Module A - Pride and Prejudice and Letters to Alice Essay

A comparison of texts ultimately enhances one’s understanding of the importance of context, purpose and audience on the construction of meaning. Fay Weldon’s Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen (1984), hereafter Letters to Alice, offers a greater understanding of the values and attitudes surrounding Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). As Weldon encourages a reappraisal of the significance of context and its impact on the individual, she reflects on Austen’s exploration of the nature of the institution of marriage and the social hierarchy, specifically in regards to the power of choice.

Weldon’s text provides the audience with a window into the expectations, cultural and social constraints underscoring the Victorian world. She explores the masterful way in which Austen yokes together fiction and satire with identifiable features of Victorian life; of importance is the institution of marriage. Weldon notes that marriage today “is the stuff of . . . women’s magazines”, but during Austen’s time it was “the stuff of [a woman’s] life, their very existence”. Here, Weldon not only juxtaposes the importance of marriage in the 19th Century as compared to today, but she essentially conveys society’s continued preoccupation with marriage. The superficiality of these magazines is connotative of the same superficiality that manifests in Mrs Bennet who “husband-[hunted] on her girls’ behalf”. However, Weldon also allows a contemporary audience to better understand Mrs Bennet’s behaviour as they learn that women who “were born poor . . . lived well only by their husbands’ favour”. Her novel serves as a reminder to Alice, representative of the audience, that Austen’s novels still have relevance today as they contain “too much of the very essence of civilisation”. When comparing Letters to Alice to Pride and Prejudice, the audience is positioned to consider the literary significance of Austen’s novels in today’s world as the institution of marriage in the different contexts is revealed.

Drawing on the Victorian values and context of her time, Austen reflects on the established assumptions and conventions that highlight the institution of marriage. In claiming that a “single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”, Austen not only satirises her society’s preoccupation with socially and financially advantageous marriage, but she also reveals that the converse may also be true: a single woman, whose socially prescribed options are limited, is in want of a husband. Her  novel  provides social commentary as it critiques the economic and restrictive nature of marriage. The Victorian’s preoccupation with marriage is embodied by Mrs Bennet whose “business” in life was to “get her daughters married”. Her behaviour is exaggerated in order to instil humour in the novel, the audience is ultimately forced to consider Victorian women’s need for marriage as a means of survival. In light of a context that did not provide women with economic power or choice, Mrs Bennet’s behaviour may be considered appropriate to some extent. Upon comparing Letters to Alice to Pride and Prejudice, the audience comes to understand the values that underscore the institution of marriage as they are given a measure of its significance in different contexts.

Whilst contemporary society is more socially mobile, thereby allowing for personal choice, Austen’s characters are constrained by class divisions. Weldon’s novel explores the nature of social hierarchy in the 19th Century in order to portray the changing nature of context. Enhanced by her use of second-person pronouns, Weldon invites the audience to consider life as a “typical young woman” in Austen’s context so as to evoke empathy for Victorian women. She reflects on the absence of social taboos in contemporary society as she omits details about social hierarchy in today’s context. She attributes this to the fact that during the 1800s, “more novels and better novels [were being] read by more people in the opinion-forming ranks of society”. Here, Weldon encourages the idea that literature gives rise to new ideas and possibilities as it provokes one’s humanity and allows for speculation. Whilst her novel is intended to provide wisdom for Alice and the audience, its epistolary form allows Weldon to reinvent the significance of Pride and Prejudice. Her postmodern approach of writing in epistles not only challenges the nature of genre as it blends nonfiction and fiction, but it ultimately demonstrates that, even in a postmodern world, Austen’s literary significance is sustained throughout different contexts.

As the audience comes to understand the context surrounding Pride and Prejudice, the significance of Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy is illuminated upon. Whilst Elizabeth understands that “the established mode [is] to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed”, she “cannot”. It is in her dialogue in which she not only reveals the societal expectations placed on her as a woman of poor standing, but also the gravity of her rejection of a husband who could provide financial security. She, like other Victorian women, lacks the power of choice to marry for love; however, through the form of a fictional novel, Austen is able to allow Elizabeth to reject Darcy’s proposal as fiction lies outside of the social and cultural restraints of reality. In Darcy’s proposal, his prejudice towards Elizabeth’s “inferiority” manifests. Here, Austen portrays the paternalistic and classist attitude of Victorian society through the use of free indirect discourse. F.R. Leavis notes that it is Austen’s unconventional and insightful writing style which renders her “an exceptionally illuminating study of the nature of originality”. Whilst Austen critiques a patriarchal society, she ultimately demonstrates the impact of prejudice and potential friction created between classes; thereby limiting the possibility of choice within a society that restricts the economic options for women.

When comparing texts, the audience is encouraged to understand the significance of context and its impact on one’s understanding of literature and the world. Through intertextual references and insights into the world of Pride and Prejudice, Letters to Alice positions the audience to not only adopt a holistic approach to the literary canon, but more importantly, to consider the wisdoms contained in literature and their indelible impact on understanding the power of choice.