Category Archives: Weldon, Fay

Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon

“A writer’s all, Alice, is not taken up by the real world. There is something left over: enough for them to build these alternative, finite realities.”

Fay Weldon’s book Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen takes the epistolary form from the author to her niece, Alice. I knew with the glorious combo of Jane Austen and Fay Weldon, two authors (and women) I admire, I couldn’t go wrong. And I was correct; this is delightful, humorous read, and yes while it’s about Jane Austen, the book is about a lot more than that. Weldon gives us her take on what it means to be a writer, what is means to be a reader, as well as sundry tips to Alice, poor girl, who seems, seen through this one-sided correspondence, to be a bit overwhelmed by … life. And who better to set this young woman straight than her Aunt Fay?

letters to alice

The 16 letters from Aunt Fay (inspired by letters written by Austen to her niece) appear to have started with 18-year-old Alice having a crisis. She’s at university and finds Jane Austen “boring, petty and irrelevant.” Not only does Fay Weldon urge Alice to continue reading, separating entertainment from enlightenment, but argues for the importance of reading literature as perhaps the one thing that can save in us in this life. And thus begins a marvellous description of The City of Invention:

Those who founded it, who built it, house by house, are the novelists, the writers, the poets. And it is to this city that the readers come, to admire, to learn, to marvel and explore. 

Let us look around the city: become acquainted with it, make it our eternal, our immortal home. Looming over everything, of course, heart of the City, is the great Castle Shakespeare. You see it whichever way you look. It rears its head into the clouds, reaching into the celestial sky, dominating everything around. It’s a rather uneven building, frankly. Some complain it’s shoddy, and carelessly constructed in parts, others grumble that Shakespeare never built it anyway, and a few say the whole thing ought to be pulled down to make way for the newer and more relevant, and this prime building site released for younger talent: but the Castle keeps standing through the centuries, and build as others may they can never achieve the same grandeur. 

Fay Weldon argues that “books can be dangerous,” and there’s the example of Alice’s mother who suffered “an overdose of Georgette Heyer” which led to her marriage to Alice’s father. There’s friction between Fay, her sister and brother-in-law, and disapproval of Aunt Fay’s relationship with Alice seeps through the pages. Over the course of the letters, we see slivers of this disapproval as well as extremely witty glimpses of Alice’s life as she converts her love affair with a married professor into writing a book.

Who reads Arnold Bennett now, or Sinclair Lewis? But perhaps soon, with any luck, they’ll be rediscovered. ‘How interesting,’ people will say, pushing open the creaking doors. ‘How remarkable! Don’t you feel the atmosphere here? So familiar, so true: the amazing masquerading as the ordinary? Why haven’t we been here for so long?’ And Bennett, Lewis, or whoever, will be rediscovered, and the houses of his imagination be renovated, restored, and hinges oiled so that doors open easily, and the builder, the writer, takes his rightful place again in the great alternative hierarchy. 

Using Jane Austen as an example, the author also discusses the importance of audience, and argues that while “the life and personality of writers” are not “particularly pertinent to their work,” that writers cannot be separated from “the times” in which they live. Of course, Jane Austen is a wonderful example of that argument. Some of the letters contain some fascinating information about marriage and birth rates during Austen’s lifetime, and just the few succinct statistics really hammer home societal expectations that Austen faced.

The letters also discuss the modern writer’s life as compared to that of Austen. Whereas a modern, published writer may attend book readings and be prepared to “have your own view on everything” it wasn’t so for Austen:

Jane Austen and her contemporaries, of course, did none of this. They saved their public and their private energies for writing. They were not sent in to bat by their publishers in the interest of increased sales, nor did they feel obliged to present themselves upon public platforms as living vindication of their right to make up stories which others are expected to read.

This book of letters is typical Fay Weldon fare: lots of energy, lots of opinions (and some of those opinions are most definitely and refreshingly not PC), and bucketloads of wit. This is a delightful read for fans of Austen, fans of Weldon or those who are considering writing, which is, as Weldon argues “not a profession, it is an activity, an essential amateur occupation. It is what you do when you are not living.”

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It’s a Wrap: 2016

Back once more to my best-of year list in no particular order.

War Crimes for the Home: Liz Jensen. Irreverent, darkly funny, a tale of poisonous sibling rivalry during WWII.

The Stranger Next Door: Amélie Nothomb. So you’ve retired and want to move to a quiet life in the country? Think again.

