Study Guide

Fay Weldon

by Franklin Birkinshaw

Fay Weldon Essay - Weldon, Fay (Vol. 122)

Weldon, Fay (Vol. 122)

Introduction

Fay Weldon 1931–

English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Weldon's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 9, 11, 19, 36, and 59.

Considered by many to be one of the finest contemporary English satirists, Weldon has focused in her novels and short stories on the state of women's lives in modern culture. Weldon finds the prescribed positions of women in social institutions oppressive, and skewers not only institutions, but both male and female behavior within them.

Biographical Information

Weldon was born in Alvechurch, Worcestershire, England, and spent her early childhood in New Zealand. She returned to England to attend Hampstead Girls' High School in London. Weldon then went to the University of St. Andrews, earning her master's degree in economics and psychology in 1952; in 1988 she received a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Bath and a subsequent doctoral degree in literature from the University of St. Andrews in 1992. In the late 1950s she worked as a writer for the Foreign Office and the Daily Mirror in London before moving on to work as an advertising copywriter. In 1960 she married Ron Weldon, an antiques dealer; the couple divorced in 1994. In addition to novels and short stories, Weldon is an accomplished playwright, scriptwriter, and writer of children's stories. Her awards include a Writers Guild award, a Giles Cooper award, a Society of Authors traveling scholarship, and a Los Angeles Times award for fiction.

Major Works

Weldon is known for infusing her works of social commentary with biting wit and grotesque imagery. But while she usually presents a dark picture of the female condition and the state of gender relations, she also frequently ends her books on a hopeful note. Esther, the heroine of her first novel The Fat Woman's Joke (1967) regains her self-respect and her husband's appreciation during a separation from him in which she succumbs to an eating disorder. In Down among the Women (1972) Weldon portrayed three generations of oppressed women; but rebellion and hope for independence are embodied in the third generation, rep-resented by the protagonist's illegitimate daughter. Although she depicts women as oppressed and exploited, Weldon analyzes the ways in which they are responsible for their own problems and the unfortunate situations of other women. Women betraying each other is one of her major themes. In The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983) a large, unattractive woman named Ruth, disillusioned by romance novels, is rejected by her husband in favor of a beautiful romance writer. Ruth exacts revenge by transforming herself through plastic surgery into the exact double of the writer, destroying both her husband and his mistress but also losing her entire identity. In many of Weldon's works both male and female infidelity are responsible for the dissolution of marriages. In The Cloning of Joanna May (1989), an examination of the nature versus nurture question, Joanna's husband Carl has her cloned, then divorces her for having an affair. Thirty years later Joanna and the clones—none characterized as sympathetic or successful people—meet, and Carl and his new mistress end up falling into a nuclear reactor. In Life Force (1992) the lives of four women are disrupted when the man they all have slept with returns after a twenty-year absence; all four of them fall into self-destruction and chaos because of their obsession with the man's enormous phallus—the "life force" of the title. In Trouble (1994; published as Affliction in England) Weldon took on modern psychotherapy, as two new-age therapists seem to deliberately ruin the marriage of a man who seeks their help to deal with his massive insecurities about his wife's sudden success. Wicked Women (1995), a collection of short stories written since 1972, features a cast of characters who all, male and female, come off poorly, despite the title. Worst Fears (1996) concerns a woman dealing with unexpected revelations after her husband's sudden death. Believing she had the perfect marriage, Alexandra Ludd discovers that her husband has been sleeping with her best friends for years, and after his death she is snubbed by everyone including the family dog.

Critical Reception

Critics find Weldon's satires on gender relations and contemporary issues, such as cloning and nuclear terror, witty and scathing. Some reviewers have commented on the increasing bitterness of her later works, finding them too hopeless and grim to offer any kind of satisfying resolution to readers; others believe her characterizations of men are shallow and overly negative. Still, Weldon's astute social observations and outrageously inventive plots have earned her both critical praise and a loyal popular readership.

