The transition from early 1 9th century England to late 20th century Australia reveals an overwhelming shift in the dominant discourses and ideologies surrounding the role of women. While Jane Austin composed her seminal 1813 romance Pride and Prejudice against the social and historical backdrop of Regency England, a time when patriarchal ideals governed notions of femininity, Fay Welder’s 1984 epistolary novel Letters to Alice bears the hallmarks of post-feminist women’s liberation and agency.
However, through lose examination of the intellectual connections woven between this pair of texts, it emerges that not only does Welder’s text take form as a didactic treatise to her young nice that reflects her own contemporary views on women and women writers, her letters prompt an unquestioningly feminist re-reading of Statute’s representation of women in her own literary works.
As a result, it is these connections that yield the recognition that despite the contextual divide separating this pair of texts, both authors are irrevocably bound in their purpose to didactically challenge the politically charged presentation and role of women in their respective cultural spheres.
Composed in the late 20th century – an era where feminist discourses of equality were deeply entrenched in political and academic spheres – Welder’s text is narrative shaped as a didactic novel addressed to her factionalism ‘green haired punk’ niece, using the epistolary form to both instruct and demonstrate the power of literature “with its capital L” to function as a vehicle for women to both change and challenge dominant social conventions and values.
To achieve these means, it is no coincidence that Weldon is seen to appropriate the epistolary form – “a popular form of fiction at the time” used by female writers such as Austin herself- to create a intellectual connection that transcends the contextual gap separating each text to promote a specifically feminist view of writers and the function of “Literature”. Here, Weldon is herself the embodiment of her self-described breed of “strong women, women who work, think, earn, have independent habits”.
Her authoritative didactics to the burgeoning writer Alice -“simply speak… And you will be listened to. And eventually, even enjoy your captive audience” – whimsically demonstrate the legacy of feminist ideals that were initially catalysts through early Regency female authors such as Austin whose patriarchal context kept their revolutionary works “shelter[De] behind the cloak of anonymity”.
Given the modern context of Letters to Alice, it is undeniTABLE that Weldon writes from a discourse of female agency when she informs Alice that to enter the “immortal” “City of Invention”, she must metaphorically “swim against the stream of communal ideas” and “demonstrate to the reader the limitations of convention” that societies inscribe upon its populace as “unquestioned beliefs”.
The strong tone employed in such directives highlight that from Welder’s feminist perspective, the value of female authorship and literature is derived from the capacity of one’s own personal value system to morally guide or catalyst a transformation in its readership: “Readers need and seek moral guidance… They need an example, in the light of which they can examine themselves, [and] understand themselves. Simply put, Welder’s Letters to Alice is a text that is highly political in purpose; it prompts a strong inconsideration of the function of literature to catalyst notions of female empowerment through both changing and challenging dominant social conventions and values. Taking into account Welder’s didactics regarding female authorship and social change, it becomes apparent that the intellectual connections to Jane Austin weaved within Letters to Alice prompt an undeniably feminist re- evaluation of her representation of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.
While separated by the historical divide of almost two centuries, Welder’s instruction for her niece to “swim against the stream of communal ideas” can be seen to resonate in Statute’s idealistic protagonist Elizabeth Bennett, a character who transgresses against the dominant values that governed Regency England; and whose personal virtues triumphed over the restrictions of her era.
Welder’s didactic assertion that female author’s must work to “demonstrate to the reader the limitations of convention” undeniably connect with and transform perceptions of Statute’s Elizabeth, framing and augmenting her personal values of rationality and wit as they shine through he text.
This is particularly evident through her strong authoritative tone in declarative statements: “l shall be very fit to see Jane – which is all want”, which work alongside uncharacteristic images of female activity: “springing over puddles to with impatient activity [gave her] a face glowing with the warmth of exercise” to undermine a social value system that links feminine propriety with explicit passivity. Such aspects of her character are further augmented through Austin inscribing Elizabethan dialogue with a strongly medic tone of satire and irony.
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