Authors deliver their didactic purpose through depicting the tension between individuals and their society, which dictates the public view on the economy of gender. Set during the Regency period, Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice critiques the attitudes towards women within her strictly hierarchical, gender-based society through Elizabeth Bennet who asserts her own principles over her society’s expectations of women. Fay Weldon’s self-aware epistolary text Letters to Alice on first reading Jane Austen (Letters to Alice) analyses the interactions between women and their society, both reflecting on Austen’s era and engaging with her own context of increasing economic prosperity for women. Thus, in exploring the economy of gender, the comparative study of both texts allow for critical and complex analysis of universal themes through the difference in contexts.
Both Austen and Weldon use their texts as vehicles to critique the interaction of gender and economic power in their respective societies. For Austen in particular, the security brought about by economically driven marriages was central to the concept of matrimony. This dynamic is revealed through Austen’s austere alliteration and assonance of, “Miss Lucas…accepted [Mr Collins] solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment,” creating a sense of dislocation and a feeling of sympathy for those whose happiness must be traded for social security. The necessity of such exchanges in Austen’s context is further revealed through the narrative irony of, “when called into action, [Elizabeth] would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage.” in which readers fear that Elizabeth’s unique individuality, maybe sacrificed for the security of her family and the establishment of her estate. Likewise, Mrs Bennet’s ecstatic reaction, “Oh! My sweetest Lizzy! How rich and great you will be! …I am so pleased” undercuts both Elizabeth and Mr Darcy’s character growth. Her action is a reflection of her context, a satirical disregards her daughter’s feelings and the elevation of her material gains from the union, allowing readers to note her deficiency, and feel hopeless towards such ingrained values in individuals of Regency England.
Weldon’s deconstruction of Austen’s composition offers a perspective on the Regency period and enlightens readers as to why individuals were so preoccupied with the material benefits of marriage. Weldon’s understanding of her own, vastly different context and first hand experience of civil rights reforms is reflected through Aunt Fay’s insights and introspection given to Alice. Aunt Fay explains the limitations placed on women in Austen’s context, “Any property you did acquire belonged to your husband… he could beat you… and punished your children likewise,” an anecdote which reveals the horrors which awaited women whom gave themselves to the economic necessities of the time. Furthermore, Weldon uses Austen’s works, as well as Austen herself as an example of the empowerment and subversion of the establishment and societal constructs, “Jane Austen… didn’t wear her self out physically running around…pleasing a husband…or looking after children.” Weldon explains that it is precisely because of Austen’s choice to not marry, that she was capable of dedicating herself to writing and therefore was able to create highly emotive and instructive works. Through conversational insights, “Alice, by your standards, it was a horrible time to be alive.” Weldon asks her audience to consider the feminist movements which had improved the political, social, and economic standards of the female sex across the 20th century.
Likewise, Austen’s bildungsroman narrative didactically instructs readers on the importance of education in the empowerment of individuals in her society. Readers follow Elizabeth and Darcy as they come to terms with their fallacies. Darcy’s confession, “You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled,” is echoed by Elizabeth’s own catharsis, “She grew absolutely ashamed of herself…feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.” Austen’s employment of the omnipotent third person perspective provides readers with a window to both Elizabeth and Darcy’s most intimate and private thoughts to this pivotal moment in which all their pride and prejudice is dissolved by the light of understanding and empathy. Their union is itself a powerful subversion of contextual paradigms towards marriage, gender, and wealth. As this was a time where a man such as Darcy, secure in his wealth and position, would be beyond reproach, made immutable by “10 thousand pounds a year”. Austen’s novel is subverts the patriarchal expectations of her Regency zeitgeist, creating a powerful role model that reacts against the constraints of women’s limited economic, educational, and social discourse. By sharing in Elizabeth’s growth, readers also gain intimate and intrinsic knowledge to be critical and reflective of ourselves.
Weldon similarly endorses challenging social expectations of women, however this is a result of how education has historically changed the place of women in her post-modern 1980s society. The transformation of gender conventions over time, and the improvement in social mobility for women was a direct result of women with education, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf. Via Letter 7, readers learn a fundamental lesson of life, “man, and especially woman, does not live on bread alone: he has to have books.” Weldon’s novel promotes education through reading the books of authors like Austen, in which the characters undergo critical bildungsroman experiences, as it is through fiction that readers can live vicariously through the lives of the characters and gain insight. Her cross-context advice that, “…Fiction stretches our sensibilities and our understanding,” announces that the art of Literature and the City of Invention are didactic and instructive. Readers come to understand that, “We return from the City Of Invention knowing more about ourselves” and “we read novels not for information, but for enlightenment.” Because of the insights provided by Weldon, readers are able to better understand Austen’s dramatic tension involved in the constant misunderstanding between Elizabeth and Darcy due to their Pride and Prejudice and lack of understanding about the “art of empathy”.
Despite Austen and Weldon’s texts being contextually two centuries apart; both authors didactically instruct their readers on the timeless and enduring role of education, and the development of empathy, as pathways to empowerment in their societies.