The dynamic process of comparing and finding connections between texts can enrich the modern responders understanding about values and how they change overtime. A comparative study of Jane Austen’s prose novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1813) and Fay Weldon’s epistolary novel ‘Letters to Alice’ (1984) provides the reader with links between the contexts of Regency England and contemporary society of 1980’s America and emphasises the ever-changing nature of values such as marriage, social class and the role and expectations of women within society. Fay Weldon’s ‘Letters to Alice’ on First Reading Jane Austen’s, through her didactic literary form, enhances the modern responders understanding of the themes and values explored in Pride and Prejudice and highlights how these values have changed with time. Moreover, by providing an insight into the vast differences in values between the contexts, Weldon’s epistolary novel alters the way in which the responder perceives the events and decisions of the characters within Austen’s novel.
A comparison of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Letters to Alice’ reveals how greatly the value of marriage changed overtime. Austen highlights and critiques Regency England’s view of marriage as, not necessarily a union of affection, but a tool to propel ones economic status. Her ironic tone in the opening sentence, “a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife” foreshadows the theme of marriage as a potentially advantageous situation for the entire family. In addition, 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. Austen further emphasises, and critiques, the use of marriage as a mean to gaining wider social and economic connections by juxtaposing this relationship against the “prudent marriage” of Elizabeth and Darcy, based on mutual respect and independence.
In contrast, we see that this value has changed greatly in the context of Weldon’s ‘Letters to Alice’, when it is necessary to explain that the options for women outside marriage were limited in the Regency era and it was often necessary to provide financial security for women. 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. Thus, a comparison of these two texts, shows that the way marriage is valued in society changes depending on the context.
Social class is another value that clearly changed from Regency England to 1980’s American Society. Social class is a recurring theme in Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’. It is shown to dictate all aspects of an individual’s life including marriage, education, friends, career and finance. 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. Again, Mr Darcy is used to critique this value of society, by so clearly, as Weldon phrases it “marrying where he loved and not where he ought.” Weldon further enriches the responder’s understanding of this critique of social class in Regency England by asserting that “Jane Austen likes to see the division between nobility and gentry broken down,” and adding 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 can 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.
Therefore, the comparative of both texts, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Letters to Alice’, enrich the modern responders understanding about values and how they change overtime. Values such as Marriage, social class, and the role and expectations of women within society clearly reveals the changes from Regency England to 1980’s American society.