Letters to Alice – Fay Weldon

Letters to Alice

When I teach creative writing I usually start by having students read the first chapter of this quasi-novel. That chapter is called “The City of Invention” and on its own it’s enough reason to read this book. Weldon takes us on a tour of novels (but also of plays and other genres) in a way that has to delight anybody who loves storytelling will find enchanting (I normally avoid that word –too twee for me — but it’s the only real choice here).

The premise is that the narrator (also called Fay) a published novelist (as is FW) and living in Australia (as I belive FW did for a long time) is writing home to her niece in England. Alice has got to read Jane Austen in preparation for her exams and she’s not happy. So her aunt writes her a series of letters which turn out to be about life and love and reading and most particularly about Jane Austen’s own life and loves.

Fay Weldon did the screenplay for the first BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and she knows her stuff. She is a serious student of Austen, and that shows here. I don’t agree with her at every turn (there is a fair amount of literary snobbery tucked in odd corners) but I do appreciate very much her thoughts on Jane Austen’s life and mind.

Most particularly I found her discussion of Mansfield Park interesting. If you’ve never read any Austen, don’t start with Mansfield Park. That’s as close as I’m going to come to a criticism of it, because I don’t want to use this space to critique it, or anything else of Jane’s. Just don’t want to do it, sorry.

But. Fanny Price, the protagonist of that novel, is a mystery to me. She lacks all the edge of Jane’s stronger females. Jane’s own mother called Fanny Price “insipid” — that must have hurt, I imagine. It wasn’t until I read Fay Weldon’s discussion on the circumstances around which MP was written that I began to understand Fanny. This doesn’t elevate poor Fanny; she still comes across as fairly insipid and masochistic, but it does make the novel more interesting to me personally. Fay Weldon’s take on Fanny is… well, I should let you read it. But will you? Really? Let me just say, then, that Jane had just lost her own father and was facing a crisis on that front that — at least in part — goes a long way to making Fanny more understandable. But still insipid.