That 'whatever else it might be' alludes to the fact that this is an epistolary novel comprised of exchanges between young college-age Alice and her middle-aged novelist Aunt Fay, so there's quite a bit of bleed-through from Weldon's own life, and as usual with this resolutely third-rate author, the reader is constantly forced to wonder how much of that bleed-through is intentional and how much of what they paid good money to buy and read is just more or less spontaneous riffing. Despite the shelf of novels to her credit, Weldon has never to my knowledge chosen to work at her craft. The result has been a body of fiction suffering from what we might call the Munro Syndrome: lots of stuff happens, 'the end' is stamped a few times onto the bolt of cloth as it spews out of the machine, and absolutely nothing memorable whatsoever is produced.
Letters to Alice is an exception and a delightful book – but even here, the lively writing takes frequent detours into being insipid or torturous, before returning to its better nature.
The plot, such as it is, can be easily guessed: Alice has gone off to school to study Jane Austen (among many predictable other names), and Aunt Fay has many, many opinions to share – about Austen, for instance:
It is idle to complain that Jane Austen lacked a crusading zeal. With hindsight, it is easy to look at the world she lived in, and say she should have. What she didn't seems to me more valuable. She struggled to perceive and describe the flow of believes that typified her time, and more, to suggest for the first time that the personal, the emotional, is in fact the moral – nowadays, of course, for good or bad, we argue that it is political.
But also about lots of other things, from the whole of the Western canon to the quiet little curse of the writer's life:
Writing is an odd activity – other people have occupations, jobs; the writer's life is work, and the work is the life, and there can be no holidays from it. If the pen is not working, the mind is thinking, and even as you sit and watch [TV] the unconscious ponders on. Even in sleep you are not safe: dreams pertain to life, and life to dreams, and both to work. There can be no time off, no real diversions, because wherever you go, you take yourself; and no pure experience, either, unsullied by contemplation, or by the writer's habit of standing back and observing what is going on – which writers will vehemently deny they do, because it sounds passionless and calculated, but is not.
But even so, problems crowd around the edges. Divorce that last passage from the spirited truths it's conveying and you'll see the biggest of those problems: Weldon simply cannot write good English prose, not for more than an isolated line at a time. This lack is of course no bar to fantastic literary success – but it's awfully inconvenient if an author is shooting for more. Weldon's ambitions to be taken seriously as a novelist have always been evident, and the number one obstacle to those ambitions is that she's never had much talent as a writer. It's funny how that works.
There's talent aplenty in Letters to Alice, however – here the joys and odd disappointments of reading, the thrill of book-hunting, and the pleasures of simply chatting with a fellow reader are all on triumphant display. I myself dearly love a good bookish snail-mail correspondence (some of you will have shared one with me and may attest that I'm fairly good at it), full of titles and authors and the give-and-take that happens when two lifelong readers butt heads. There's quite a bit of that here, mainly embodied on both sides by Aunt Fay, who does all the talking and most of the summarizing of other people's letters. She also gets in some choice wisecracks (one of Weldon's most reliable gifts):
Your mother reads books on tennis, I know: I doubt she's read a novel since an overdose of Georgette Heyer made her marry your father. Books can be dangerous.
Books can indeed be dangerous, and they – and their authors – can disappoint. But this one doesn't – you'll love it.