“Well, we’re sorry. Every generation must apologise to the future, and the greater the change that was brought about, the profounder the apology needs to be. … Let the feminists apologise for the death of love, lost children, and the diminishing of man. But what was a girl to do? Someone has to reform the world. You can’t see what you see and do nothing.”
The works of British author Fay Weldon concentrate on the lives of women with themes that include: female identity & self-image, revenge, transformation & reinvention, gender inequality, female madness and the vicious relationships between women. While Weldon’s work, full of dark, 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. Case in point: Big Girls Don’t Cry–a story of a band of women who form a feminist publishing house. I can’t think of another author who would take this subject to show how the treacherous relationships between women undermine the lives of these characters, and while this is not my favourite Weldon novel, it’s deceptively brilliant, and ultimately an incredible commentary on shifting social times.
The world envied them, derided them, adored, loathed and pitied them by turns–these women who were larger than life. Layla, Stephanie, Alice, Nancy and company–a small, vivid group of wild livers, free-thinkers, lusters after life, sex and experience, who in the last decades of the century turned the world inside out and upside down. Unable to change themselves, they turned their attention to society, and set about changing that, for good or bad.
Weldon tells us that the women were “described” as feminists, “but they were never quite in step; too far in front to notice what the rest were doing.” The novel begins in 1971 and follows our characters for several decades in an ever-changing Britain. It’s London, and there’s change in the air, and here are two young women in their twenties: Stephanie and Layla pasting up posters with a feminist message:
A Woman Needs a Man like a Fish Needs a Bicycle.
Stephanie and Layla (carrying a plank under her arm) are about to move on. Stopping to stare at the poster are Kiwi tourists, Nancy and her fascist controlling fiancé, Brian. Brian is expressing contempt for newspaper headlines while the newspaper vendor, a man with a nose eaten by leprosy, looks on. For a moment, Layla, Stephanie, Nancy and Brian face each other on the pavement:
“Could we pass?” asks Layla, politely since Brian and his unbought newspaper bar their way. The noseless man smiles thinly under hideous nostrils.
“Ladies say please,” says Brian.
At which Layla simply turns and swipes him to one side with the end of the plank, turns back, and she and Stephanie move on. Brian knocked against the wall momentarily, recovers quickly.
“Aggressive bitches,” he says.
“You were in their way, Brian,” remarks Nancy, which makes Brian wonder exactly whose side she’s on.
“They must be feminists,” he observes.
“How can you be sure?” she asks.
“They don’t even walk like proper women,” he says.
And it’s true. All around Brian and Nancy doe-eyed and adoring women drift along in the shadows of men, stumbling on platforms, trit-trotting on stiletto heels. Layla and Stephanie stride; they wear jeans and t-shirts. Their equivalents today would be muscular and well-exercised. Layla and Stephanie, for all their health, strength and energy, are soft-limbed, smooth-shouldered. Men have muscles: women have defencelessness as their weapon. No wonder this world is so erotic, super-charged: composed of polarities as it is. He, she. Hard, soft. Ying, yang.
Nancy ‘gets’ the poster’s message, while Brian is genuinely puzzled by what feminists “want.”
After this scene, which turns out to be most significant, the book moves on to a “consciousness-raising” meeting at Stephanie’s house in Chalcot Crescent. The meeting of “five furies in the front room” ends with alliances forged, inter-female betrayal, a marital relationship in the toilet, major rivalries between female characters erupting, and the formation of a feminist press: Medusa. The rest of the book follows the lives, loves and careers of its characters: Stephanie (who later abandons Medusa and joins Menstra magazine), Layla who sleeps with ‘the enemy,’ the very domestic Daffy, “High Priestess,” Alice, poor tragic Zoe destroyed by her passivity, and Zoe’s daughter Saffron, as they move through the decades, shifts in the feminist movement, broken relationships, and the onslaught of AIDS. As the decades pass, our radicals of the 70s discover that they’ve become passé, and sadly, but perhaps appropriately, it’s Zoe, the one who pays the greatest price, who makes the biggest impact, and it’s Saffron who delivers delicious revenge.
Fay Weldon doesn’t shy away from interjecting her thoughts in these pages while presenting a unique perspective on the feminist movement. Her characters, although vivid and alive are more types than intimate character studies, but it’s through these women, these characters who fought against tradition, we see a range of results and prices paid: guilt, regret, loneliness and even a lack of appreciation as the feminist movement marches on and leaves most of our characters in the dust. Weldon’s frequent interjections and social commentary may annoy some readers (not me obviously). Weldon’s pithy, lively social commentary would do wonders in any classroom:
Children then were grateful to have been born at all; were on the whole uncritical of their upbringing; parents did the best they could in the light of their own natures, it was commonly assumed
That was in the mid-seventies: socialist days. Long ago. The notion of primal ownership has returned with a vengeance: and the profit therein. The rain that falls from heaven belongs not to god but to the Water Board, the forests nature grew are fenced off and belong to the Forestry Commission; your very corpse belongs to the state: its parts up for sale for research purposes. Money has won over human dithering. The natural mother owns the genes of the child she forgot and can claim that child back from the adoptive mother any time: the moral right of the one who toils is swept away in the tide of mine, mine: the country you claim is the one of your ancestors not the one which reared you.
Saffron, the next generation, is the child of the 70s: the product of a woman who wanted to be a feminist and Bullivant, a man terrified that he’d become superfluous in a world in which he couldn’t dominate and bully. Here’s Saffron visiting a bookshop in which she’s served by a woman in combat fatigues:
Saffron leaves her companions and walks briskly down to Compendium Books, the radical bookshop near Camden Town, instead of up the hill and home to her house in the cramped narrow streets behind Belsize Park. She loves looking in the window, to the display therein of global hopes and fears. Books on the Nuclear Threat, CND, Marx, Trotsky, Anarchism, The Buddhist Path to Serenity. There’s a large section labeled Wimmin–the three letters M-A-N in that order seeming to some an insult. Books on the nature of the patriarchy, the particular plight of black women, the male tendency to rape and pillage–though scarcely a one, yet, on incest or child sexual abuse–and a large section given over to Medusa books, which are noticeably glossier and more attractively designed than the rest.
In spite of the book’s light, humorous tone, Weldon asks some serious, difficult questions here while examining the feminist movement in the last few decades of the 20th century. Through these vibrant characters, the story addresses the price paid by the women who ignored convention and fought for alternative lives, and then lived to see the movement become fragmented and morph into something new and different. In another author’s hands, especially in these PC days, I can’t help but think that this story would be one of stellar sisterhood, one of those nasty uplifting novels. Ultimately Weldon’s message here seems to be that women need to watch each other’s backs and that women, by their physiology alone, will juggle careers, relationships and children and, along the way, make some tough choices that will be layered with guilt and regret.