“The funny farm, the loony bin, the mental home. The shelter for the mentally disabled. I have visited them all, over the years.”
Another Weldon re-read and this time it’s Praxis, a novel I read for the first time some decades ago. It’s an interesting book to come back to for many reasons, but as I read it in tandem with Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, the two books worked, rather curiously with no small amount of synchronicity–odd really as the books are about entirely different things, for while Life after Life explores alternate lives and brings up the possibly of changing fate, Praxis focuses on a character who rarely exercises her Free Will. It was pure accident that I read these two books simultaneously, and while both books focus on the lives and the choices of two women, time wise, Praxis extends into the late 20th century, whereas Life After Life is rooted in the first half of the 20th century.
Weldon, a feminist writer who’s been the centre of some controversy, concentrates on the lives of women with themes that include: female identity & self-image, transformation & reinvention, gender inequality, female madness and the vicious relationships between women. While Weldon’s work, full of bitingly wicked humour, obviously fits in any feminist canon, her work can also be considered Transgressive fiction for the way her marvelous characters subvert societal norms. Praxis is the story of a 20th century woman who’s transformed (not for the better) by her relationships with men. A female chameleon with little sense of just who she really is, Praxis subsumes herself in her relationships, becoming what her lovers expect/want her to be. Becoming what is expected or desired brings only unhappiness and confusion, and through this character’s transformations, we see Praxis struggling with her identity, her own worst enemy as the years fall away spent on some meaningless daily life that fulfills someone else’s demands and expectations. And then the day comes when Praxis acts spontaneously and as a result goes to prison. Is she a feminist hero or a monster?
The Praxis of the title is the youngest daughter of Lucy Duveen and her common-law husband, Benjamin. The story is told by a now elderly Praxis, a woman who has apparently spent a few years in prison for an unspecified crime. Praxis writes down her story, going back in time to at age 5, “sitting on the beach at Brighton,” with her mother and her older sister Hypatia. Lucy and her two daughters give an idyllic impression to passer-bys including WWI veteran and former bombardier, Henry Whitechapel, who now lurks on the beaches pretending to take photographs for tourists with film (if he actually has any) that he never develops.
Praxis, Henry noticed, was easily bored. When other diversions failed she would run shrieking into the sea, still wearing her shoes and socks, to the distraction of her mother, and the distaste of Hypatia, who was content for hours staring at the sea and making poetry in her head.
“If that young one were mine,” thought Henry Whitechapel, “I’d belt her one.” Later he was to have the opportunity of doing so. He had never married, and had no children of his own; his lungs and his concentration were not what they had been before the war; nor certainly at that time was his sexual capacity. But a romantic interest in the opposite sex remained, and Lucy Duveen, sitting on the pebbly beach with her hamper, her parasol, and her two little girls, made for him a romantic image.
Told in both first and third person narration, we follow Praxis through her life, through her university days, her lovers, marriages, divorces, children, step-children, endless cooking and cleaning, and there are several points at which Praxis finds herself in a life she didn’t plan and doesn’t want. With a ‘how-did-I-get-here’ feeling, a stupefied Praxis marvels that lacking a sense of self, she’s been molded into a person she no longer recognizes in order to please whichever man is in her life.
Staring at herself in the mirror, at her doll’s face, stiff doll’s body, curly blonde doll’s hair, she wondered what experience or wisdom could possibly shine through the casing that Ivor had selected for her. She did not blame Ivor: she knew that she had done it to herself : had preferred to live as a figment of Ivor’s imagination, rather than put up with the confusion of being herself.
But while Praxis tries to hard to please the various men in her life, she fails to befriend women, and since Weldon is big on the betrayals of women towards their own sex, there are several times when Praxis’s peculiar, and very possibly mad, sister, Hypatia (“People fail you, children disappoint you, thieves break in, moths corrupt, but an OBE goes on for ever,“) takes measures to ensure her sister’s unhappiness. It’s no coincidence that the very best things that happen in Praxis’s life occur on those rare occasions when women stick together.
While the style, tone and theme of Praxis were all vastly dissimilar to Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, there were connections. Life after Life gives us a protagonist who lives many versions of the same life. Choices made in a split second lead Ursula down different paths in an alternative universe sort-of-way. While Weldon’s Praxis is grounded in bitter reality, her life is segmented by divisions and a metaphysical connection with the star Betelgeuse–which signals death of one self and the rebirth of another ‘new’ Praxis. While Ursula has moments of disturbing deja-vu, Praxis feels a strong disconnect with her life–almost as though one day she wakes up and wonders just how she got to this place.
Praxis, who becomes entangled with the swinging sixties, also runs head-long into feminism, and Praxis has mixed feelings about feminists–initially repelled, they begin to make sense to her–although as the years pass, once again, Praxis feels out of touch:
The New Women! I could barely recognize them as being of the same sex as myself, their buttocks arrogant in tight jeans, openly inviting, breasts falling free and shameless and feeling no apparent obligation to smile, look pleasant or keep their voices low. And how they love! Just look at them to know how! If a man doesn’t bring them to orgasm, they look for another who does. If by mistake they fall pregnant, they abort by vacuum aspiration. If they don’t like the food, they push the plate away. If the job doesn’t suit them, they hand in their notice. They are satiated by everything, hungry for nothing. They are what I wanted to be; they are what I worked for them to be: and now I see them, I hate them.
I can’t conclude without mentioning one of my favourite characters in the book, Irma, a friend from Praxis’s university days. Irma is the sort of hard, driven woman who always seems to know what she wants and how to get it. She marries a man she thinks will be successful and she leads a rather terrifying life of social success and mental emptiness. At one point, for example she offers Praxis some practical advice:
“There’s only way to get out of the fix you’re in,” said Irma. “And that’s to sleep your way out of it. Sorry and all that.”
Since this is a Weldon novel, Irma undergoes her own radical transformation, becoming a militant feminist and appearing on television while her ex-husband nastily argues that all “poor Irma” needs is:
“a good lay. But where is she going to find that? Look at the way she dresses.”