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Letters to Alice, on first reading Jane Austen

Originally published in December 2004. Book 45 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Fay Weldon
Year published: 1984
Pages: 156 (pocket book)
Genre: Literary essays and criticism
Where got: Public Library

About the book:
I came across this book in the literature section of the public library, while browsing for quick reads (I’m slowly reading a long non-fiction book and like to relax between sections with short novels). Although Letters to Alice… is shelved under General Fiction in the Germanic Languages (Dewey class 830), the suggested classification on the book’s publication information page is Dewey class 823.7, which is the classification for Jane Austen studies.

At first glance the book seems to be a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction, and therefore rather hard to classify under the clear-cut Dewey system. It’s classifiable as fiction because it is written in the form of an epistolatory novel, as letters to Weldon’s imaginary niece who stands in for the common reader, and it is classifiable as non-fiction because it contains a non-fictionalised retelling of historical facts (Jane Austen’s life and times) and speculations about the nature of reading, the writer’s craft and the relationship between reader and writer. But is it really non-fiction, and is it really about Jane Austen?

I’m not so sure. It seems to me that if the framework of the book is fictional, the rest is too, that is, Aunt Fay in the book is not Fay Weldon, but someone who just happens to have certain things in common with Fay Weldon – a fictional version who is in some ways different from the original and who may have opinions different from Weldon. It’s hard to tell without knowing her personally, but in an aside to the dedication, she calls the book an epistolatory novel and the characters fictional, which tells me that the contents are more or less fiction, so why not the narrator as well? (She doesn’t exactly mention Aunt Fay, but hints at her being fictional too).

Jane Austen is mentioned often, and her life story is retold in broad strokes and the social conditions of her era are discussed, but the text is no more an analysis of Austen’s work than it is of writers, readers, writing and reading in general. The opinions expressed may be those of Weldon, or of the fictional Aunt Fay. Not having read any of her non-fiction, I can’t really say for sure how fictional or non-fictional the book is, but it is fun to speculate.

Technique and plot:
Whatever may be said about the fictionality or non-fictionality of the book, it is an interesting study of writing and writers, reading and readers and the relationships between them. For Jane Austen enthusiasts it will not cast any new light on that sainted author, and some might in fact be upset with Weldon about personal remarks she makes about Austen and certain aspects of her writing (especially those who do see her as Saint Jane). The book is written in a light, somewhat irreverent and chatty style, as letters to a budding young writer and student of English Literature who is struggling with her studies and writing her first novel. Although we only ever see one side of the exchange, there is a story – of the developing relationship between Alice and Aunt Fay, and the process of Alice’s writing.

Rating: A light and somewhat enlightening study of authors and readers and the relationship between them. 4 stars.


Dorte H said…
I would definitely classify it as fiction, but it is not uncommon for postmodern novels to play with the conventions and make it difficult for the reader to see what is what. If it is done well, I think it is fun, but my poor students get terribly confused.

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