Deep South v.2 n.1 (Autumn, 1996)
Letters to Alice, on first reading Jane Austen is one of Fay Weldon's least-known works. It's a series of short essays presented in the form of letters with characters and plot as a framing device. This paper addresses the novel's discussion of didacticism in literature and in life, concentrating particularly on Weldon's method of combining the traditionally didactic literary forms of letters and essays in order to construct an attack on didacticism. Letters to Alice, I argue, is an apparently didactic work which deconstructs not only its own didacticism, but the very concept of didacticism.
To illustrate how Letters to Alice plays with ideas of teaching and learning, of giving and receiving advice and instruction, this paper is divided into three sections. First, I shall briefly introduce the book. Second, I shall discuss the text to show how the letters use didacticism as both a subject of discussion and the agent of that discussion. Finally, I shall address the idea of didacticism itself: I shall try to place Letters to Alice within an historical context of didactic texts, and link this to the tradition of didactic epistolary texts, asking why letters are such an effective form for argument.
Letters to Alice, on first reading Jane Austen is a collection of letters from an aunt to her niece. Alice is studying English Literature at university and has written to her aunt Fay, a famous novelist, for advice. The two have not seen each other for many years because Alice's parents, Edward and Enid, were upset by a detail in one of Fay's novels which they thought identified them with the characters. Thus Edward and Enid are slightly uneasy about this correspondence. The novel consists of a series of letters which Fay sends Alice in the effort to persuade her to read and enjoy Jane Austen.
Didacticism is an important aspect of this novel for both the internal reader (Alice) and the external reader. Fay's letters give Alice advice on how to deal with the inflexible rules she encounters from her parents and from the university where she's studying. In the early stages of the correspondence, Fay restricts herself to writing about Jane Austen, but before long her subject matter expands to include reading, writing, teaching and learning. Fay's opinions are strongly drawn and confidently argued: she knows what she thinks, and she wants Alice to think it too.
For the external reader, however, the issue is more complicated. Fay constructs herself as a maverick who flouts convention, and she denounces the rigidly enforced rules which Alice rebels against. But at the same time as she condemns all systems and institutions, she formulates her own highly prescriptive codes within the letters. For example, she gives the aspiring writer Alice the following grudging advice:
(Don't type, Alice, if you persist in your insane literary plan: use a pen. Develop the manual techniques of writing, so that as the mind works the hand moves. If God had meant us to type, we'd have had a keyboard instead of fingers, etc.) (30)
Fay's didactic tone is reinforced by the absence of Alice's side of the correspondence: since all the letters we read are Fay's own, Alice's opinions are only represented through Fay's reactions to them. Fay's authority is privileged over Alice's, since just one side of the exchange is reproduced. Didacticism requires that one opinion only is foregrounded, and since the letters are all to, rather than from Alice, readers are encouraged to accept Fay's judgments. Even the book's back cover declares an explicitly didactic purpose: 'How to be a reader - how to be a writer. All you need to know'. This can be read simply as a straightforward, if ambitious claim; but its ironic, even parodic, exaggeration invites questioning of its authority.
The issue of authenticity also contributes to the relationship between didacticism and authority: the writer of the letters is a successful author named Fay, who could be identified with Fay Weldon. [To keep a clear distinction between the two, I refer to the letter writer as 'Fay' and Fay Weldon as 'Weldon']. The foreword to Letters to Alice tells us that Alice, Enid (Alice's mother) and Fay's mother are 'entirely invented characters' (9) but Weldon refuses to identify the protagonist, the letter writer. Because of similarities between Fay and Weldon herself, the reader cannot help associating Fay's opinions with Weldon's, so that Fay's advice derives authority from the possible identification with Fay Weldon herself. In this way the authority of Fay's didacticism is both heightened and confused. Her statements and opinions may carry more weight because of this identification with Fay Weldon, the famous author; yet at the same time, Fay is writing to and about people who do not exist.