Principal Works

The Fat Woman's Joke (novel) 1967
Down among the Women (novel) 1971
Female Friends (novel) 1975
Remember Me (novel) 1976
Words of Advice (novel) 1977
Praxis (novel) 1978
Puffball (novel) 1980
Watching Me, Watching You (short stories) 1981
The President's Child (novel) 1983
The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (novel) 1983
Polaris and Other Stories (short stories) 1985
The Shrapnel Academy (novel) 1986
The Heart of the Country (novel) 1987
The Hearts and Lives of Men (novel) 1987
Leader of the Band (novel) 1988
The Cloning of Joanna May (novel) 1989
Darcy's Utopia (novel) 1990
Moon over Minneapolis (short stories) 1991
Life Force (novel) 1992
Trouble (novel) 1994
Splitting (novel) 1994
Wicked Women (short stories) 1995
Worst Fears (novel) 1996

Criticism

Susannah Clapp (review date 24 February 1978)

SOURCE: "Soft Machines," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 95, No. 2449, February 24, 1978, p. 258.

[In the following review, Clapp calls Little Sisters "glittering" and "witty."]

Fay Weldon's latest novel [Little Sisters] is by turns hectoring, funny, astute and artificial. Full of dreadful warnings relating to the 'black pool of desire and destiny' awash in women, it delivers its moral messages with a depersonalised urgency, variously shrinking or swelling its characters into embodiments of fairy-tale oppositions: they are chiefly distinguished by being either old or young, rich or poor, barren or fertile; all use sex for the 'sharing out of privilege'.

The interest of Little Sisters lies not in its components but in the cleverness with which these are manouvered. An exotically grisly account of Sixties London kookery, in which men wore toupees woven from pubic hair, manufacture navel gems and send ugly sisters hurtling from windows, is pitted against a supposedly authentic, non-fantastic story in which a shriveled millionaire (whose fortune comes from plastic flowerpots) and his crippled wife entertain a balding antique dealer and his luscious young girl friend—planning, amid an abundance of bad taste, to impregnate the girl and acquire an heir.

The first of these tales is presented as a fictional unweaving of the past: a cautionary tale told to the voluptuously nodding young girl who 'blushes and grinds her tiny teeth' while patronised. Its force as moral fable, urging the girl's escape to (presumably) her very own fecundity, is dubious; and since both narratives interweave the mundane and the bizarre in almost equal proportions, the distinction which labels only the first as fantasy is made (perhaps intentionally) to seem arbitrary. Nevertheless, by providing an alternative version of what in retrospect seems inevitable it makes future escape appear more possible—and this makes the interjections of worldly wisdom, delivered throughout in admonitory present-tense gasps, more palatable because less definitive. Faced with the basically inert ingredients of the main narrative, the exuberant inventiveness of the fantasy becomes a requirement; in using it, Fay Weldon has manufactured a glittering, witty piece of machinery without a center.

Agate Nesaule Krouse (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Feminism and Art in Fay Weldon's Novels," in Critique, Vol. XX, No. 2, 1979, pp. 5-20.

[In the following essay, Krouse contends that Weldon's novels contain both artistic value and a feminist consciousness without resorting to didacticism.]

Recent interest in women writers and women's experience has helped establish some literary reputations and revive others. While many women writers are being ignored, several have gained prominence because they seem to speak for authentic female experience. Certainly a healthy curiosity about women's lives—too often falsified or ignored in contemporary fiction—has been responsible for the popular success and only...

(The entire section is 6770 words.)

Benjamin DeMott (review date 27 December 1981)

SOURCE: "Stories and a Novel," in New York Times Book Review, December 27, 1981, pp. 8-9.

[In the following review, DeMott offers praise for Weldon's collection of short stories in Watching Me, Watching You, but notes her evolution from overly depressing subjects in her first novel, The Fat Woman's Joke, to less bleak resolutions in later works.]

American admirers of Fay Weldon, the English playwright, novelist and short story writer, will especially welcome Watching Me, Watching You because it contains, in addition to 11 short stories, a reissue of her out-of-print first book, a novel that appears under its original English title The Fat...

(The entire section is 857 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 7-20 October 1982)

SOURCE: "Passion," in London Review of Books, October 7-20, 1982, p. 11.

