Comparative Study: Letters to Alice and Pride and Prejudice Essay
Analyse how the central values portrayed in Pride and Prejudice are creatively reshaped in Letters to Alice. The two texts, Letters to Alice and Pride and Prejudice, mirror and contrast the central values shared and explored by evaluating them; presenting them against Jane Austen’s context and that of Fay Weldon. Mirroring Austen’s novel, Weldon presents the central values for women such as the social values of moral behaviour, independence, and, literary values of reading and writing, from Pride and Prejudice and adapts them to a 20th Century context.
Weldon’s novel’s subtitle, On First Reading Jane Austen, suggests that the novel should serve as a filter to assist readers. The implication of this is that Weldon enables her readers to identify more fully the significance of Jane Austen as a writer, and, the significance of Pride and Prejudice as a piece of literature, exploring the ongoing relevance of its values concerning women. The aspirations and expectations of women are explored wherein the contexts of Letters to Alice and Pride and Prejudice present women in different circumstances with varying opportunities.
The changes of context between these two texts alter the situations of women and their predominant values. For example, Weldon attempts to reshape the audience’s perception of Mrs Bennet and her frantic obsession with marrying off her daughters. Jane Austen expresses a somewhat satirical tone when writing of Mrs Bennet, by using hyperbolic statements such as the constant reference to, “My poor nerves! ” Although Weldon attempts to reshape the perception of the social value of marriage by sympathising with Mrs Bennett; “No wonder… she was] driven half mad,” after listing the gender injustices and the importance of marriage in the 18th century context; Aunt Fay’s judgements aren’t entirely reliable due to her common contradictory statements. Instead, Letters to Alice provokes readers to evaluate Mrs Bennett and her daughters’ situations. Jane Austen was aware of the necessity for marriage in female lives and therefore satirises, not the hierarchy structure of classes and social status, but rather the individual behaviours present in society. Mrs Bennet is a clear example of this hereby her hysteria hints at contextual obsessions with wealth. The significance of reading and writing to Fay Weldon is apparent in Letters to Alice, where Weldon attempts to convey the significance of women as writers, commonly referring back to Jane Austen, and the comparisons between reading and writing and Pride and Prejudice. Writing is a major focus of Weldon who directs Alice in her pursuit of writing. For instance, when she talks to Alice about plots, she uses Pride and Prejudice as an example, commenting that even the plot of that novel would sound poor when explained “in a nutshell. Such comments from Weldon lead the readers to peer more closely at the components of Pride and Prejudice. Weldon similarly idealises writing by sharing with Alice the significance of Austen as a female writer in her time. Weldon’s assessment of 18th century social pressures reshapes the readers’ assumption that Elizabeth’s individual desires and adoption of female independence was relative to her context, and instead suggests Austen’s constructions reflect an underlying yearning to be liberated.
This is evident through Weldon’s comment that, “The times in which writers live are important. The writer must write out of tradition – if only to break from it. ” The importance of reading is a value that Weldon equally incorporates in Letters to Alice where she continually stresses to Alice that “you must read! ” Additionally, Aunty Fay frequently includes lists of writers, such as Virginia Wolf, she suggests as reading material for her niece, embodying the importance of reading she aligns with a successful writer.
Weldon adjusts the educational value of reading from Pride and Prejudice, to articulate it’s continual significance and value throughout the development and changes in context over time. For example, Austen mocks the character of Mr Collins in his assumption that women are in need of instruction for moral guidance, for instance when he reads to the five Bennet daughters from Fordyce’s Sermons; an instructive text about appropriate behaviour for women. Austen ridicules such texts and distinguishes this idea against Elizabeth’s passion for reading and her obvious intellect inferred through her witty personality.
This is further supported by Mr Darcy’s comments on reading as an accomplishment when he sights Elizabeth reading. Weldon evidently shares this value of reading, as it appears Jane Austen did, by using the extended metaphor of the “City of Invention” to introduce the world of literature that Weldon romanticises. She says, “It glitters and glances with life, and gossip, and colour, and fantasy… it is a city that the readers come, to admire, to learn, to marvel and explore. This conveys Weldon’s incorporation of the value of reading and writing by placing Jane Austen and her book Pride and Prejudice as part of the City of Invention; a realm in which she urges Alice to delve into. Fay Weldon’s Letters to Alice, through the didactic literary form of an epistolary novel, serves to encourage a heightened understanding of the values and contemporary issues of Jane Austen’s cultural context. In doing so, it inspires the modern responder to adopt more holistic appreciation for the plight of the characters and the values inherent in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
The fundamental importance and value assigned to marriage in the context of Pride and Prejudice is reinforced through Weldon’s discussion of the options for women outside marriage and its purpose of providing financial security for women. While Weldon attempts to reshape the audience’s perception of Mrs Bennett who “made a fool of herself in public, husband-hunting on her girls’ behalf,” by sympathising with her, Jane Austen expresses a somewhat satirical tone when writing of Mrs Bennet, by using hyperbolic statements such as the constant reference to, “My poor nerves! Austen was aware of the necessity for marriage in female lives and therefore satirises, not the hierarchy structure of classes and social status, but rather the individual behaviours present in society. Mrs Bennet is a clear example of this whereby her hysteria hints at contextual obsessions with wealth. This idea of the significance of marriage is supported through the character Charlotte Lucas. Austen constructs Charlotte Lucas as a character who does not think “highly of either men or matrimony”, and hence she marries Mr Collins despite not loving him, to ensure her financial security and elevate her position within society.
In Letters to Alice, Weldon asserts that before reading Jane Austen, Alice “must understand… the world in which Jane Austen was born. ” Weldon assists the responder to comprehend the significance of marriage as a theme in Pride and Prejudice, by highlighting the differences between the contemporary value assigned to marriage and the value assigned in Austen’s time. She satirically comments that marriage “is the stuff of our women’s magazines, but it was the stuff of their life, their very existence. ”
Weldon’s exploration of the way Austen perceived class within the time assists and ultimately colours the responders understanding of the theme of social status and the value of stability and how these are expressed and criticised in Pride and Prejudice. In Austen’s novel, the distinctions between classes and the sense of stability and order created through a rigid class system are presented to the responder. This is seen when Elizabeth advises Mr Collins that the “honour must belong to Mr Darcy, the superior in consequence, to begin the acquaintance” when he tries to break protocol and introduce himself to Mr Darcy.
However, it is also important to remember that whilst the characters of the novel conform to this innate value for class-based society, Austen also hints at the breaking down of the class system through Mr Darcy, as Weldon phrases it “marrying where he loved and not where he ought. ” Weldon asserts that “Jane Austen likes to see the division between nobility and gentry broken down,” and adds that “Elizabeth Bennet brought neither land nor money to Mr Darcy-but she brought intelligence, vigour and honesty. ” Through this, the responder is persuaded to adopt a new understanding of why Austen explores and criticises social class in her novel.
It is recognised, therefore, that Austen, through Elizabeth Bennet, is attempting to expose the flaws and superficial nature of class divisions, and thus triumph personal traits such as intelligence and honesty over the established conventions of class within society. Through contextualisation and discussion of some of the significant issues and values of Jane Austen’s time, Weldon’s “Letters to Alice” serves to enhance and colour the responder’s understanding of the themes and morals evident in Pride and Prejudice.
Weldon’s discussion of these fundamental themes and values which include marriage, social class and the role and expectations of women within society, provide the contextual background for a more holistic appreciation of the main characters actions and values within the novel. This in turn, encourages a heightened degree of empathy for the characters and a deeper understanding of the issues and themes explored and questioned by Austen in Pride and Prejudice.