Although it is tempting - for both Alice and the external reader - to accept Fay's instruction, it becomes clear that her system of values does not always apply. By the final few letters, Alice's life is rapidly changing - she has failed her exams, published a bestselling novel, and is planning a possible move to America - and all this despite the fact that she still hasn't read any Jane Austen. Since she achieves unorthodox success without following Fay's rules, Fay's seemingly definitive opinions prove irrelevant to Alice's life.
Therefore, Letters to Alice, though apparently didactic in both form and content, constantly destabilises and undermines its own didacticism. The second section of this paper shows how the reader is asked to engage in deconstructing didacticism.
In Letters to Alice, didacticism is both the subject and the agent of discussion. Through Fay's formulated codes, didacticism is exposed as narrowly restrictive. Fay encourages Alice not to bow down to the arbitrary rules set for her by society, by institutions, and by her parents; but it becomes clear that her own life is governed by another set of rules, different but equally controlling. Thus it seems that didacticism is inescapable: rather than choosing whether or not to obey rules, the choice that must be made is only between different sets of rules.Distinctions between the academic and the vernacular, between teaching and learning, become the subject of discussion within Fay's letters. Fay expresses her suspicion of university Departments of English Literature, arguing, as did Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas, that academic study stifles creative writing:
I comfort myself that to do a course in English Literature and to accomplish any serious writing of your own are commonly held to be mutually exclusive. We know you are doing the one, so the other seems (thank God) unlikely, at least for the time being. (27)
Although Fay berates the investigation of writers' lives as irrelevant, she concentrates much of her own commentary on Jane Austen's life. For example, she states that Austen stopped writing Lesley Castle because she had become bored herself, but then recognises that she's produced this surmise to suit her own didactic purposes:
I hate this kind of cold conclusion; these sweeping assessments of motive with which, in the present, we look back at the past. I despise it in biographers, and yet find I am doing it myself. Put me in a pulpit and I know I too would soon be saying: 'God wants us to do this, that and the other because God means us to be this way, that way or the other way . . .' As if I knew: as if I had a special Hot Line to Him. (66-67)
In considering the idea of a university education in 'Literature' she attempts to define 'Literature' itself. In Jeremy Hawthorne's words,
'Read and studied' is a revealing phrase. 'Literature' today is inescapably connected with education, both at school, college and university level. One might cynically suggest that whereas people read books, students study literature. The narrowing-down of the meaning of the term 'literature' is intimately related to the growing stress placed on a literary education by European and North American societies. 1 Hawthorn, Jeremy. Unlocking the Text: fundamental issues in literary theory. London: Edward Arnold, 1987, 7.
Although Fay is suspicious of categories such as 'the canon' and 'Literature', as defined by academics, she repeatedly prescribes certain texts to Alice, and makes clear distinctions between 'bestsellers' and 'Literature'. She constantly sets out 'rules' for Alice: 'You must know how to read a novel, for example, before setting out to write one' (32). Fay continually mocks the 'educational' aspects of her letters, and frames the mockery in terms of academic conventions. Her essay-letters contain long passages of quotation, sarcastic footnotes and even the occasional list of rules (sometimes left incomplete for Alice to fill in). She includes a table showing the population of the British Isles in 1800 as 'a parting educational shot' and she parodies exam and essay rubrics:
'People are getting nastier, society nicer': Discuss. (47)
A vulgar aside: 'In real life, as opposed to novels, it's the worst women get the best men.' Discuss. (141)
While dismissive of formal education as bound by the codes of institutions, Fay creates divisions of her own between 'good' and 'bad' writing and reading. She mocks the authority given to commonly held opinions - 'they'll say anything', she repeats throughout. She wants Alice to rebel against the predominant codes of her university and of society; but she wants Alice to rebel within her control - to be 'different', but just like Fay.