[In the following review, Brookner finds The President's Child more compassionate and less heavy-handed ideologically than Weldon's earlier works.]

The President's Child works, effortlessly, on many levels. First, it is a political thriller. Isabel Rust, a television producer and former hack reporter, once had an affair with a man who is supposedly being groomed as Democratic candidate for the Presidency of the United States. Her apparently spotless marriage was hastily contrived by her to provide a home for herself and the child of that previous union. On the surface, all is...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Art Seidenbaum (review date 19 April 1987)

SOURCE: A review of The Shrapnel Academy, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 19, 1987, pp. 2, 8.

[In the following review, Seidenbaum offers reserved praise for The Shrapnel Academy, noting that because of the novel's extreme violence and cynicism it is for those with "strong stomachs."]

This [The Shrapnel Academy] is an explosive little novel, to English drawing room comedy what the Hindenburg was to zeppelin flight.

Shrapnel Academy, a well-endowed mythic military school named after the man who invented the exploding cannon-ball, gathers a sort of numskulls' Noah's Ark for the annual Eve-of-Waterloo dinner. Gen. Leo...

(The entire section is 816 words.)

Alan Bell (review date 10 April 1988)

SOURCE: "Love-Child Conquers All," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 10, 1988, p. 6.

[In the following review, Bell finds The Hearts and Minds of Men somewhat heavy-handed initially but adds that the novel is redeemed in its second half.]

Little Nell, in this grown-up fairy tale [The Hearts and Minds of Men], is a love child in the genuine sense of the word, conceived at the first glance exchanged by her parents at a party in 1960s London. As the prompt result of a blissful consummation, she preserves, through the ups and (more usually) downs of her parents' marriage, something of the radiant happiness of their first moments of mutual discovery....

(The entire section is 1058 words.)

Regina Barreca (review date Fall 1988)

SOURCE: "At Last, Laughs," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall 1988, p. 2.

[In the following review, Barreca finds the comic elements and happy endings of The Hearts and Lives of Men and The Heart of the Country a welcome change from Weldon's earlier novels, noting that Weldon does not compromise her artistry to effect a positive outcome for her characters.]

When Fay Weldon was asked what she thought about the magnificent public response to The Hearts and Lives of Men, the first of her novels truly to capture the attention of the American reading (and critical) audience, she said, "It's all very nice, but it's for the wrong book." I think Weldon...

(The entire section is 1210 words.)

Patricia Craig (review date 12-18 May 1989)

SOURCE: "All Our Dog Days," in Time Literary Supplement, No. 4493, May 12-18, 1989, p. 518.

[In the following review, Craig considers The Cloning of Joanna May not up to Weldon's usual high standards.]

Fay Weldon's current practice is to take some exorbitant facet of modern life—political intrigue, television stardom, plastic surgery—and incorporate it into one of her colourful little analyses of the drive towards misbehaviour and the clashing interests of men and women. In The Cloning of Joanna May, her fourteenth novel, it is genetic engineering that set things going. "Fiddling around with women's eggs", as a character puts it, is one of the...

(The entire section is 900 words.)

Robert Ward (review date 4 June 1989)

SOURCE: Review of Polaris and Other Stories and Leader of the Band, in New York Times Book Review, June 4, 1989, pp. 1, 26.

[In the following review, Ward offers praise for Polaris and Other Stories but finds Leader of the Band unsatisfying.]

Fay Weldon, a risky, engaged writer, is an ardent feminist, a novelist of characters and ideas. In an age where much fiction is cut-rate minimalist, or cocaine chic, Ms. Weldon shows us another path. She is complex, smart and political without cheating us on esthetics. And she is profoundly funny. Her Life and Loves of a She-Devil is a small masterpiece of invective, the ultimate feminist revenge...

(The entire section is 1744 words.)

Judith Dunford (review date 20-27 August 1990)

SOURCE: "Losing to Despair," in New Republic, Vol. 203, Nos. 8-9, August 20-27, 1990, pp. 40-42.

[In the following review, Dunford contends that Weldon's trademark anger has become tired and mechanical in The Cloning of Joanna May and Leader of the Band.]