The Flight: Gaito Gazdanov. Trying to escape fate never works.

The Ted Dreams: Fay Weldon. What can I say? Fay Weldon is a GODDESS.

All Things Cease to Appear: Elizabeth Brundage. Who says crime fiction can’t be literary? A haunting novel of crimes, decades apart, that take place in the same house.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea: Teffi. I can’t say that I wish I’d lived through the Russian Revolution, but Teffi’s memories bring some powerful experiences to life.

Siracusa: Delia Ephron. Two unhappily married couples and one precocious child on holiday in Italy. What can go wrong?

The Wicked Go to Hell: Frédéric Dard. Three Dard books from Pushkin Vertigo this year, and this was my favourite.

Bye-Bye Blondie: Virginie Despentes. Who can resist a Kamikaze woman?

The Moving Toyshop: Edmund Crispin. Funny and fast moving, the best of all the Golden Age mysteries I read this year.

Sweet William: Beryl Bainbridge. William could give Casanova a run for his money.

Willful Disregard:Lena Andersson. Obsession and delusion in a relationship break-up.

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The Ted Dreams: Fay Weldon

“My life seems full of husbands who suggest I ‘see someone’, when all that happens is I see something others don’t.”

Fay Weldon’s novella, The Ted Dreams begins with an unforgettable sentence: “It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring… except a clot of blood, creeping up from Ted’s leg to his brain, to kill him as he slept…”

the ted dreams.jpg

Phyllis was married, rather miserably, to art gallery owner Ted for twenty years when he died, unexpectedly, in bed one night. When Fay Weldon’s wonderfully funny book, The Ted Dreams opens, Phyllis is remarried to Robbie, an American neuro-pharma-scientist after an indecent interval of just ten months of widowhood. Phyllis was warned by her grief therapist not to “embark on a relationship,” but arguing that “a good man is hard to find” and that “they don’t just hang about on trees like ripe fruit waiting to be plucked,” Phyllis plunges ahead into matrimony once again. Phyllis is now happily married to Robbie, getting plenty of sex, and marriage to Ted with its many problems is buried in the past. Of course, it’s just possible that Phyllis’s bovine contentment could be explained by the pills she’s given by Robbie to fix those “hormonal issues.”And since Robbie has a top-secret job at Portal Inc. where he works on psychotropic drugs, he’s in a perfect position to provide her with all the experimental mood-altering drugs needed to keep her happy and content.

Phyllis remembers that Ted used to complain about her moods: ” ‘I know it’s your hormones’ was all Ted would say, thus maddening me the more. ‘ I just sit it out.’ ”  But Robbie takes his work home. “One little pink pill night and morning,” and Phyllis is  “generally benign and tranquil.”

But since this is a Fay Weldon novel, fans know that domestic bliss is a mere façade, and behind Phyllis and Robbie’s seeming domestic bliss lie some ugly dark truths. The first crack in Phyllis’s happiness is a result of all the Ted dreams she has. In Phyllis’s dreams,  Ted “grown no older, just a bit sadder and recently more resentful” appears to be stuck in a dark wood, and in the latest dream she sees him brushing off mud from a shoe. What a nasty shock, then, when Phyllis wakes up and discovers a lump of mud next to the bed. Can it be that Ted still exists somewhere in another dimension? Is there ‘life’ after death? Why is Robbie so fascinated by Phyllis’s dreams of Ted? Is Ted trying to break through to the other side, and if so what are the implications for Phyllis and Robbie?

As Fay Weldon’s wickedly funny plot unfolds, Phyllis begins to ask questions about her marriage to Robbie, and she talks to the poisonous Cynara who may or may not have had an affair with her business partner Ted and who was, according to Robbie, “just a bed buddy.” Can it be just coincidence that the marvelously bitchy Cynara had sex with both Ted and Robbie? The ‘visits’ from Ted turn out to be the most recent events in Phyllis’s life that defy rational scientific explanation. She’s given to visitations from ‘beyond,’ episodes of telepathy, and is known to be a ‘sensitive’ with telekinetic powers.

