In The Hearts and Lives of Men, author Fay Weldon examines human folly through the lives of the main characters: Clifford Wexford and Helen Lally. When the novel opens, it’s 1960s London. 35-year-old Clifford Wexford is an ambitious art dealer whose current lover, the sharp-edged, unpleasant Angie, a South African Heiress, is also the daughter of Clifford’s boss. Clifford attends a party with dried-up, bitter Angie, but leaves with luminous Helen Lally, the daughter of the temperamental artist and frame maker, John Lally. This is a story of marriage, adultery, Art and greed, played out through the tumultuous relationship between Clifford and Helen.
At first, all is well between Clifford and Helen, but with Angie’s machinations, sowing discord to both Clifford and Helen, it doesn’t take long for things to go south. Thanks to Angie stirring the pot, Clifford “could see all too clearly that Helen was capable of deceit and folly, and lack of judgment, and worse of all, lack of taste.” And Helen knows that Clifford has strayed with Angie, so the Wexford marriage gets off to a bad start. Clifford and Helen’s child, Nell is born on Christmas Day, 1965, but “a marriage that is rapidly put together can rapidly unravel.” Before Nell is even a year old, Clifford and Helen split, and an ugly custody battle ensues. Nell’s childhood, which could have been idyllic, begins to unravel. Nell is left in the care of a nanny guided by Nell’s paternal grandmother’s questionable child rearing beliefs, while Helen, cruelly, is only allowed slight access. Nell becomes a “tug-of-love” baby as her parents fight for her–Helen from maternal instinct and Clifford for spite.
When Helen remarries, Clifford, in a fit of malice hires a man to kidnap Nell. The kidnapping goes horribly wrong, and this tragic event shapes the lives of Clifford, Helen, and Nell. A large amount of the book follows Nell’s life, wrapped with modern fairy tale elements (Fate, wicked stepmother, black magic) as she falls into misfortune. Clifford and Helen must overcome their own negative characteristics before they come to a happy ending. The story shows that some people are gifted with good looks, and good luck, while others, such as Angie, are unlovable. Angie is a miserably unhappy character, but she makes her own misery:
Reader, to the happy all things come. Happiness can even bring the dead back to life. It is our resentments, our dreariness, our hate and envy, unrecognized by us, which keeps us miserable. Yet these things are in our heads, not out of our hands. We own them; we can throw them out if we choose.
Marriage also comes under scrutiny through Clifford and Helen, of course, but also through artist John Lally and his wife, Evelyn. Poor Evelyn, intimidated by her husband’s temper tantrums and moods, led a miserable (short) life. John Lally’s second wife, Marjorie, however, has an even happy, placid temperament and she simply refuses to absorb her temperamental husband’s nonsense.
“Don’t be absurd, John!” she’d say, when he was unreasonable. “Oh, what a bad temper!” she’d exclaim, apparently unmoved, when he ranted and raved. “John, you can’t be talking about me. You must be talking about yourself!” she‘d say if he tried to call her names.
He tried in a hundred ways to get the better of her, but couldn’t. If he didn’t speak to her she seemed not to notice, but fetched the neighbours in for coffee and talked to them instead. She made plans to include him but if he didn’t turn up or was late, simply went without him.
Good for Marjorie.
Miserable people spread misery; spite and unkindness bounce back in Weldon’s fate-driven, karmic world. There’s the underlying idea in this playful novel that people can change–obviously psychos are psychos and that doesn’t alter, but apart from that, admitting our mistakes, maturing or even marrying someone more compatible all present opportunities for growth. Interesting to note that the artistic characters seem to be overall happier.