Study Guide

Fay Weldon

by Franklin Birkinshaw

Fay Weldon Essay - Weldon, Fay (Vol. 9)

Weldon, Fay (Vol. 9)

Weldon, Fay 1933–

A British playwright and novelist, Weldon is also a successful screenwriter of television dramas. Weldon's fiction, reflecting a concern for women in contemporary society, consistently refuses an ideological stance. In her sensitive and often witty portraits of modern marriage, Weldon lends an air of universality to the domestic dramas she creates. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Considering how much I enjoyed reading Remember Me, it may seem churlish to begin by carping at the shortcomings that still disquality Fay Weldon from the league into which her publishers have promoted her—'one of Britain's major novelists'. But her new book is so much better than her last, Female Friends, that such claims look no longer merely wishful; and it would be at least insulting, therefore, to gloss over the blemishes.

The chief trouble is that Mrs Weldon has found no settled style of her own as a novelist. Where Female Friends seemed to be made up out of left-over television scripts, Remember Me reflects a crash course in the kind of diluted experimentalism that has made some people think that Kurt Vonnegut is the greatest living American writer. There is a lot of Under Milk-and-Water Wood…. Then there are patches of play-script dialogue, sometimes preceded and followed by kindergartenish directions ('Listen to Jamie and Judy now …'; 'Poor little grey, badly-behaved Judy. Poor smarting Jamie …'), sometimes with the speeches numbered to match a similarly-numbered 'translation' from which you are to learn what the speakers really mean by their clichés….

[The book] is very entertaining as black farce, often cruelly shrewd about the intimate relations of near relations, sometimes coming close to articulating the large conclusions about the meaning of life that these messy lives are meant to signify. Yet never quite articulating them: the supernaturalism is a cop-out, the mark of unwillingness, or worse, to try to make real sense of the fresh wounds and old scars collected in those dangerous games. That is why, notwith-standing her best performance yet, Fay Weldon will have to wait for that promotion. (p. 486)

Neil Hepburn, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of Neil Hepburn), October 14, 1976.

The troubled and confused characters in ["Remember Me"] are Londoners of a fairly ordinary sort, and by the time they are through leaping over the obstacles and dealing with the bizarre problems Mrs. Weldon invents for them, they are a bedraggled lot indeed. Rather like people in a breathless, ongoing comic opera, they speak to the reader directly, introducing themselves in the least imaginative of ways, defining themselves almost exclusively in terms of two or three other people. (p. 7)

While writers with the patience and sensitivity of Margaret Drabble or Penelope Mortimer can still make us respond to the plight of the oppressed housewife, the theme itself has become a very familiar one. The startling revelations of one decade become, all too frequently, the shopworn clichés of the next.

Mrs. Weldon's scorn for her characters is expressed in frequent authorial intrusions; she cannot resist patting her characters on the head and saying, patronizingly, "Good Lily!" "Kind Lily!" "Oh Jarvis!" "Disloyal, disconnected Margot!" The effect is that the reader soon loses sympathy with them, for if an author is contemptuous of his or her characters, how can the reader feel otherwise?

"Remember Me" has the breathlessness of an Iris Murdoch novel, and some of its inventiveness. But it lacks depth and resonance, and it resolves itself as glibly as any situation comedy, despite the seriousness of the issues involved. Is it possible that feminist concerns with the exploitation of women by men, while still painfully relevant to our lives, are no longer viable as subjects for serious fiction? By denying subtlety and humanity to roughly one-half the population, and by delineating Maleness in place of specific human beings who happen to be male, the writer with feminist interests severely jeopardizes her power to create imaginative literature. (p. 54)

Joyce Carol Oates, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 21, 1976.

Having enjoyed and admired Fay Weldon's Female Friends enormously, I looked forward with keen anticipation to her latest novel, Remember Me. I expected to be shocked. I expected to learn something about women which I didn't know before. Quite simply, I expected what I don't often get from a straight novelist—a good read. I wasn't disappointed.

For Mrs. Weldon is a natural novelist. That is her proper medium. She can sustain a narrative and she can create characters. And she possesses that very rare quality, a sardonic, earthy, disenchanted, slightly bitter but never cruel sense of humour. She is wholly feminine—and I mean this as a compliment. She is the Great Earth Mother who has seen it all. For her the male is a biological interlude. The world of the women is the only real world. (I hasten to add that I speak of Mrs. Weldon only in her novelist's persona.) And this is her great attraction as a writer. She admits the male into a world which is otherwise barred to him.

It is—and this is very important—a heterosexual world. There is a Lesbian character in Remember Me, who hangs around hoping to enlist casualties from the sex war on her side. But her only success is brief and will not last. No matter how hellish their relationships with men may be, no matter how much better their own sex may understand them, for Mrs. Weldon's women sex means men….

