Auto da Fay

Memoirs far too frequently are lengthy exercises in self-indulgence by self-styled celebrities or others whose accomplishments are negligible to non-existent. Fay Weldon is not only the author of many novels and short stories which offer a witty, incisive portrait of British domestic relationships in the latter decades of the twentieth century, but also a writer of such skill that even if she were completely unknown, her autobiographical recollections of her youth in New Zealand and the years she spent in “Swinging London” in the 1960’s prior to her initial success as a writer of fiction would be a thoroughly engrossing reading experience.

Right from the start in which she recalls in extraordinary detail life in New Zealand with a family of talented eccentrics disguising bohemian proclivities behind an image of establishment rectitude, Weldon’s sense of amusement and insight about herself and her sometimes strained situation is captivating without ever being self-pitying or self-aggrandizing.

As she moves from early childhood, to public schools and then to St. Andrews University in Scotland, her growing sense of restrictive social and religious mores feeds her developing determination to live according to her own scale of values. The willful, opinionated observations that inform her memoir and invigorate her fiction—familiar in works like The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983)—is balanced by a poignant sense of the difficulties even famous and successful people encounter in the course of their lives. There is a feeling of deep understanding and generosity in her accounts of the numerous prominent people—Ted Hughes, Dylan Thomas, many other poets and painters—whom she knew either closely or casually.

Combining a sharp eye for the massive social transformations that took place in England through the middle decades of the twentieth century with a candid, revealing account of life as a working mother and would-be writer in a society still ruled by centuries-old male prerogatives, Weldon’s Auto da Fay is a fine complement to her fiction, as well as a compendium of reflective wisdom, the product of an active life in the modern world.