As the letters progress, Fay's tone and language modulate and she begins to treat Alice as more of an equal. In fact, when Fay explains how Alice should respond to criticism or advice, she actually destabilises and questions all the didactic material of her letters:
The answer, while listening politely to what is being suggested, is very often to do the opposite. To magnify your faults (as seen by the lover, the visitor, the reader) and subdue your virtues. (141)
The language Fay uses in her last few letters illustrates her acknowledgement of Alice as an individual. While slightly miffed that Alice did not follow her (Fay's) rules, Fay still attempts some persuasion of her own. 'Let me give you the first paragraph', she tells Alice, and 'the rest is up to you' (153; italics mine). The transfer of emphasis from Fay to Alice shows Fay's new awareness of Alice as an independent and self-willed person; instead of telling her niece what to read, she is now making suggestions instead of commands. In the last few letters, the writing style is less prescriptive: where earlier sentences start with negative statements and commands, the last few letters ask Alice questions - what will she do now? what are her plans and opinions? - and suggest an exchange of ideas.
The modulation in Fay's tone towards Alice may suggest that Fay has acknowledged that different people choose to follow different rules. But it is only after Alice has achieved the success of publication that Fay's attitude changes.
Fay's attitude to Alice does not remain free of condescension, however. Once she has recovered from the initial shock of Alice's success, and has read the novel, Fay makes a judgement about Alice's writing which restores her own sense of superiority:
I shall send you a reading list. I hope you don't think this is patronizing of me. You have sold more copies of The Wife's Revenge in three months than I have of all my novels put together (well, in this country at least. Let me not go too far). I am glad to be wrong about so much; I still maintain that it is better to read than not to read, and I still deplore what you refer to as your 'general amiable illiteracy'. Can you be developing some kind of house style? (154-55)
Alice's 'general amiable illiteracy' is an example of the development which (Fay has argued in a previous letter) is so important for writing:
We talk to an audience (and I say talk advisedly, rather than write: for contemporary authors are left largely with the writing down on paper of what they could as well speak, if only their listeners would stand still for long enough) and a generation which has read so little it understands only the vernacular. I don't think this matters much. I think that writers have to change and adapt. It is no use lamenting a past: people now are as valuable as people then. (17)
But Fay herself is resistant to the change and adaptation she describes as necessary for writers. Her rules are so inflexible that they contradict themselves. And even as Alice starts to make her own way through the 'City of Invention', Fay insists on a didactic 'last word': Letters to Alice ends with 'An alternative reading list for the easily distracted'. 2 Fay has planned to send this list since the early stages of the correspondence: '(I am composing a reading list for you, incidentally. I shall send it under separate cover. An informed visitor to the City of Invention has a better time there than the naive and hopeful.)' (25) Fay just can't stop giving advice - she has to get back her authority somehow. And she even establishes financial control over Alice when she pays for her to attend university in the United States. The hypocrisy of her stance is parallel to the snobbery evident in the distinction she makes between bestsellers and 'Literature' in the reading list she sends Alice:
Any bestseller of any decade. Bestsellers are not generally - or indeed often - works of literature, but will give you a background against which to place more serious works. They appealed, at the time, to a common sensibility.(156)
Here Fay is implicitly undermining Alice's achievements. As a bestselling writer, Alice's work is probably neither 'serious' nor 'Literature' as Fay defines it, with its capital L. Ironically, most of the texts which make up the canon are both works of 'Literature' and bestsellers. And since Fay Weldon herself is a bestselling author, she undercuts the distinction between the two categories.
In Letters to Alice, Fay Weldon combines letters and essays to discuss the workings of didacticism, both in literature and in life. But although she has chosen two traditionally didactic forms, she uses them to construct an attack on didacticism. Fay's prescriptive letters provide a set of rules for reading and writing, but these rules are exposed as narrow and restrictive so that the concept of didacticism is destabilised and undermined throughout the text. The reader is invited to deconstruct didacticism, to question the assumptions of power and authority implicit in any didactic work or any educational system. Thus, through asking the reader to challenging the workings of didacticism, Letters to Alice uses didactic form for anti-didactic means.
Finally, I want to look at how Letters to Alice both follows on from, and breaks away from, the tradition of didactic literature. I shall explore how didacticism and literature have been linked historically, and look at contemporary definitions of didactic literature. Then I shall discuss the tradition of didactic epistolary literature and ask why the letter form is so often used for didactic purposes.