With ever growing paranoia, Phyllis begins to question the fabric of her entire existence: what exactly was her neighbour’s involvement in her husband’s death, is Phyllis the subject of a sinister experiment, and is Robbie’s sperm laced with psychotropic drugs designed to narcotize? With alarming speed Phyllis’s ‘perfect’ new married life begins to unravel, but then after we meet her creepy identical twin daughters (who could have stepped out of The Shining,) Martha and Maude, we realize how weird her life really is:

their bickerings often end (and they do bicker) just because one of them is using the other’s lines and they get confused.

Fay Weldon is in top form here with The Ted Dreams, and she proves she is as relevant as ever with this tale of spying and psychotropic drugs.  I loved this book for its subversive humour and for its tongue in cheek look at conspiracy theories, life extension and the ‘Great Beyond.’

That’s right, I felt like saying: when in doubt, fucking blame the woman.

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The Fat Woman’s Joke: Fay Weldon

“There were little gray clouds, here and there, like Alan’s writing, which was distracting him from his job, and Peter’s precocity, and my boredom with the home, and simply, I suppose growing older and fatter. In truth, of course, they weren’t little clouds at all. They were raging bloody crashing thunderstorms.”

Readers know that there are times when we feel the gravitational pull to return to writers who have special significance or those we’ve particularly enjoyed, and that brings me to Fay Weldon’s The Fat Woman’s Joke. This isn’t my favourite Weldon, but I love this book for its nasty humour and the way in which Weldon shows how food can both stabilize and destabilize a marriage.

The fat woman of the title is Esther Wells, a middle-aged woman, who when the book begins, has left her husband, ad executive Alan, and is living alone in a dingy basement flat. During the day she reads “science fictions novels. In the evenings she watched television. And she ate, and ate and drank and ate.”

This is the only proper holiday, she thought, that I have had in years, and then she thought, but this is not a holiday, this is my life until I die; and then she would eat a biscuit, or make a piece of toast, and melt some ready sliced cheese on top of it, remembering vaguely that the act of cooking had been almost as absorbing as the act of eating.

Phyllis, Esther’s friend, “invincibly lively and invincibly stupid,” comes to visit and is horrified to witness what she sees as her friend’s decline, but Esther, claiming that “Marriage is too strong an institution,”  is perfectly happy where she is.

Nothing happens here. I know what to expect from one day to the next. I can control everything, and I can eat. Were I attracted to men, or indeed attractive to them, I would perhaps find a similar pleasure in some form of sexual activity. But as it is, I just eat. When you eat, you get fat, and that’s all. There are no complications. But husbands, children-no, Phyllis, I am sorry. I am not strong enough for them.

Since Phyllis urges Esther to return to her family home, Esther, thinking that Phyllis is deluded in her vision of family unity, and for accepting whatever behaviour her serial philanderer husband Gerry, doles out, decides to tell her story.

the fat woman's joke

If there is a beginning to the breakdown of Esther and Alan’s marriage, it began, at least noticeably, during a dinner at Phyllis and Gerry’s house. Skinny Phyllis is a notoriously bad cook whereas plump Esther is a culinary whiz. Everyone pretends the meal is wonderful, and then dangerous undercurrents enter the conversation. Phyllis and Gerry’s relationship is obviously strained, and Phyllis, whose husband takes sneak peeks at Esther’s plump thighs, warns her guests that “discontent is catching.” That lines makes me think of the Woody Allen film, Husbands and Wives. The upshot of the evening is that Esther and Alan leave an evening of uncomfortable conversation with the decision that they are going to go on a diet.

Unfortunately, Alan and Esther’s lives revolve around food, and Esther isn’t as committed to the diet as her husband. When Alan goes to work hungry, suddenly he begins to notice his young temporary secretary, hobby painter, Susan who sets out to seduce Alan. Although Susan doesn’t know Alan’s wife, Esther, she hates her from afar, partly for her domestic complacency:

I don’t think she feels very much at all. Like fish feel no pain when you catch them. From what Alan says, her emotional extremities are primitive.

Esther’s story unfolds with asides from Susan, and also with Phyllis supposedly trying to ‘help’ patch up her friend’s marriage.  The Fat Woman’s Joke contains many of Fay Weldon’s themes: female body image, female roles (the good cook, the good wife and mother), the competitiveness and viciousness of female ‘friendships,’ the vulnerability of men to flattery, and the minefields of male/female relationships. The young women in the story, Susan and her friend, Brenda, are confident that life will be better for them, that they won’t end up like the Esthers of this world, but Esther has passed her youth, and knows that “equating prettiness with sexuality and sexuality with happiness,” is a very “debased view of femininity,” and while it’s “excusable in a sixteen year old,” a middle aged woman should know better. Esther knows that an aging woman’s “future is not green pastures, but the glue factory.”

