I was fifteen years old the first time I read Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon. I have lost track of how many times I have reread it since then but that first reading stands out in my memory. We were studying Pride and Prejudice and, though it wasn’t my first encounter with Austen, I suddenly wanted to read everything about her that I could get my hands on. So, not knowing that Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen really isn’t about reading Jane Austen, I picked up Weldon’s 1984 epistolary guide to writing and literature.
In it, Weldon writes letters to a fictitious niece who is quarreling with her parents, conducting messy love affairs at university, and dreaming of becoming an author, like her aunt. Alice, forced to study Austen for one of her English courses, cannot see dear Jane’s appeal and so Aunt Fay takes up her pen to come to Miss Austen’s defense. In doing so, she gives her niece some insight in Austen’s life and times as well as her works but mostly Weldon shares what it means to be a reader and a writer – the two are of equal importance:
You must read, Alice, before it’s too late. You must fill your mind with the invented images of the past: the more the better. Literary images of Beowulf, and The Wife of Bath, and Falstaff and Sweet Amaryllis in the Shade, and Elizabeth Bennet, and the Girl in the Green Hat – and Rabbit Hazel of Watership Down, if you must. These images, apart from anything else, will help you put the two and twos of life together, and the more images your mind retains, the more wonderful will be the star-studded canopy of experience beneath which you, poor primitive creature that you are, will shelter: the nearer you will creep to the great blazing beacon of the Idea which animates us all.
I don’t always (or even frequently) agree with Weldon’s opinions, or even her presentation of historical facts, but that is not important. Aunt Fay isn’t meant to be strictly obeyed; Alice certainly goes her own way over the course of the book, ignoring her Aunt’s advice and profiting greatly. But what keeps me coming back and reading this year after year is the passionate way in which Weldon expresses her love of literature and what she calls the “City of Invention”, that “celestial city of the imagination”:
Truly, Alice, books are wonderful things: to sit alone in a room and laugh and cry, because you are reading, and still be safe when you close the book; and having finished it, discover you are changed, yet unchanged. To be able to visit the City of Invention at will, depart at will – that is all, really, education is about, should be about.
That is it exactly.