An examination of Jane Austen’s 1813 social satire Pride and Prejudice, and the reading of Fay Weldon’s 1984 epistolary text Letters to Alice on first reading Jane Austen, allows understanding of Austen’s novel to be moulded and then shifted. Pride and Prejudice is a novel of manners, focusing on marriage, Pride, Prejudice and Social Class which are projected through the characters, gentry-class setting and Austen’s authorial comment. Austen’s purpose was to portray the world of the gentry class, and satirise some aspects of her society and praise others. Weldon’s purpose is to encourage an understanding of the value of literature for individuals and society. She models Austen’s writing to demonstrate her argument and in so doing she gives a heightened understanding of values in Austen’s context. She reviews Austen’s society, providing an explanation of social conventions such as marriage, social stratification and women.
Aunt Fay’s opinions allow readers to reshape their understanding of events and characters in Pride and Prejudice. Her conclusions allow the reader to draw connections between our contemporary society and Austen’s context, which then enables us to reshape our original understanding of Pride and Prejudice and our own context. Through Letters to Alice, Weldon discusses the importance in the value of literature. This is displayed through use of the imperative ‘you must read”. Her observing of literature linking to the transcendence of time is examined when adopting the metaphor of the city of invention, which educates the readers of what good literature is and the solid foundations that make it withstand time. Aunt Fay says “Through reading literature we learn about the way people thought and how they lived, the ways we are different and the things we share”, suggesting an implicit link to Austen’s work. Weldon writes that good literature has the ability to “transcend time and reach readers across centuries”.
She demonstrates that the characters Austen created, are still relevant in modern society. The universal themes of faults and failings such as prejudice are seen in both texts, as they were been written for moral guidance purposes. Austen uses her novel to suggest how people should behave. She condemns snobbery, pride and prejudice. For example, Austen uses the character transformation between Elizabeth and Darcy and rewards them with happiness. Through Mary, Austen uses authorial comment on pride by saying “human nature is particularly prone to it…a person may be proud without being vain”. Weldon’s character Aunt Fay is comparable to Jane Austen, as she teaches her niece Alice to read, be appreciative of her world and develop empathy for those who are less fortunate. Through Aunt Fay’s didacticism, the readers see a changing Alice, similarly to Elizabeth Bennet’s character transformation in Pride and Prejudice.
Elizabeth has to overcome her initial judgements of Mr Darcy in order to gain a heightened understanding of herself. For example, after the first brief encounter with Darcy “she remained with no very cordial feelings towards him”. She is left believing he is arrogant and the most disagreeable man. However she learns from her wrongness when she begins to understand his character and his motives. This is similar to Alice’s experience, as she is taught to reshape her opinionated first impressions of Jane Austen and the Professors wife. Alice comes to understand, through Aunt Fay’s letters, that she has taken her life and educational opportunities for granted and should not make judgements of Unlovable when only based on her Professor’s opinion. Marriage is the primary concern of Austen’s novel.
The immense importance of which is referred to by Mrs Bennet “If I can but see one of my daughters happily settled at Netherfield, and all the others equally well married, I have nothing to wish for”. The plot follows Mrs Bennet’s desperation in having her five daughters married to men who have inherited a substantial fortune. The novel reflects Austen’s context where marriage was a result of seeing profitable prospects rather than love. This is exemplified through Mrs Bennet’s comment “A single man of a large fortune…what a fine thing for our girls!” Marriage benefited the couple in both wealth and social status. Austen utilises a variety of marriages to contrast and show preference to the uniting of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy who have love and respect, and have had to overcome initial personal judgements of each other. Elizabeth Bennet, who has to reassess her prejudice and Mr Darcy, who has to overcome his pride.
They become the most affluent and respected couple in the novel. The idea of entailment ensured the family fortune was inherited by the men, which meant women had limited inheritance rights. This is the main incentive for Mrs Bennet having her children married to men with a substantial fortune, as when Mr Bennet dies, the family will be left poor. This is augmented through Weldon who expresses empathy towards Mrs Bennet, and says “life was not rosy” whether women married or not. This helps to reshape the understanding of marriage gained in Austen’s novel, as it was previously believed that marriage lead to a better lifestyle for women. Fay Weldon connects the idea of marriage by linking the two generations, and interpreting the changing facets of matrimony. In Jane Austen’s period, marriage was a necessity rather than a commodity. Alice, the representative for the contemporary context, perceives marriage as an “outmoded institution”.
Alice views Austen’s novel as “boring, petty and irrelevant”, as her context believes love should be factored into marriage. Fay Weldon connects the generations by justifying aspects that have remained the same or have changed. She highlights the harsh realities of married women in Jane Austen’s patriarchal world. For example, she writes “men could beat you if they saw fit”. Weldon describes Austen’s contextual ideas on marriage through Aunt Fay who attempts to help her niece Alice, a rebellious university student, understand the necessity for marriage in Austen’s context. She uses the metaphor “To marry was a great prize. It was a woman’s aim…No wonder Mrs Bennet driven half mad by anxiety, knowing they would be unprovided for when her husband died”. This helps the readers to reshape their understanding of Mrs Bennet.