Fay Weldon’s novels are not full of subtle, dainty undercurrents, and that’s not a criticism. Her aim seems to be to pull the male/female and female/female dynamic out from under the floorboards and expose it for what it really is. WAR. The conversations occasionally appear to be over the top, so we see Weldon’s characters having conversations that might not quite occur in real life, but are nonetheless the stripped down thoughts that we don’t articulate. This is the facet of Weldon novels that make them so funny–the messes these people make of their lives are comical even though we may know people who have done exactly the same things with tragic results. Ultimately, Fay Weldon is an author whose incredibly sharp wisdom has enriched my reading life immensely.

“One wonders which came first,” she said brightly,” the mistress or the female whine. It would be interesting to do a study.”

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Puffball by Fay Weldon

With its emphasis on fertility, infidelity, bad parenting and the ancient magical pull of Glastonbury Tor, Fay Weldon’s novel Puffball illustrates the human capacity for creating turmoil. The drama begins when Liffey and Richard, childless Londoners who’ve been married for seven years stumble upon Honeycomb Cottage during a weekend in the country.

Many people dream of country cottages. Liffey dreamed for many years, and saw the dream come true one hot Sunday afternoon, in Somerset, in September. Bees droned, sky glazed, flowers glowed, and the name carved above the lintel, half hidden by rich red roses, was Honeycomb Cottage and Liffey knew that she must have it. A trap closed around her.

And so all the trouble begins. At first Richard, the breadwinner, insists that they can’t leave London, but Liffey, an office temp and the possessor of a small inheritance, argues that at last she’ll be able to write that novel. Eventually a deal is struck between Liffey and Richard; they’ll buy the cottage if she’ll have a baby, and he’ll stay in London and return on the weekends. The rational reader knows, of course, that this is a recipe of disaster, but since this is a Fay Weldon novel, we also know that we’re in for some fun as the characters scramble around and make a mess of their lives.

puffballOn the day Liffey and Richard discover the seemingly idyllic cottage, they romp around in the grass for a quickie. Little do they realize that they’ve attracted the attention of the neighbours Mab and Tucker.

“Isn’t she skinny,” said Mabs, watching through field glasses from the bedroom of Cadbury Farm. Her husband Tucker took the glasses.

“They grow them like that in the city,” he said. They both spoke in the gentle, caressing drawl of the West Country, mocking the universe, defying its harshness. “You don’t know they’re from the city,” Mabs objected. “They’re not from round here,” said Tucker. “No one round here does it in public.”

Liffey, eager to begin her new life in the country decides to rent the London flat, a wedding present from Richard’s parents, Mr & Mrs Lee-Fox to a couple she’s known for a short time. Liffey, already established as an impractical character with little sense of finances, imagines that the rent (which she immediately discounts) from the flat will cover the cost of rent for the cottage and that there’ll be a profit besides. Fat chance of that happening….

Mory and Helen moved in a couple of hours after Richard and Liffey had left. With them came Helen’s pregnant sister and her unemployed boyfriend, both of whom now had the required permanent address from which to claim Social Security benefits.

With Liffey stashed in the country in the life of her dreams, everything begins to go to hell. Richard, resentful and on the loose in London, begins a period of sexual experimentation. Liffey, pregnant and stranded, relies on the help of her neighbours Mabs and Tucker. Mabs, at Cadbury Farm, is the daughter of Mrs Tree, a herbalist, and whereas Mrs Tree’s concoctions are supposed to heal various ailments, Mabs, who has more than a streak of malevolence, fancies herself as a bit of a witch. Mabs sees Liffey as a “candy on the shelf of a high-class confectioner’s shop. Mabs would have her down and take her in and chew her up and suck her through, and when she had extracted every possible kind of nourishment, would spit her out, carelessly.” With her husband and gaggle of half-starved, neglected children in her thrall, Mabs, who “seemed to have a hot line to the future,” dominates the farm and tends to get her way. Liffey and Richard’s friends Bella and Ray who “wrote cookery columns and cookery books” in the throes of mid-life crises have marriage problems of their own, and while they actively encourage the move to the country, behind Liffey’s back they ridicule country life.

