Letters to Alice was first published in 1984. Ever since, every now and again, an inspired English teacher assigns this book to her class and we get a run on it at work.
We have had a flurry of interest again in the past couple of months and I decided that Austen in August was the perfect opportunity for me to check this one out too.
The back cover promises "a sequence of letters reminiscent of Jane Austen's to her own niece (as) 'aunt' Fay examines the rewards of (reading Jane Austen)."
It begins with Aunty Fay writing to her 18 yr old niece, Alice from Cairns in Queensland. Alice is studying English Lit at uni and thinking about writing a book. Aunty Fay is giving her advice about both....
She begins with popular fiction...
"The other books are...thrillers and romances, temporary things. These books open a little square window on the world and set the puppets outside for you to observe. They bear little resemblance to human beings, to anyone you ever met or likely to meet. These characters exist for the purpose of plot, and the books they appear in do not threaten the reader in any way; they do not suggest that he or she should reflect, let alone change...(You are meant to believe while the reading lasts, and not a moment longer)."
Moves onto classics in general...
"Of course one dreads it: of course it is overwhelming: one both anticipates and fears the kind of swooning, almost erotic pleasure that a good passage in a good book gives; as something happens."
"You do not read novels for information, but for enlightenment."
We then have letters detailing Jane's family life and times, imagined in Aunty Fay's slightly acerbic voice and judged through a modern, feminist lens. Even though she acknowledges that "they may have lived in the past but they were as real to themselves as we are to ourselves, and as complex."
We find out that Jane's early books were initially written to be read aloud. She was very aware of her audience because early on she actually had an audience which is why "she knows how to end a scene, an episode, a chapter, before beginning the next: when to allow the audience to rest, when to and how to underline a statement, when to mark time with idle paragraphs, allowing what went before to settle, before requiring it to inform what comes next."
And Aunty Fay gives her niece (and us) the reason why we all should read and reread Austen... "That to be good is to be happy is not something particularly evident in any of our experiences of real life, yet how badly we want it, and need it, to be true. Of course we read and reread Jane Austen."
Fay spends many chapters discussing the merits, highs and lows of Jane's books.
But I have to say that I found Fay's advice rather annoying. And if I was her niece I would feel almost duty bound to ignore it or rebel against it on principal!
That said...my advice is exactly the same as Fay's...read and reread Austen...as often as you can. Simply because you can.