Archive for the ‘Fay Weldon’ Category

After months of anticipation, a very great event occurred last Sunday: I became an aunt.  Arguably, that was the least of the changes: my brother and sister-in-law became parents, two sets of existing parents became grandparents, and a small and rather wonderful girl came into being.

But as I am unable to comment on any of their mindsets with confidence, let us focus on me.

I am rather adrift as to what it means to be an aunt.  Literature provides few useful guides.  If I wanted to be a terrifyingly despotic aunt, or a meek spinster aunt, or an emotionally withholding aunt, I am overwhelmed with bookish inspiration.  Children’s literature runneth over with aunts you would never want to expose your children to.  But what about the kindly aunts?

Eva Ibbotson offers a few: the aunts in Magic Flutes are wonderful, as are the equally supportive aunts in The Dragonfly Pool, but they are a bit timid.  Perhaps more suitable inspiration lies with the suffragette aunts in A Song for Summer, who love their niece even if they can’t understand why she would throw away an education to work at an eccentric boarding school.  That sounds much more like me.

But Ibbotson also offers up some joyfully awful aunts in A Company of Swans and in some of her children’s books.  She was, she admitted, a fan of using aunts in her books and deployed them in all their various facets.

And, of course, P.G. Wodehouse created aunts so terrifying I run from them as quickly as their lily-livered nieces and nephews ever did.  There are some nice ones mixed in but who remembers them?

Jane Austen certainly had a flurry of memorable aunts floating around in her books, from the very, very bad (Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park or Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice) to the very good (Mrs Gardiner, an excellent source of motherly counsel for Elizabeth Bennet) to the undefinable (Miss Bates – doubtlessly a good woman but who doesn’t pity Jane Fairfax for having to deal with her tiresome fussings and rather vocal timidity?).

But that does put me in mind of Fay Weldon’s excellent Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.  If I could be the kind of aunt who dispenses sensible, non-binding advice while discoursing on Jane Austen I think I should be very happy indeed.  We may need to wait a few years for that though.  Until then, I will be content with cooing over her and buying obscene numbers of children’s books and looking forward to the day we can read them together.

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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.

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