I really liked the way Fay Weldon sets up the story of a seemingly happily married couple whose lives are derailed by Liffey’s desire to move to the country. This decision creates a fissure in the marriage, and then most of  the other characters exploit the situation in one way or another. There’s the sense that the universe is somehow out of balance, but all throughout the marital mayhem, the presence of Glastonbury Tor in the distance seems to provide a positive influence, and when Liffey is tuned in to her unborn child, a healthy almost supernatural force comes into play.

One of Fay Weldon’s favourite themes is the viciousness of women towards each other, while men, little more than troubling nuisances who philander their way in and out of women’s lives, are the prizes women battle over. That theme is dominant here too with Mabs feeling threatened by Liffey, and Liffey’s friends Bella and Helen ripping Liffey’s life to shreds behind her back. It’s as if Fay Weldon tells us that if women would only cease squabbling over male spoils, then the world would be a much more productive, albeit less interesting place.

Another theme here is fertility seen through Liffey’s pregnancy which is recorded in almost excruciating gynecological detail. You could definitely hand this book to someone as a 101 on pregnancy.  Nature, in the world around us, is seen to be an unstoppable force, but there’s also human nature with its powerful sex drive, and the desire to nest and raise a family. By the time the novel concludes, there’s the sense that much of our behaviour is defined by powerful hormonal drives.

This is the second reading of Puffball for this die-hard Weldon fan. The first time I was busy laughing at the way these characters almost insanely wreck their lives (the sub-plot which follows the renters/squatters in Liffey’s old flat is hilarious). This time I paid more attention to the various examples of parenting in the book. Liffey’s mother, Madge, a “lean, hard-drinking prematurely white-haired teacher of chemistry in  a girls’ school in East Anglia,” is a ‘hands-off’ parent. She’s sees motherhood as a type of trap, an obligation, and agrees to visit her daughter reluctantly  “I suppose it is the kind of thing a mother is expected to do. Once you’re given a label you never escape it.”

Richard’s mother is a bundle of “nervous energy,” and the news of an impending grandchild spurs her to action, “as if some trouble, pacing for years behind at a steady distance, had suddenly broken into a jog and overtaken her. She started knitting at once, but there was a tenseness in her hands, and the nylon wool cut into her fingers.”

Continuing on the spectrum, Bella and Ray are benignly neglectful parents. If they can fob their children off on other people, they’re happy. The presence of an au pair releases them to pursue their self-indulgent affairs, and their children appear to grow up in spite of their parents–although their diet deteriorates drastically when the au pair leaves. Mabs and Tucker have differing views on parenting. He thinks it’s ok to kick the poorly-fed dog whereas she’d rather whack her poorly fed children. Of course all these examples of less-than-perfect parenting (another favourite theme from this author) makes you wonder why people have children in the first place, but they are the natural fall-out of the confused coupling of the adults. In spite of the fact that this is a comic look at marriage and parenthood, the book is full of Fay Weldon’s wise, cryptic humour. She boldly rips the shallowness of female friendships, the inauthenticity yet convenience of the office affair, the results of a parent who fails to love a child, and so often in a Fay Weldon novel, chaos must be endured before any sort of rationality can be achieved.

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Kehua! by Fay Weldon

In the extraordinary, funny metafictional novel, Kehua! British author Fay Weldon explores the lives of two sets of characters surrounded by supernatural elements that interrupt and accompany the non-linear narrative. An unnamed writer, obviously a fictional stand in for Fay Weldon, tries to complete her novel in the basement of her haunted house. She frequently interjects her own thoughts into the text even as she tries, with moderate success, to control her fictional characters who develop and evolve sometimes beyond her control. If this sounds confusing, it isn’t, and instead we see the way the writer’s fictional characters become their own beings, get “out of hand,” and capable of acts that “shock[s] even” the author who creates them. This fictional author doesn’t hesitate to demystify the writing process for her audience, and at one point states that “your couple of hours’ reading is my half-year’s work.” Indeed we readers get a sense of the difficulties of the writer’s life as her characters grow increasingly out of control, plot developments pop up like toadstools, and the author is interrupted by the various ghosts who haunt her Victorian mansion. The fictional author occasionally despairs at the way her plot meanders, and that she feels “less real [while] these characters get more real.” But then so much of Weldon’s personal life seeps through the pages, it’s no wonder Weldon’s fictional characters need a great deal of herding towards the desired plot developments.