Since classical times, literature has been considered to have a dual purpose, to delight and to instruct. In A Glossary of Literary Terms, M. H. Abrams defines 'Didactic Literature' as follows:
A didactic work is one that is designed to expound a branch of theoretical, moral, or practical knowledge, or else to instantiate, in an impressive and persuasive imaginative or fictional form, a moral, religious, or philosophical theme or doctrine. (Abrams, 42)
He cites as examples Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, Virgil's Georgics and Pope's Essay on Criticism; stating that 'most medieval and much Renaissance literature was didactic in intention'. (42)
As Sidney and Horace have claimed, Abrams suggests, the combination of instruction and delight may help didacticism to take effect.
'Didactic literature, however, may also take on the aspect and attributes of imaginative works, by embodying the doctrine in narrative or dramatic form in order to add a dimension of aesthetic pleasure, and to enhance its interest and force' (Abrams, 42)
For example, the allegorical nature of works such as Spenser's Faerie Queene and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress means that didacticism is combined with imaginative writing and therefore made less explicit. Satire, too, is seen as didactic, since its aim is to influence the reader's attitude to its subject.
With Romanticism, the Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature suggests, came a change in attitudes towards didactic literature: 'The Romantic poets of the early 19th century reacted against the 18th-century Augustans, and since then there has been a persistent prejudice against explicit didacticism' (Bloomsbury Guide, 460). Even Abrams is quick to point out that his definition of 'didactic literature' is 'a technical distinction, and not a derogatory term' (Abrams, 42).
It seems, therefore, that 'didactic' has become a dirty word, at least with regard to literature. But the emergence and extreme popularity of the twentieth-century 'self-help' book suggests that instruction is acceptable outside the category of 'literature'. Such books, which advise readers on subjects as diverse as diet, exercise, relationships and overcoming abuse, are nothing if not didactic. They parallel eighteenth-century didactic texts such as conduct books or Samuel Richardson's Familiar Letters. Like letters, these self-help texts use both imperatives and the second person. If self-help books enjoy widespread success, why should didactic fiction be held in such low esteem? Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the nature and context of the didacticism: an explicitly instructive book is straightforward about its intentions, while the didacticism of a work of fiction must be more implicit. Readers do not mind being told what to do to accomplish particular goals, but they may refuse to be told what to think.
Because many works of fiction invite readers to make judgements, but without being openly 'didactic', the term is becoming almost obsolete with regard to fiction. The Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature suggests that it is difficult to ascertain whether or not a work is didactic:
In practice, it is not always easy to identify; so much literature is didactic in intention but not in form; sometimes writers renounce didactic intentions but in practice use didactic forms. In general, the view now is that poets and even novelists may be didactic if they choose. (Bloomsbury Guide, 460)
Contemporary difficulties in using the term 'didacticism' reflect changed approaches to literature itself. Since 'didacticism' refers to a work's aims, rather than its effect or reception, to call a work 'didactic' implies knowledge of its author's intentions, a question condemned as the 'intentional heresy'. And given that 'authority' as a concept is no longer simple nor definable, such intentions cannot be confidently determined. Explicitly didactic texts like self-help books avoid this problem because their purposes are so clearly explained, but works of fiction rarely state their aims categorically. Thus, in relation to contemporary fictional texts, 'didacticism' is impossible to pin down, and its reception must be inevitably confused.
Form, then, is crucial to didacticism, and the letter form has been used for didactic purposes in both life and literature. Since ancient times, letters have often been associated with didacticism: Cicero, Seneca and Pliny wrote letters of advice; medieval exemplum books were written in letters; in the eighteenth century, Lord Chesterfield wrote instructive letters to his son. Epistolary novels, too, are often similar to medieval exemplum texts. The eighteenth century saw the heyday of such didactic epistolary novels, with the extreme popularity of Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa. And many 'young adult' novels, like Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs, use the 'private' form of letters to drive the narrative.
Why are letters so well-suited to didacticism? Part of the answer lies in their seemingly intimate and private nature. Letters are often used as instruments to request or offer advice - for example, think of advice columns ('Dear Abby' etc) or confidential letters between friends. They are personal documents which can seem somehow 'real', and their didactic authority is augmented through the absence of a separate 'narrator'.