The twentieth century has made it easy for writers to see humans as nothing but poor creatures in a disordered universe. Fay Weldon has produced a line of witty, ironic books out of her prevailing sense of how unfairly the odds are stacked and how little can be done to redress the balance. Her characters dangle on strings held by some mad marioneteer, their lives pulled this way and that by cosmic spite,...

(The entire section is 2397 words.)

Robert Houston (review date 25 May 1990)

SOURCE: "Her Sisters, Herself," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 95, March 25, 1990, p. 7.

[In the following review, Houston praises Weldon's "quirky" humor in The Cloning of Joanna May.]

In a recent interview about the filming of her novel The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, Fay Weldon said, "My idea of morality isn't about women becoming strong and forceful, competent or whatever: it's about having a good time." And so, in fact, is the idea of The Cloning of Joanna May. In her latest novel, Ms. Weldon manages to boot the archenemy, boredom, out of her characters' lives as handily as she does from her readers', and it's a reasonable bet that she's had...

(The entire section is 855 words.)

Gary Krist (review date 3 March 1991)

SOURCE: "The Fuzzy Vision of a True Believer," in New York Times, March 3, 1991, p. 9.

[In the following review, Krist calls Darcy's Utopia one of Weldon's "most ambitious books," noting that she achieves even her unlikely conclusion "with aplomb."]

Some writers chronicle the War Between Men and Women. Fay Weldon, a subtler observer by half, reports on a more elusive conflict—the War Among Men and Women. She understands that the battle lines of this other war seldom run along gender boundaries, but rather cut across the sexes to pit spouses against lovers, first wives against second wives, children against the parents who abandon or torment them. And in...

(The entire section is 1016 words.)

Devon Jersild (review date 8 March 1992)

SOURCE: "Fay Weldon Delivers a Tale of Sexual Hijinks and Some Lively Stories," in Chicago Tribune Books, March 8, 1992, pp. 4-5.

[In the following review, Jersild calls Weldon's writing in Life Force and Moon over Minneapolis "intimate … passionate, and funny."]

Fay Weldon's 19th work of fiction is as loopy as one might hope for, and as funny and satirical as one has come to expect from this irreverent, energetic British writer. Narrated by Nora, whose job at Accord Realtors leaves her plenty of time to "get on with writing this unpublishable work" (it's 1991, and there's a recession), Life Force has the gossip and intrigue of a good soap opera,...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)

Michael Malone (review date 26 April 1992)

SOURCE: "The Life Force Has a Headache," in New York Times, April 26, 1992, p. 11.

[In the following review, Malone favorably evaluates Life Force and Moon over Minneapolis.]

Fay Weldon is a satirist who casts a kind eye on the human comedy as she passes by. And she passes by at a brisk pace. In a distinguished body of work (16 novels, as well as short-story collections, plays, television dramas and several volumes of nonfiction), she has proved to be a shrewd spectator of manners and mores, both upstairs and downstairs (she wrote episodes of the Masterpiece Theater series). In her fiction, the cast of characters moves easily between public and private...

(The entire section is 1329 words.)

Regina Barreca (review date Summer 1992)

SOURCE: "Wise Wickedness," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, No. 4, Summer 1992, p. 18.

[In the following review, Barreca asserts that both Life Force and Moon over Minneapolis will add significantly to Weldon's canon of feminist literature.]

When Fay Weldon was finishing the manuscript of Life Force, she felt, paradoxically, at a loss for words.

"When the critics ask what the new book is about, what can I say?" she wondered. "I can't very well tell them it's about a man with a ten-inch dong, can I?" I suggested that she remind them that they always complained that she never fleshed out her male characters, and that here she does so with...

(The entire section is 684 words.)

Deirdre Neilen (review date Autumn 1992)

SOURCE: Review of Life Force, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 4, Autumn 1992, p. 723.

[In the following review, Neilen states that Weldon's satire in Life Force "leaves us laughing through our tears."]

