Article on Letters to Alice

Advice to a Green-Haired Punker
On First Reading Jane Austen.
By Fay Weldon. |
he premise of "Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen" is that literature matters in the larger scheme of things, that reading can inform and alter one's life. This slender volume is its own best argument. Billed as an epistolary novel, it is more a study of a writer (and reader) thinking aloud about art and civilization.
The letters, from "Aunt Fay," are addressed to an imaginary niece away at school, a green-haired punker who rebels against reading Jane Austen and who is busy writing her own novel. "Letters to Alice" was probably inspired by a series of instructive letters Austen sent to an actual niece on the occasion of her first attempts at novel-writing. Fay Weldon, the gifted and prolific British novelist, has a clear debt to Austen; her own fiction reveals a dry wit and is devilishly incisive in its portraiture. In this book, she refers to the "City of Invention," where novelists build "Houses of the Imagination" and readers explore for pleasure and illumination.
"Here in this City of Invention, the readers come and go, by general invitation, sauntering down its leafy avenues, scurrying through its horrider slums, waving to each other across the centuries, up and down the arches of the years." Critics, we are told, are mere bus drivers here.
The fictitious Miss Weldon tries to lure Alice into this metropolis, "between the Road to Heaven and the Road to Hell," acknowledging the competition of the local McDonald's, of certain books with empty calories and even of Alice's own "nervous dread of literature." She approaches the city as both a builder and a visitor, with appropriate measures of awe and trepidation.
Woven into the narrative is a kind of fiction. Aunt Fay is estranged from Alice's parents, and although she hopes to become reconciled with them, she deliberately gives their daughter subversive advice and aid. In...