literature to enlighten: while Austen advocates for moral education through experience, Weldon sees experience as inherently linked to reading “Literature with its Capital L”. Weldon’s Capital L for Literature is yet another example of the significance Weldon places on the canon, again stressing how she writes out of her postmodern society.

.            While both authors write out of the values of their respective societies, they do so effectively, communicating their own ideas and values using forms in ways that subvert their own purpose. As Weldon says to Alice, “Fiction, on the whole, and if it is any good, tends to be a subversive element in society.”

#jane austen #pride and prejudice #fay weldon #letters to alice #letters to alice on first reading jane austen #essay #advanced english


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