A critical study of the subtle and obvious connections between Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Fay Weldon’s epistolary non-fiction text Letters To Alice (1984) enables responders to achieve greater understanding of how context shapes perspectives. By examining how attitudes and values have shifted between the Regency era and the 1980s, the reader comes to better understand the views that empathy and respect transform individuals’ perspectives, and that self-fulfilment may be best attained from discovering a balance between autonomy and conformity.
Both Austen and Weldon convey that relationships based on empathy and respect offer opportunities for individuals to positively transform their perspectives. The rise of the mercantile class as a result of the Industrial Revolution had resulted in a less rigid social hierarchy which is reflected through Elizabeth and Darcy changing their attitudes towards each other. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy’s arrogant tone in “[Elizabeth] is… not handsome enough to tempt me“ and Elizabeth’s high modality in “…your defect is a propensity to hate every body” reflect their inherited disdain of their class and strata. However, later, when Elizabeth receives Darcy’s letter informing her of Wickham’s true character, she questions her own beliefs about Mr Darcy, and her epiphany is evident through the authorial intrusion in “She grew absolutely ashamed of herself… she had been blind, partial, prejudiced”. This self-examination allows Elizabeth and Darcy to develop mutual respect for each other, which catalyses their appreciation of each other. This is evident through Darcy’s emotive language in “I was… selfish and overbearing… dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you!”“, conveying his reflection on how his aristocratic upbringing and wealth have influenced his proud nature. Thus Austen highlights that relationships founded on empathy and respect allow individuals to learn and change their perspectives, a viewpoint also proffered in Weldon’s Letters to Alice almost two centuries later.
Similar to Austen, in Letters to Alice, Weldon encourages respect and empathy in order to enrich an individual’s own perspectives. Second wave feminism (1970s – 1980s) polarised views on women’s roles in society as revolutionary feminists, who dealt with a wide variety of controversial topics, including sexuality and reproductive rights, criticised the more conservative reformists for their limited goals, reflecting a lack of respect for each other within the movement. Weldon deliberately constructs Aunt Fay’s voice to instruct both Alice and responders, and she criticises such a lack of empathy through the rhetorical question in “Are we to disapprove?… Charlotte Lucas found happiness with Mr Collins, in spite of marrying him for all the wrong reasons”.This, along with her modern analogy in “Now it is the pretty girl from Java who marries the rancher from North Australia”, indicates that individuals should not criticise women who sought financial security through marriage by being ignorant of parallels today. Furthermore, the intertextual reference, “Mrs Bennet, the only one with the slightest notion of the sheer desperation of the world”, conveys that Aunt Fay’s second-wave feminist context allows her to broaden her views by sympathising with Mrs Bennet’s concerns rather than criticising them. Thus Weldon and Austen reflect the zeitgeist of their respective contexts in emphasising the importance of empathy in order to broaden individuals’ beliefs and attitudes.
Both Austen and Weldon draw on their own contexts to reflect the necessity of a balance between autonomy and social restraint. Women’s financial dependence on men was enshrined in law in the Regency era as before the Married Women’s Property Act (1882), married women could not own property. Reflecting this, Charlotte’s pragmatic views on marriage are evident in the matter-of-fact tone in “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance”, emphasising her sacrifice of her personal desires and agency for material security. Furthermore, even aristocrats such as Lady Catherine are subject to Regency gender constraints on freedom, and in her desperation to prevent Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage, she breaks social protocols and insults Elizabeth through the tricolon in “You refuse to obey… duty, honour, and gratitude… you are [to]… make [Darcy] the contempt of the world.”. The authorial intrusion in “Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters” conveys that Mrs Bennet’s joy is a reflection of the reality that unlike that of Alice or Aunt Fay’s modern capacity for economic autonomy, Elizabeth’s independence and stability are ultimately tied to her marriage to Darcy. Elizabeth’s use of superlatives in “I am the happiest creature in the world” after she accepts Darcy’s second marriage proposal highlights that while the reward for her independence is found in Darcy’s attraction to the “liveliness of… [her] mind“, she also fulfils the conventions expected of her gender in the Regency era. Evidently Austen conveys that social restraint tempers the desire for independence to create balance and satisfaction.
In Letters to Alice, Weldon, like Austen, advocates autonomy within the constraints of society. The Equal Pay Act (1970) reflects a workforce radically different from Austen’s time as more women became financially independent. Aunt Fay continually attempts to instil her own beliefs in Alice, emphasised through the irony in “How can I possibly tell you how to run your life?… I could offer a few general rules”, similarly to how Lady Catherine’s words to Elizabeth reflect her belief that her own views are superior. Aunt Fay’s reference to classical literature in “I bet $500 you have not read ‘The Hound of Heaven’” highlights her narrow view of only canonical literature being important. Ironically, she also encourages Alice to form her own views instead of conforming to social pressure, expressed through the hyperbole in “It is murder, mental murder, twisting your head to get into someone else’s place”. Alice chooses to follow this instruction while ignoring Aunt Fay’s advice about the merits of classical literature. This balance between Alice’s independent thinking and her conformity to Aunt Fay’s opinion results in her success with her novel, evident through Aunt Fay’s comparison in “You have sold more copies of The Wife’s Revenge in three months… than all of my novels put together”. Such financial success is only possible due to a gradual disintegration of legal and cultural barriers to gender equality. Thus both Weldon and Austen didactically communicate the importance of tempering autonomy with social restraint to enhance our understanding of how they reflect the values of their context.
In their respective texts, both Austen and Weldon explore the impact of the values and attitudes of their context in shaping the perspectives reflected in them. Ultimately, despite changing contexts, both authors emphasise that empathy in relationships may broaden individuals’ perspectives and that individuals may find self-fulfilment by being autonomous within the socially acceptable barriers of their time.