Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen isn’t strictly fiction, but it is written by a fictionalized character. Novelist Aunt Fay has a niece she’s rarely seen – 18 years old and believes that she knows everything about the world of fiction after taking half a course of English at university. While Alice wants to write, she is reluctant to pick up anything by Jane Austen to read. Aunt Fay writes 15 letters to her niece, helping her to see the intricatisies of fiction and the marvels of Austen.
This book is beautifully written, with passages that float across and lift off the page. For any huge fan of Austen (and I certainly count myself among them), Weldon manages to point out much of Austen’s brilliance and reminds you why you fell in love with the pioneering writer in the first place. Though Fay doesn’t seem like to Sense and Sensibility much, (an appraisal with which I disagree), she does an in-depth look at all of the books that Austen wrote in her short life. She examines the time period, the expectations, her family life, and what her life as a spinster really meant.
One thing in particular that I loved were Weldon’s descriptions of fiction and writing in general as building houses and villages. Good novels are well constructed houses, genres live in different areas of town, and the flashy brilliant celebrated masterpieces often fall by the wayside in a few years. Contained in the first letter, it is worth reading that section of the book for that description of writing alone.
However beautiful Letters to Alice is, it still did not manage to engage as much as I had hoped. It is not a book one picks up for a casual read, but rather a scholar would study for its perspectives and depths. I wish this had been around when I was a student, but picking up the book now did not feel like much of a Saturday leisurely read.
I still loved the book, and will treasure certain passages, going back to read them as I get stuck on my own writing goals. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a hankering to read an Austen again.