Changes in context lead to changed values which are reflected in Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice (P&P) and Fay Weldon’s 1984 novel Letters to Alice (LTA). Due to the differences in era of the texts creation, differing values can be seen through each text as the societies have changed through the creation of new laws, recognition of fundamental human rights and freedoms as well as modernising technology.
Weldon writes with the use of didacticism, humour and irony to convey her views towards her fictional niece, Alice. Weldon uses essays in the form of letters to convey her views and through her use of didacticism, instructs Alice on the best way to go about how to write her novel, how to deal with living with her parents, getting through her university course and advice on marriage and love.
Using strongly drawn opinions, Weldon confidently argues what she thinks, wanting Alice to think it too. Protagonist Aunt Fay advises “Don’t type Alice, if you persist in your insane literary plan: use a pen. Develop the manual techniques on writing, so that as the mind works the hand moves. If God had meant us to type, we’d have a keyboard instead of fingers, etc.” This highlights Weldon’s humorous tone to convey her opinions and advice.
Much like in LTA, Austen’s P&P acts as a commentary on society. Both novels provide instructions to their readers, though indirectly. Austen saw writing as an opportunity to teach others and like Weldon, believed that women should exceed the expectations of society and be independent. The differing contexts of the two novels reflect on the different values within the texts. As social norms have evolved, women have received a greater role within society; this includes their freedom and their changing reliance on men. This is most evident in LTA as Weldon lives in a world where women can work, be educated and not have to marry for the sole purpose of social security.
In Weldon’s time, multiple marriages became common as new legislation, social norms and human rights allowed women to have more freedom. The values of marriage changed from ‘necessity’ to marrying for love, and once that love was lost, the marriage could be ended. Weldon’s views on marriage extend to her views on childbirth, and with her characterisation of Aunt Fay, advises Alice not to have children based on her hope that “…you will be finding life so exhilarating and full you will have decided to have no babies at all, ever, and be queuing up at the sterilisation clinics, where fortunately the wait is long…”.
Within P&P, Mrs Bennet is preoccupied with getting her daughters married. This is due to marriage being an economic necessity. A single woman without a husband or an inheritance would be lacking in dignity and status. “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance”, says Charlotte Lucas, explaining why she married Mr Collins even though she finds his company “irksome”. Within Jane Austen’s time, women were reliant on fathers or husbands as they earned the wealth and influenced social ranking. The Bennet daughters were particularly eager to find a husband, as once their father passed away, his estate would go to a cousin as there was no immediate male offspring.
Throughout P&P, family plays an important role not only in marriage, but in everyday life. During the 18th century, family was extremely important and social class, which was determined by your family’s position in society, could prevent you from marrying happily. Parents were regarded as having a right to know all affairs of an unmarried daughter and family grew together within a close environment. This is shown with protagonist Elizabeth’s close relationship with her sister Jane. This can be contrasted with the relationship Aunt Fay holds with her sister Enid within LTA. Their relationship appears strained as Fay replies to a letter from Enid and states “It is time we patched up this quarrel.” Within Weldon’s time, lack of communication with family members does not disadvantage you. Your family’s wealth and social stance are unimportant in determining your future success or relationships.
The value of education is very high in Weldon’s time. Women are allowed to attend university, enter a profession and control their own money and property, all of which Austen would have not had an opportunity to do. Women in Austen’s time were not so fortunate with education. Education was not a necessity, with girls focused on being ‘accomplished’. Mr Bingley finds it hard to believe how “All young ladies are accomplished. They sing, they draw, they dance, speak French and German, cover screens and I know not what.”
Within LTA, Aunt Fay reminds Alice of this, adding “…child you don’t know how lucky you are”. Weldon explores the importance of reading literature in education, not merely education in the academic sense, but as a means of enlightening individuals. Both authors have the same aim of encouraging the reader to question and reassess their values. However Weldon goes a step further, urging the reader to contribute his or her knowledge to society and influence others in turn.
Upon analysing the different contexts of the time of P&P’s formation and that of LTA, an understanding of the values can be reached. The reasons as to why certain things were frowned upon or accepted are known with the knowledge of the contexts of the two texts by Jane Austen and Fay Weldon.