The transition from early 19th century England to late 20th century Australia reveals an overwhelming shift in the dominant discourses and ideologies surrounding the role of women. While Jane Austen 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 Weldon’s 1984 epistolary novel Letters to Alice bears the hallmarks of post-feminist women’s liberation and agency.
However, through close examination of the intertextual connections woven between this pair of texts, it emerges that not only does Weldon’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 Austen’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 representation 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 – Weldon’s text is narratively shaped as a didactic novel addressed to her fictionalised ‘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 Austen herself- to create a intertextual 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 didacticisms to the burgeoning writer Alice -“simply speak…and you will be listened to. And eventually, even enjoy your captive audience” – symbolically demonstrate the legacy of feminist ideals that were initially catalysed through early Regency female authors such as Austen whose patriarchal context kept their revolutionary works “shelter[ed] behind the cloak of anonymity”. Given the modern context of Letters to Alice, it is undeniable 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 Weldon’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 catalyse 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, Weldon’s Letters to Alice is a text that is highly political in purpose; it prompts a strong consideration of the function of literature to catalyse notions of female empowerment through both changing and challenging dominant social conventions and values.
Taking into account Weldon’s didacticisms regarding female authorship and social change, it becomes apparent that the intertextual connections to Jane Austen weaved within Letters to Alice prompt an undeniably feminist re-evaluation of her representation of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. While separated by the historical divide of almost two centuries, Weldon’s instruction for her niece to “swim against the stream of communal ideas” can be seen to resonate in Austen’s idealistic protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, a character who transgresses against the dominant values that governed Regency England; and whose personal virtues triumphed over the restrictions of her era. Weldon’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 Austen’s Elizabeth, framing and augmenting her personal values of rationality and wit as they shine through the text.
This is particularly evident through her strong authoritative tone in declarative statements: “I shall be very fit to see Jane – which is all I 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 Austen inscribing Elizabeth’s dialogue with a strongly comedic tone of satire and irony.
She delights in intellectually challenging the supposedly superior intellect of Mr Darcy in a series of playful exchanges: “I am convinced that one good sonnet will stave [love] entirely away”; “your defect is to hate everybody”. In considering these connections, Weldon’s text can be seen to invoke a renewed reading of Elizabeth, positioning her as a didactic figure that planted the early seeds of feminist discourse from which Letters to Alice was composed: “[She] pay[ed] paying attention to the subtle demands of human dignity rather than the cruder ones of established convention…prodding [civilisation] quicker and faster along the slow difficult road that has led us out of barbarity into civilisation”
Ultimately, examination of the intertextual connections between Letters to Alice and Pride and Prejudice yield a recognition that while Weldon’s text instructs young Alice on contemporary views on women and women writers from a late 19th century context, it also catalyses a re-evaluation of Austen’s representation of Elizabeth Bennet, reframing interpretations of her character as one who challenges the dominant value systems of gender. As a result, it is these connections that incite the realisation that despite the contextual divide separating this pair of texts, both authors are irrevocably bound in their purpose to didactically challenge the politically charged representation and role of women in their respective cultural spheres.