Thoughts about Shakespeare spurred by Fay Weldon’s ‘Letters to Alice On First Reading Jane Austen’

A while ago I found myself glancing at a copy of Fay Weldon’s Letters To Alice on first reading Jane Austen (1984) and wondering if such a book could ever be published today, mainstream.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
William Shakespeare, the ‘Flower’ portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Call it meta-literature; a book by a writer thinking about someone’s response to another writer’s book. Which makes this post meta-meta literature, I suppose – my thoughts on a book by a writer thinking about someone’s response to another writer’s book. Alice – Weldon’s fictive ‘niece’, doesn’t like being made to read Austen. She also doesn’t actually exist; she is merely a clever device for Weldon to expound her own thoughts on writing, and people, and – of course – why Jane Austen’s novel-writing is interesting.

This ability to point out the interest was a skill totally absent in my high school English teacher, who we shall refer to as Frog (because everybody did at school). He unerringly failed to tell the class anything about context or meaning – anything at all, in fact, that might have made the work meaningful and thus interesting. In a few short years at senior high he managed to annihilate any interest I might have had in literature. He rendered Catch-22 boring, reduced One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to an endurance test, and made clear that studying Shakespeare was about as gripping as watching paint dry.

What Frog missed – and what Weldon spends her book pointing out – is that all things have interest. You just have to find it. I won’t rant on about Austen because Weldon’s already done it. But take Shakespeare, for instance. To the uninitiated teenager these are filled with barely-comprehensible Elizabethan slang and strange characters you can’t connect with. But then figure that most of his plays were intended to tweak the beards of the administration and social mores when England was being run as a police state. And they were rude. He used words like fie, for instance. Fie! The naughtiest word of the era.

They were also high entertainment – the blockbuster movie equivalent of the age. Suddenly, Shakespeare isn’t some boring academic study. It’s interesting. It’s not too many steps from there to discovering that most of his plays nailed the human condition pretty closely (so did Austen, Weldon tells us).

Shakespeare’s plays are timeless in that sense, which is why it’s been so easy to adapt them to any setting and time period. Any? Go watch Forbidden Planet (1956). See? Interesting. And that, of course, runs to the heart of all writing – fiction or non-fiction, it has to address the human condition in some way. Austen said so. Shakespeare said so. Weldon said so. I say so. Which, I guess, answers the question about whether Weldon’s book would be picked up by a mainstream publisher today, post-Amazon revolution. I think it would, because Weldon’s meta-story is, by definition, all about the human condition on multiple levels.

Shakespeare? Not so sure. You see, I can download his stuff from MIT.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


6 thoughts on “Thoughts about Shakespeare spurred by Fay Weldon’s ‘Letters to Alice On First Reading Jane Austen’

  1. hey man, who’s dis Shakespear dude? It’s real good of you to give his career a plug, ya know, bein’ good to new writers an’ that. You guys should write a book together, know what I’m sayin’?

    1. Possibly some story about some Danish prince and a dude named Guildencrantz, though I don’t know it would be all that popular if Guildencrantz is sidelined the way Shakespeare wants.

  2. Abso-freakin-lutely. Any story, no matter what the genre, must be a treatise on the human condition in some way, or it just isn’t interesting. Anything else is just a textbook. That’s the most powerful lesson I learned about writing Science Fiction. Even though you may write about aliens or robots, all of that should always be a statement or commentary about humanity. Usually, the vehicle of alien/robot is a means to point out where human beings do things that are fundamentally bizarre. With that in mind, the scifi genre has never run out of stupid human tricks to poke fun at.

    1. Absolutely. SF is such a great vehicle for this – and all the best tales in it, one way or another, do precisely what you outline. Starting with Jules Verne’s wonderful lampooning of national characteristics and moving on relentlessly from there. On that note, did you ever read Cyril Kornbluth’s ‘The Marching Morons’?

      1. No, I haven’t read it. I just googled it and read the synopsis. Looks interesting and darkly amusing. At the same time, chillingly relevant. We aren’t that far away from such problem.

        1. It was a brilliant satire. Riffing on the directions Kornbluth saw human society taking in the 1950s, and he nailed it for sure. As you say, we are not too far from it today…

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