Fay Weldon's latest novel, Life Force, announces its intention pictorially on the jacket; a photo of part of Michelangelo's David meets the reader's gaze. However, unlike most of the partial depictions of the work which concentrate on the torso, this one concentrates on the phallus. The publishers seem as squeamish as Victorians, since they provide a paper wrapper to hide the offending part until presumably the reader gets the book...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Patricia Juliana Smith (essay date Summer 1993)

SOURCE: "Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil," in The Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 4, Summer 1993, pp. 255-57.

[In the following essay, Smith examines the "self-defeating and self-erasing strategy" of the character Ruth in her attempt to free herself from the illusory expectations offered to women by the romance novel genre.]

The conclusion of Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil presents what a grammarian more concerned with form than content might perceive as a problematic tense shift:

I am a lady of six foot two, who had tucks taken in her legs. A comic turn, turned serious.

...

(The entire section is 947 words.)

Tama Janowitz (review date 17 October 1993)

SOURCE: "The Cure of the Married Therapists," in New York Times, October 17, 1993, p. 14.

[In the following review, Janowitz finds Trouble a unique mix of humor and painful examinations of the unraveling of a marriage.]

Not a great deal of really humorous fiction has been written in the latter half of the 20th century. Humorous or satirical fiction by men often involves the reader's identification with a bad boy—a drunkard, a lout, a glutton, a womanizer. The Ginger Man, Portnoy's Complaint, A Confederacy of Dunces most quickly come to mind. Of course there are exceptions, as there are to the generalization that humorous books by women often involve the...

(The entire section is 945 words.)

Daniel Harris (review date 28 November 1993)

SOURCE: "The Weldon Manifesto," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 28, 1993, pp. 2, 9.

[In the following review, Harris offers a negative assessment of Trouble, noting that the novel fails to live up to Weldon's usual standards.]

What differentiates the ferocious satires of British author Fay Weldon from the typical bed-hopping, feminist sex comedy is their harsh determinism. For most of her female characters, holy matrimony, far from being full of connubial bliss and the attendant pleasure of the pitter-patter of little feet, is about as consensual as being clubbed by a cave man and dragged back to a cul-de-sac in the suburbs. Weldon's women are swept...

(The entire section is 1235 words.)

Anita Brookner (review date 12 February 1994)

SOURCE: "My Husband Became a Zombie," in The Spectator, Vol. 272, No. 8640, February 12, 1994, pp. 29-30.

[In the following review, Brookner finds Affliction—published as Trouble in the United States—topical but less than satisfying.]

To lose one's husband to another woman is bad, to lose one's husband to another man may be slightly worse, but to lose one's husband to a pair of therapists, one of each sex, is arguably the worst blow of all. Of course the husband in question has to be singularly disturbed for this to happen, and therefore axiomatically in need of a therapist. So the unsupervised practice continues. Something of this fate seems to have...

(The entire section is 960 words.)

Anne Chisholm (review date 13 May 1995)

SOURCE: "One Woman at One Time Plays Many Parts," in The Spectator, Vol. 274, No. 8705, May 13, 1995, pp. 39-40.

[In the following review, Chisholm describes Splitting as somewhat flimsy, but "vintage Weldon."]

Fay Weldon's novels, including this one [Splitting], are not as weird as they at first appear. For some time now—this is her 28th book—she has been taking the ordinary events of women's lives, the small change of marriage, adultery, motherhood, friendship and betrayal and, with the skills of an alchemist or an amiable witch, transforming the dull, familiar stuff into something rich and strange. Her fiction is not for the literal-minded; she...

(The entire section is 706 words.)

Bertha Harris (review date 11 June 1995)

SOURCE: "A Woman Scorned," in New York Times, June 11, 1995, p. 48.

[In the following review, Harris applauds Weldon's ability to "unsentimentally" further the cause of "oppressed" heroines.]

Fay Weldon's latest beleaguered heroine hears voices in her head. Over the years since the publication of her first novel, The Fat Woman's Joke, in 1967, Ms. Weldon has given her abandoned, impoverished wives some extraordinary weapons to employ against the husbands who have left them for someone nicer, younger, prettier or more suitable. To be effective, all of these weapons (which have included witchcraft and chocolate cake) have required brains, imagination and a...

