One of the biggest complaints students have about the way their teachers mark essays is that they criticize what they have done without ever actually showing them what a good essay should look like and how they could have or should have written their essay.
The following essay structure can be adapted to answer questions for any of the electives in Module A Advanced English. This essay received a mark of 19 out of 20 and may be used as a guide for writing essays about this topic.
Question: A reading of Letters to Alice changes the modern responder’s understanding of Pride and Prejudice. Discuss with reference to both texts.
Fay Weldon’s Letters to Alice on First reading Jane Austen, through the didactic literary form of an epistolic novel, serves to encourage a heightened understanding of the values and contemporary issues of Jane Austen’s cultural context. In doing so, it inspires the modern responder to adopt more holistic appreciation for the plight of the characters and the values inherent in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Through the inclusion of relevant contextual information from Austen’s time and didactic assertions of the fictional character Aunt Fay, Weldon implores the responder to accept her opinions on the values and issues of Austen’s context. Weldon’s discussion of these, which include marriage, social class and the role and expectations of women within society, transforms a modern responders understanding of the themes and morals explored in Pride and Prejudice, and moreover, alters the way in which the responder perceives the events and decisions of the characters within the novel.
The fundamental importance and value assigned to marriage in the context of Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice is reinforced through Weldon’s discussion of the options for women outside marriage and its purpose of providing financial security for women. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen constructs Charlotte Lucas as a character who does not think “highly of either men or matrimony”, and hence she marries Mr Collins despite not loving him, to ensure her financial security and elevate her position within society. Mrs Bennet echoes Charlotte’s sentiments, as the “business of her life was to get her daughters married,” because she knew they would not be provided for after the death of her husband. In Letters to Alice, Weldon asserts that before reading Jane Austen, Alice “Must understand.. the world in which Jane Austen was born.” As contemporary responders, this advice rings true as only a small glimpse into Austen’s world is given through Pride and Prejudice, hence, it is difficult to understand why marriage was so important to the women of the time. Weldon assists the responder to comprehend the significance of Marriage as a theme in Pride and Prejudice and as the ideal state of existence within the time, by highlighting the differences between the contemporary value assigned to marriage and the value assigned in Austen’s time. She satirically comments that marriage “is the stuff of our women’s magazines, but it was the stuff of their life, their very existence.”
Weldon also assists the responder by including relevant contextual information and statistics to encourage the responder to see Mrs Bennet’s desperation to ensure her daughter’s married well and Charlotte’s decision to marry without love in a more holistic manner. Weldon informs the responder that “Only 30% of women married…So to marry was a great prize” and women “only lived well by their husband’s favour.” She also reinforces the few respectable options available outside marriage by including the fact that “there was 70,000 prostitutes in London in 1801, out of a female population of some 475,000,” and asserting that “Charlotte married so as not…to be left on ‘the shelve’.” This enables the responder to see the greater social and financial meaning behind Charlotte’s decision to marry without love, as the threat of facing life unsupported financially, eternally labelled as an “old maid, was very real to her. On a second reading of Pride and Prejudice with Weldon’s comments in mind, Charlotte’s choices, as well as Mrs Bennet’s desire to see one of her “daughters happily settled at Netherfield, and all the others equally well married” appear more realistic and sensible to the responder. The didactic achievements of Weldon’s text lie in this acceptance of Aunty Fay’s assertions and judgements, and the transformation of Alice’s, and by extension the responder’s view of the theme of marriage and the value assigned to it within Pride and Prejudice.
Weldon’s exploration of the way Austen perceived class within the time assists and ultimately colours the responders understanding of the theme of social status and the value of stability and how these are expressed and criticised in Pride and Prejudice. In Austen’s novel, the distinctions between classes and the sense of stability and order created through a rigid class system are presented to the responder. This is seen when Elizabeth advises Mr Collins that the “honour must belong to Mr Darcy, the superior in consequence, to begin the acquaintance” when he tries to break protocol and introduce himself to Mr Darcy. However, it is also important to remember that whilst the characters of the novel conform to this innate value for class-based society, Austen also hints at the breaking down of the class system through Mr Darcy, as Weldon phrases it “marrying where he loved and not where he ought.” Weldon seeks to explain to the responder why and how Jane Austen explored this breaking down of the social hierarchy where she asserts one of her strongly drawn and confidently argued opinions to the responder. Weldon asserts that “Jane Austen likes to see the division between nobility and gentry broken down,” and adds that “Elizabeth Bennet brought neither land nor money to Mr Darcy-but she brought intelligence, vigour and honesty.” Through this, the responder is persuaded to adopt a new understanding of why Austen explores and criticises social class in her novel. On a second reading of the novel, the effect of this is that the responder is able to recognise that Austen through Elizabeth Bennet is attempting to expose the flaws and superficial nature of class divisions, and thus triumph personal traits such as intelligence and honesty over the established conventions of class within society.
Weldon, through presenting an overview of what life was like for a woman in Jane Austen’s time, serves to enhance the responders understanding of the gender roles and expectations implicitly and explicitly referred to in pride and prejudice. In Pride and prejudice, Mrs Bennet is constructed as a woman in an ill-suited marriage who has the supposedly enormous task of ensuring her daughters are married. Her only solace, Austen tells the responder in a satirical tone, “was visiting and news.” The responder is encouraged to laugh and look down upon Mrs Bennet by Austen, more so than her husband even though he is equally as ridiculous in his own way. In Letters to Alice, Weldon encourages the responder to put themselves in the position of women such as Mrs Bennet who had to endure a marriage without love and childbirth, which assists the responder to reshape and challenge their understanding of a woman’s role in Pride and Prejudice. She contextualises what life was like for a woman through a description of the stages of life, emphasising that “if the choice at childbirth was between the mother and child, the mother was the one to go.” Weldon also plays on Alice’s and the responder’s understanding of the role of women within the modern context to reinforce the difficulties women faced in Austen’s time where she asserts “Alice, by your standards, it was a horrible time to be alive.” The combined effect of these assertions by Weldon is the facilitation of a more holistic understanding of the plight of women within Austen’s time by the responder, and on a second reading of Pride and Prejudice, a greater empathy for women such as Mrs Bennet and the issues that confronted women of the time.
Through contextualisation and discussion of some of the significant issues and values of Jane Austen’s time, Weldon’s “Letters to Alice” serves to enhance and colour the responder’s understanding of the themes and morals evident in Pride and Prejudice. Weldon’s discussion of these fundamental themes and values which include marriage, social class and the role and expectations of women within society, provide the contextual background for a more holistic appreciation of the main characters actions and values within the novel. This in turn, encourages a heightened degree of empathy for the characters and a deeper understanding of the issues and themes explored and questioned by Austen in Pride and Prejudice.