In Letters to Alice, Fay describes the use of the epistolary form in Jane Austen's early novels. This passage highlights the advantages and the drawbacks of the form, as Fay sees them:
It was a popular form of fiction at the time, presently to fall into disrepute, for no really good reason. Such a novel has the power of one written in the first person, and the limitations thereof divided by the number of letter-writers the author chooses to involve. A direct authorial voice has to be done without, but the point of view can be from more than a single character. It is not so bad a way of telling a story. To accomplish a letter-novel successfully requires a special skill, the skill of a born dramatist - the knack of moving a plot along through the mouths of the protagonists, and laying down plot detail, as it's called, without apparently doing so: the body has to be fleshed, but the bones not allowed to show. Jane Austen, even at the age of fourteen, could do these things wonderfully well. The pattern of her storytelling is the same as TV dramatists use today; each letter a new scene, to move the action on, each taking a different viewpoint. (57)
As we have seen in Letters to Alice, epistolary form avoids the use of a single, explicitly didactic, authorial voice, but each letter can be used to highlight a single opinion. In a letter, no opportunity is allowed for simultaneous discussion. Since, as Janet Gurkin Altman points out, the presence of a letter implies the absence of its author, letters are essentially monologic. 3 Altman, Janet Gurkin. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1982. Although the reader may react to the contents of a letter -- and will probably reply with another letter -- the absence of the writer means that comments must be framed by the form of the replying letter. Though a series of letters becomes a discussion, each individual letter within that series can advocate a single (and sometimes strong) viewpoint. It cannot be interrupted or argued with: you can't talk back to a sheet of paper. Thus dialogism within letters is constructed of a series of monologic units, so that epistolary dialogism is formally controlled.
The rapport between reader and writer, then, differs vastly from that of a spoken conversation. Spatial and temporal elements also come into play: the reader and writer are usually in different places and come into contact with the letter at different times. An exchange of letters, therefore, is an oscillating process. Various 'readings' of events and situations are written into letters by people whose role is constantly changing. Readers become writers; writers become readers; no identity is fixed.
This oscillation between writing and reading in an epistolary correspondence becomes a struggle for power. Writers have power of articulating their readings uninterrupted; readers exert power simply by remaining silent and forming their own reading, re-reading or re-writing of events and of letters themselves.
Since didacticism is in itself a struggle for power, the letter form, with its constant interplay between reading and writing, between power and vulnerability, is an ideal vehicle for the assertion of opinions. In narrative epistolary novels, especially, letters allow for the self-abnegation of an 'author' figure, making narrative less explicitly didactic. 4Samuel Richardson found this didn't work for him in Clarissa, however: his additional notes to the text become intrusive. And letters have often been used as weapons in debate, both privately (for they avoid personal contact) and publicly (in the Letters to the Editor sections of daily newspapers, for example). The 'open letter' is a tool which combines letter and essay form to heighten its impact: for example, see the open letter to Jacques Chirac by several All Blacks which appeared in the newspaper Le Monde recently.
Letters to Alice combines two traditionally didactic forms, essays and letters, to question the workings of didacticism. Fay is faced with a similar problem to that of the university teachers she ridicules: how can you, from a position of authority, order people to think independently, to make up their own minds and be responsible for their own actions? How can you ask questions without imposing your own idea of the answer?
Letters to Alice asks its readers to question categories like 'Literature', 'the canon' and 'bestsellers'. Books of essays (such as Virginia Woolf's Common Reader, which Fay quotes) are no longer bestsellers, now that literary scholarship is restricted to a predominantly academic audience. Therefore, Letters to Alice presents opinions on life and literature by means of the informal language of letters to a niece. The letter form and the addition of characters and plot as a framing device make the book's contents more accessible to a contemporary audience and bridge the gap between the academic and vernacular.
Letters to Alice forces its readers to engage in a deconstruction of didacticism, to question the power dynamics implicit within any relationship of teaching or authority, and to explore how instruction itself is a construction.