[It's] extremely refreshing to come across a novelist who gives children their proper place in the scheme of things, and who doesn't regard them as mere appendages. In fact, Mrs. Weldon's children are genuine individual children. They aren't miniature adults and they aren't fantastic puppets dancing on Freudian strings.

And that is yet another virtue of Mrs. Weldon. She is never vague. She never leaves the reader wondering how old a character is, what they look like, what specifically they are doing. We are told what her characters eat and drink, how they earn their living, how their houses are furnished. She doesn't overload the narrative with detail; she understands what few novelists understand, that physical details are not embellishments on the story, but the bricks from which the story is made….

The details [in Remember Me] make the story, Jarvis's face, the skin loose from dieting, the honey-and-orange-juice at breakfast, the eggs from the health-food shop, the soft and silky down on Lily's arms, Jonathon's silver spoon, polished every day so that it's becoming dangerously sharp: all these aspects of the material world are the consequences of what we are and also make us what we are…. [All] the details are unerringly right. Miss Weldon never puts a foot wrong.

Yes, she is a very good writer. Yes, Remember Me is a very good novel. But I do have one reservation. I wish that either she hadn't used the question-and-answer technique or that she'd devised some way of formalising it and filling it out. When I'm asked to accept two words, 'Who's asleep?' as a whole line of narrative, I can't help feeling rather cheated. And I think that numbering certain lines of dialogue is rather pretentious. It adds nothing to the story. And the extra spaces between question and answer infuriate me….

Having said this, I must make it clear that I'm sure that Mrs. Weldon's sole reason for using this technique was that it seemed to her to be the one best suited to her material. She is a dedicated artist, which means that with each book she tries harder, that she's never content simply to do what she's done before. In this case, I think that she's tried too hard, that the book succeeds in spite of its techniques not because of it.

John Braine, "A Natural Novelist," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright John Braine 1977; reprinted with permission), January, 1977, p. 28.

Remember Me manages to be so many books simultaneously that one is briskly, delightedly swept along, only to wonder breathlessly at the end whether the stunning impact comes from a Grimm fairy tale/ghost story, or from a witty excursion into contemporary London mores and marriage, or from a rich, soothing, old-fashioned English comedy of manners. It comes, of course, from all three. Weldon … writes with unrelenting clearsightedness about the wasted, but not hopeless, lives of women, and the men they cling to. Her book accomplishes more than a dozen polemics and is entertaining besides.

At its most superficial, Remember Me is a not-unfamiliar urbane tale of middle-class marital reshuffling, proliferating guilt, resentment, awkward dinner parties, and leftover children …

Fay Weldon is one of the most accomplished fabulists around. Her fable is replete with the requisite cast of characters: scorned Queen turned Witch; selfish, vain younger Queen; Ugly Duckling Princess denied her rightful place by Wicked Stepmother; confused King ruled by Female Powers behind the throne; modest Lady-in-Waiting who steals the Princess for safekeeping. (No ogres, however. In Female Friends the male characters were uniformly disgusting; in Remember Me they are merely emotionally weak.) All are influenced unawares by the ghost of the mutilated Madeleine, who refuses to rest in peace until her child is removed from the hateful clutches of the stepmother, Lily.

Madeleine's ghost, in all its invisibility, is an extraordinarily effective fictional creation, literally surging through the novel, giving it impetus and breadth.

Remember Me may appear, mistakenly, to be a creaking-door type of chiller. Quite the contrary. In texture, it has the warmth and comfort of the traditional realistic novel of social relations, in which we rest assured that the author will take good care of us. In the past, this care meant supplying abundant supportive detail and family background, connecting plot links and snipping straggly ends, and, best of all, offering a sturdy framework of accepted belief in which bizarre events might be set in balance and proportion. Weldon, like her forbears in the long line of efficient English novelists, does all this. Meticulous data on the paraphernalia of contemporary life … are given with the tongue-in-cheek wit expected of an already proven satirist. More remarkable is the brief, vivid portraiture of mothers, fathers, social classes, and childhood traumas belonging to the characters. None has the orphaned quality often found in current fiction; all have documented personal heritages that bring them, variously, through the crucial days of the story.

As for the framework: What holds this hybrid book together? Weldon's wry, occasionally expatiating voice, for one thing. So refreshingly willing is she to intrude her viewpoint that one almost expects her to break out with "Dear Reader" (she would get away with it, too). With enviable conviction, the authorial voice claims that the visceral tie between mother and child is the most unbreakable living bond; more generally, that the nature of human contact is molecular and circumstantial, yet meaningful, obscurely and at random:

Almost nothing is wasted. Old friends … old enemies … old emotions, made sense of and transmuted into energy;… all the material flotsam washed up by the storms of our experience—all these have implication, and all lead us to the comforting notion that almost nothing in this world goes unnoticed; more, that almost nothing is unplanned.

As truth, perhaps difficult to accept. But, as the basis of a novel, it works wonderfully well.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, "Quartet Plus Ghost," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), January 3, 1977, p. 58.