Kehua!This is a tale of murder, adultery, incest, family, and the way the actions and decisions of one generation work upon those that follow. The latter, incidentally, is a favoured interest of Fay Weldon whose works 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. Weldon is a very inventive writer which sounds peculiar as fiction writers are supposed to be inventive since they are, after all, in the biz of imagination, creation and keeping us amused.

Now to the plot …

And this is how the novel begins, and this quote, is, I think, the essence of Weldon, for who else (certainly not Wordsworth) would connect “a host of golden daffodils” with a “life lesson” in rampant male sexuality:

Your writer, in telling you this tale of murder, adultery, incest, ghosts, redemption and remorse, takes you first to a comfortable house in Highgate, North London, where outside the kitchen window, dancing in the breeze, the daffodils are in glorious bloom: a host of yellow male stamens in vigorous competition, eager to puff their special pollen out into the world. No two daffodils are alike, nor are any two humans. We attribute free will to human, but not to daffodils–with whom we share 35 per cent of our DNA–though perhaps rashly, when we consider the way some human families behave.

The family under examination consists of 4 generations of women–there’s matriarch Beverley, originally from New Zealand, a veritable Black Widow who’s been married 3 times to three very different men with each marriage representing a specific phase in Beverley’s life. Her first husband, who traded Beverley for political favours, was a Marxist “who disappeared on his way to join Che Guevara in the jungle,” the second killed himself following a “homosexual scandal,” and the third was a “right-wing journalist and notable drunk.” There was also an early childhood phase, spent in New Zealand, in which Beverley’s past was reinvented for her by the couple who cared for her.

Beverley’s daughter Alice, probably in some sort of fundamental knee-jerk response to her mother’s unconventionality, is very religious. Then there are Alice’s daughters Cynara and Scarlet whose birth names were very boring–Mary and Joan (no wonder they changed them), and Cynara’s precocious daughter, 16-year-old “wayward nymphet,” Lola. Lola left home after her mother threw out her husband, “declared herself a lesbian,”  and moved her S&M fixated lover, D’Dora, with her whips, handcuffs and chains, into the house. D’Dora is a member of LGS “a gay and lesbian subgroup whose members prefixed their given names with D for Dyke.” Lola, disgusted and rebellious, moves in with her aunt Scarlet temporarily while she supposedly waits for the paperwork necessary to travel to Haiti as an aid worker. Lola’s mother, Cynara tells Scarlet “for your sake pray she leaves the country soon.” Scarlet soon has reason to regret allowing Lola to move in, especially when Lola notes Scarlet’s abbreviated sex life with her husband, and with faux innocence comments: “it usually goes on only for about ten minutes, shouldn’t it be longer?” But then perhaps there’s no keeping Lola happy:

“When Mum did it with Dad, you could hardly hear when they had sex,” she goes on. “Now she’s with D’Dora there’s more noise. A lot of giggling and slapping and dressing up. I think perhaps it’s S&M. It can go on for hours. They never even think about my exams and how at my age I need sleep.”

The story opens with Scarlet at her grandmother, Beverley’s house. Scarlet is married to Louis, the owner of an eccentrically designed house, built in the 30s named Nopasaran. The house has become a point of division between Scarlet and Louis, and very possibly a good excuse for Scarlet to indulge in a torrid affair with not particularly bright, but good-looking television actor, Jackson, whose career is in the toilet, but who still has a legion of teen fans swooning over Jackson’s Vampire Rising films. Scarlet confides in her grandmother, and Beverley, who knows rather a lot about affairs has some advice:

Leaving home can cause all kinds of unexpected problems. But I don’t suppose Louis is the kind to go after you with the kitchen knife. But you haven’t got any children he can put in the back of the car and suffocate with exhaust fumes. So I expect you’re okay. But you can never quite be sure what manner of man you have, until you try to get away.

Beverley knows what she’s talking about. She survived the jealousy-based murder-suicide of her parents back in New Zealand when she was three years old. But wait… . Was this murder-suicide or was it murder-murder? And just who was Beverley’s father after all? Was he the man married to Beverley’s mother or was Beverley fathered by the charismatic doctor who sneaked around making ‘house calls’? The question of fatherhood, and just who impregnated several female members of this eccentric family comes up more than once in this tale. So much so in fact that there’s a family myth which conveniently pops up from time-to-time involving a mystery man met while on holiday.