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen satirises and condemns her character for her obsession with finding suitable partners for her unmarried daughters. However, Aunt Fay’s didactic attempt on using empathy is expressed through Mrs Bennet, who is described as “politeness warred with desperation”. Weldon details the unions between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy to be unlikely, given their differences in social standing. This is reinforced by Aunt Fay reminding Alice, “Novels are illusion not reality”. This perspective on matrimony takes the reader back to Pride and Prejudice and reinforces Charlotte’s pragmatic perspective “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance”.
Aunt Fay recognises that some unions have not changed from Austen’s period. There are women who still marry for survival. For example, the importation of Asian wives links to the marriage between Charlotte and Mr Collins, as she “found happiness, inspite of marrying for all the wrong reasons”. To heighten the readers understanding of marriage in Pride and Prejudice, she says “is the stuff of our women’s magazines, but it was the stuff of their life, their very existence.” This is Weldon reinforcing the idea of necessity for marriage for women of Austen’s context. It helps Alice to overcome her initial thoughts on marriage in Pride and Prejudice. In Pride and Prejudice, social class overrides all other emotions such love and happiness. Mr Darcy is the central character who defines the upper class of Regency England. Mr Wickham uses bitter verbal irony to describe Darcy, noting “He was to be above all company, in having been unworthy to be compared”. Austen defies her conventional ideas on social stratification through the eccentric unions of matrimony between Elizabeth and Darcy or Jane and Bingley.
These marriages occur, despite the authorative Lady Catherine saying ““Your alliance will be a disgrace, you name will never be mentioned by any of us”. This allows the readers to see that Austen had created Elizabeth Bennet, to break through her society’s rigid values. This is linked to Weldon’s comment “Jane Austen likes to see the division between nobility and gentry broken down”, as the division had been created when Elizabeth married Darcy. Fay Weldon uses social stratification to connect the gap between Austen’s society and the modern world. She contemporises Austen’s text by having the didactic Aunt Fay write to Alice explaining ““the gentry thought well of themselves, and liked to despise the nobility for their rackety ways, and were despised by them, in turn for being worthy and boring”. In this, Weldon suggests that people of both societies were limited by social boundaries. Through Weldon’s text, Aunt Fay attempts to make the readers feel empathy through the explanation of stratified women’s lives “Women were born poor, and stayed poor, and lived well only by their husbands’ favour.”
Weldon’s use of stratification, like Austen’s, is used for didactic purposes. She writes “human nature does not change over the centuries”, indicating that snobbery, pride, prejudice and criticism, which Austen satirised in Pride and Prejudice, are still relevant in modern society. For example, Caroline Bingley’s criticism of the middle class is similar to criticism aimed at writers, deriving from the readers who do not understand the difficulty of writing well. Austen believes women should have options and opinions. Her character Elizabeth is independent, witty and judgemental. She defies social conventions and is used as a model for achieving Austen’s purpose, and in return, is rewarded with love. There was also the idea of accomplished women being more suitable to men. Women who were well educated in the art of music, literature and languages, were thought to be accomplished and therefore more attractive to a suitor.
Miss Bingley states, using accumulation “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word”. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet sisters did not attend school and were only trained in accomplishment. This juxtaposes with Alice’s lifestyle, as she is eligible to attend university on a different continent to further her education. An example of this is when Aunt Fay plants the idea “why don’t you go to UCLA and write?” This helps people understand the limitations of women in Pride and Prejudice and justify the difference between the ideas of a successful woman in both contexts. Fay Weldon defines women’s lives in Austen’s context and compares it to modern society. She models Austen’s life for Alice to gain a heightened understanding of the difficulties women faced to defy social conventions. She demonstrates this by using the metaphor “It takes great courage to swim against the stream of communal ideas”.
In this, Weldon is depicting the complications for Austen to see her world and reprimand its values on marriage, social class and women, whilst providing an alternative perspective. Weldon describes the limitations for female writers as they were expected to “be tender, flatter, deceive…never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own”. Female writers were discouraged from inventing and were only allowed to write about their world. Aunt Fay’s brief explanation of the female writers contrasts with contemporary society, with Aunt Fay being the example. With the ability of travel and freely express her opinions, she is able to write without concern of her work being unpublished because of contemporary values. Unlike Austen, she is being paid and recognised for the texts she writes. Fay Weldon uses didacticism to develop an empathetic link to women in Austen’s context by detailing to Alice “by your standards it was a horrible time to live”.
For example, she gives statistical evidence of childbirth “childbirth was primitive…there was no analgesics…your chances of dying were…one in two”. In this, Aunt Fay highlights that Alice should not take being autonomous for granted. This is delineated through Aunt Fay expressing “You do not know little Alice, how recent or lucky you are”. A close study of Jane Austen’s 1813 social satire Pride and Prejudice and the 1984 epistolary text Letters to Alice on first reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon, allows us to draw connections between the two texts and for our original understanding of Austen’s text to be shaped and shifted. Austen uses the main themes in Pride and Prejudice, such as Marriage, social class and Pride, to express her approval or disapproval of her societies’ attitudes. Weldon’s text is used for didactic purposes to encourage an understanding of the value of literature, for which she uses Austen’s writing to project her ideas. She reviews Austen’s context by providing an explanation of social conventions such as marriage, social stratification and women.
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