(The entire section is 1040 words.)

Susan Crosland (review date 9 December 1995)

SOURCE: "So Witty or So Wise," in The Spectator, December 9, 1995, p. 41.

[In the following review, Crosland praises some stories in Wicked Women, but finds fault with what she considers Weldon's reliance on static, "cartoon" characters.]

Don't worry. When the seesaw swings up, Fay Weldon is on form: sparkling, sharply observing, insights delivered with a light touch that puts us in a good mood, however dark the comedy. And one of the great things about short stories is you can pick and choose. Most of these [in Wicked Women] have appeared over the past four years in publications as various as the Literary Review and Cosmopolitan, or been...

(The entire section is 736 words.)

Karen Karbo (review date 9 June 1996)

SOURCE: "Love Fails Again," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 101, June 9, 1996, p. 19.

[In the following review, Karbo finds in Worst Fears an unexpected compassion, which, she writes, "makes it one of her best novels yet."]

If you want the truth about the man-woman thing, forget all those cloying self-help books and read Fay Weldon. Her 20 novels,—Worst Fears is her 21st—are the literary equivalent of a stiff drink, a dip in the Atlantic in January, a pep talk by a mildly sadistic coach.

Ms. Weldon's work will never inspire a compact disk of love songs or a cookbook filled with goopy treats. The author of the diabolical best...

(The entire section is 699 words.)

Jane Gardam (review date 2 November 1996)

SOURCE: "More Lecherous than Loamshire," in The Spectator, Vol. 277, No. 8780, November 2, 1996, pp. 45-46.

[In the following review, Gardam discusses Weldon's humorous examination of sin and evil in Worst Fears.]

As usual, Fay Weldon has written a very moral book [Worst Fears]; that is to say a book that takes a good look at sin and then satirises the moraliser along with everybody else. 'Look,' she says, 'how excited we get about our immorality, how we enjoy judging and deploring each other's vices. How deluded we are if we don't analyse what passes for fidelity and success and love and friendship and loyalty.' 'Is it not better,' she asks, 'to be on the watch...

(The entire section is 1199 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 March 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Wicked Women, in Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1997, p. 417.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic offers praise for Wicked Women.]

The antagonists who populate these 20 stories [in Wicked Women] are indeed very wicked (no surprise to readers of Weldon's 21 novels, including Worst Fears, 1996), but they're not always women. Both sexes and all ages come in for some merry tweaking by this master of sexual satire—making this outing a familiar pleasure for old fans and a thoroughly satisfying introduction for newcomers.

When Defoe Desmond's middle-aged wife confronts him about his affair in "End of the...

(The entire section is 347 words.)

Deborah Mason (review date 29 June 1997)

SOURCE: "Divine Justice," in New York Times Book Review, June 29, 1997, p. 29.

[In the following review, Mason calls Weldon "one of the most cunning moral satirists of our time."]

Fay Weldon has never been content merely to play God with her characters: she would rather be the avenging Yahweh. Her justice is unblinking, her wrath is boundless—most often directed against faithless husbands and their scheming lovers—and her punishments are indecently satisfying. She is a Yahweh with a profound appreciation of irony. Weldon, after all, is the creator of the wronged and lumpish wife in The Life and Loves of a She-Devil who inflicts a fiendishly comic, years-long...

(The entire section is 950 words.)

Ann Treneman with Fay Weldon (interview date 4 July 1997)

SOURCE: "After the Devil—A Little Horror," in Times Educational Supplement, No. 4227, July 4, 1997, p. 7.

[In the following review, Weldon and Treneman discuss Weldon's children's book, Nobody Likes Me!]

Everything has a colour in Nobody Likes Me!, Fay Weldon's book for children. Sleep is brown and red and purple round the edges, a cry is pale blue, a roar black, a yelp white. I wonder, as the author sits on the green and gold sofa at her home in Hampstead, north London, what colour this conversation might be.

She is wearing a black dress and gold slippers and her voice is high and light. At first it seems hard to believe this is the same...

(The entire section is 716 words.)