The men in Weldon’s novels are often seen as Attractive Nuisances, temporary fixtures that float in and out of the lives of the women, either leaving them pregnant and fending for themselves or else simply disappearing to greener pastures. They are seen primarily as mostly superfluous beings to the matriarchal structure–at  best trophies for the female characters who scheme against one another to either stir trouble (as Beverley does) or steal another woman’s male (as Lola tries to do). Ultimately, Weldon tells us that women survive and have the scars to prove it. As Beverley ruminates:

it’s all women do, really, isn’t it, run. Tuck the children under the arm and try and find somewhere better, safer. You get into the habit when they’re small and then just carry on.

One of the remarkable things about the novels of Fay Weldon and one of the reasons she ranks as one of my all-time favourite modern British authors is that she has no sacred cows and simply isn’t afraid to take the piss out of everything, so there are references to Lady Gaga, Beryl Bainbridge, and we learn a little bit about Louis and his mother through a very funny reference to yet another author:

Louis’ mother is called Annabel: she is a lone parent with genteel aspirations and family money. See him as the child an Anita Brookner heroine might have had, supposing an acceptable suitor had turned up to woo her and then she’d turn him away, although pregnant, on moral grounds. Perhaps he was already married and she didn’t wish to upset his wife.

I loved this quote–not only for its humorous dig at another novelist whose work is so different from Weldon’s but also because the quote shows how the author is in complete control of the narrative. Louis and his mother seem a little out-of-place in this Weldon novel, a little overwhelmed and shoved aside by the other characters who are made of far stronger stuff. Sensitive Louis, whose nickname is “poofter,” is a man who “became hysterical and threatened” suicide at the very mention of the slightest modernizing of his beloved house, Nopasaran. So Weldon’s explanation that Louis and his mother belong in a Brookner novel makes perfect sense.

While in Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, we see a woman who reinvents herself through plastic surgery, here the plot goes back and forth between the fictional writer in the basement and four generations of the McLean family–women who reinvent themselves through their marriages and relationships. Weldon’s females are by far the more interesting sex. They tend to be creative, and capable of making tremendous mistakes, especially in the male and sexual appetites departments, yet they transform themselves to fit life as it is offered to them until that moment when they decide to seize life and make it subordinate to their desires. As always, Weldon’s women are at their best if and when they can patch up relationships with their own sex and finally put that troublesome many-headed beast, Divide and Conquer in its grave.

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Big Girls Don’t Cry by Fay Weldon

“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.”

big girls don't cryAfter 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

and

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.

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Praxis by Fay Weldon

“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?

praxisThe 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.”

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Lives and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon

She devils are beyond nature: they create themselves out of nothing.”

I expect that many people who read this post will have seen the film, Lives and Loves of a She-Devil. The film is a lot of fun, but it doesn’t really do justice to the Fay Weldon novel on which it’s based. The film with Roseanne Barr and her rival in life and love played by Meryl Streep is really very funny, but the book is much, much darker, and while like the film version, this is a tale of revenge, the book is much more subversive and its humour is black. You’ll laugh at the film but chances are you won’t have the same reaction to the book. Lives and Loves of a She-Devil was the first Fay Weldon novel I read, and it sealed me as a fan. Weldon is an outspoken feminist writer who’s come in for her share of controversy, and simply because she is a figure of some controversy, she’s all too easy to misquote. 

lives and loves of a she devilWhile Weldon’s work obviously fits in any feminist canon, her work can also be considered Transgressive fiction for the way her marvelous characters subvert societal norms. Weldon’s frequent themes include gender inequality, female reinvention, female identity and self-image and the often vicious relationships between women. Lives and Loves of a She-Devil is a tremendously powerful story–the tale of how one woman, a wife and mother, is abandoned by her husband and replaced by a prettier, sexier woman. Rising from her despair and thrusting aside all societal norms, maternal concerns, & obligations the discarded woman eventually triumphs over her enemies. Yes, a story of female empowerment and a rather frightening tale of a woman scorned who, because she’s willing to go as far as necessary, learns to live her life according to an entirely new set of rules.

Ruth, an overweight, unattractive woman who’s 6′ 2″, is an excellent wife and mother. While she’s appreciated by her somewhat scatter-brained in-laws, she’s neglected and undervalued by her accountant husband, Bobbo, who at the best of times says that Ruth is “no beauty, but a good soul.” Ruth, who is virtually powerless in the relationship, does everything to please Bobbo, even tolerating his announcement that he wants an “open marriage.” She’s aware of his extra-marital affairs which he discusses with relish, but now Bobbo has fallen in love with one of his clients, Mary Fisher, a wealthy, prolific author of trashy romances. Ruth is trying her best to ignore the affair, but after a particularly degrading scene, Bobbo moves out of his home in the suburb of Eden Grove, abandons his wife and two children and moves to Mary Fisher’s splendid home, the High Tower.

Fay Weldon’s style is spare, low on descriptions and high on mythic qualities. This is how the novel, alternating between first and third person narrative, opens:

Mary Fisher lives in a High Tower, on the edge of the sea: she writes a great deal about the nature of love. She tells lies.

Mary Fisher is forty-three, and accustomed to love. There has always been a man around to love her, sometimes quite desperately, and she has on occasion returned that love, but never, I think, with desperation. She is a writer of romantic fiction. She tells lies to herself and to the world.

Is that hate or contempt lying under the description of Mary Fisher? Probably a bit of both, but add envy to the mix too as Mary Fisher is the embodiment of everything Ruth isn’t: small, petite, feminine and highly desirable. And here’s a quote that shows just how well Fay Weldon can write:

Now outside the world turns: tides surge up the cliffs at the foot of Mary Fisher’s tower, and fall again. In Australia the great gum trees weep their bark away; in Calcutta a myriad flickers of human energy ignite and flare and die; in California the surfers weld their souls with foam and flutter off into eternity; in the great cities of the world groups of dissidents form their gaunt nexi of discontent and send the roots of change through the black soil of our earthly existence. And I am fixed here and now, trapped in my body, pinned to one particular spot, hating Mary Fisher. It is all I can do. Hate obsesses and transforms me; it is my singular attribution.

While Bobbo and Mary Fisher have the looks, the power and the money on their side, Ruth is dumped with the two squabbling children, a gluttonous vomiting dog who humps anyone lower on the totem pole, a cat who fouls the house, and an unfortunate guinea pig. Bobbo and Mary live in sex-soaked idyllic bliss while Ruth suddenly has to worry about money–how to pay bills and buy food (there’s one great scene in which Ruth directs the children to search the house for coins). To add to the worries, Bobbo tells her to move to a smaller, cheaper home. Part of Ruth accepts what has happened to her–after all, she reasons “to those who hath, such as Mary Fisher, shall be given, and to those who hath not, such as myself, even that which they have shall be taken away.”

Ruth has always behaved well and put Bobbo’s needs before her own. Why shouldn’t she accept divorce, destitution and displacement and be happy for the few years she had? But Ruth doesn’t see it that way, and she doesn’t react the way Bobbo expects her to.  Strangely, once removed from the position of wife, something begins to happen to Ruth. Liberated from her own repressive behavior,  “Hate obsesses and transforms” her, and she has revenge in mind. As events unfold, it becomes clear that revenge is an emotion that can take you to the place you want to go. Ruth abandons the roles assigned to her: doting wife, patient mother and begins a transformative journey–both literal and figurative, and along the way she confronts other women in various miserable circumstances including a clueless welfare mother who’s impregnated by a series of transient rogue males, a group of Wimmin, and also the much-abused wife of a judge who has a secret “passion for bondage and whips.” As Ruth continually reinvents herself, she leaves an imprint on the lives of everyone she touches, and rather magnificently, she becomes all the things her husband, to assuage his guilt, accused her of. She becomes a She-Devil who “creates havoc and destruction all around,”  and by abandoning the roles she is expected to endure, and breaking all the “rules” she plots her revenge…

Since this is a Weldon novel, the economic poverty of women is evident, but Weldon is not a man-hater; rather she revels in the power of sexuality, and she’s also very funny:

She’s such a good wife,” said Bobbo’s mother, moved almost to tears. “Look at that ironing!” Bobbo’s mother never ironed if she could help it. In the good times indeed, she and Angus liked to live in hotels, simply because there’d be a valet service. “And what a good husband Bobbo has turned out to be!” If she thought her son was narcissistic, staring so long in the mirror, she kept her thoughts to herself.

But Bobbo looked in the mirror at his clear, elegant eyes, his intelligent brow and his slightly bruised mouth, and hardly saw himself at all; he saw the man whom Mary Fisher loved.

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