Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3065
Fay Weldon’s fiction explores women’s lives with wit and humor in the cause of a determined opposition to the clichés of romantic fiction. Weldon is caustic in her implicit condemnation of injustice but avoids preaching by satirizing both sides of every issue and by revealing the gulf between what characters say and what they do. Despite their realistic settings, her novels blend fable, myth, and the fantastic with satire, farce, and outlandish coincidence; the combination produces highly distinctive tragicomedies of manners.
Weldon’s admiration for writers such as Jane Austen (whose work she has adapted for television) is expressed openly in Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, but it is also evident from the parallels in Weldon’s own work. In a typical early Weldon novel, a limited cast of characters interacts in a defined setting. A series of misunderstandings or trivial coincidences initiates the action, which then takes on a momentum of its own, carrying all along with it until an equally trivial series of explanations or coincidences brings closure and a resolution that restores all to their proper place. The theme is often a minor domestic drama, such as a marital crisis, rather than an epic upheaval, but such personal interactions are seen to represent in microcosm society as a whole and therefore have a universal appeal.
Over time, her novels have become more wide-ranging in their settings, narrative devices, and claims, sometimes recruiting fantastic devices in order to attempt deeper analyses of the issues at stake, but generally her works still convey the impression that Weldon is not much given to elaborate planning, preferring to allow her characters and story lines to develop their own momentum. This has sometimes taken her into unexpected narrative terrain, but she always retains a keen intelligence and a trenchant wit. Although her works focus primarily on the lives of women, Weldon comments on a wide-ranging number of issues with relevance to all. Her work reveals a deep yet unsentimental compassion for all human beings, an understanding of their weaknesses and foibles, and a celebration of their continued survival and ability to love one another in the face of adversity.
. . . And the Wife Ran Away
This structure is present even in Weldon’s early work, no doubt because it is a formula that works well for television. In her first novel, originally titled The Fat Woman’s Joke but renamed . . . And the Wife Ran Away for its American publication in 1968, Weldon takes as her subject the crisis in the marriage of a middle-aged, middle-class couple, Esther and Alan Wells, when Alan decides to have an affair with his young and attractive secretary, Susan. The beginning of Alan’s affair coincides with Esther and Alan’s joint decision to go on a diet, a symbolic attempt, Weldon suggests, to recapture not only their lost youthful figures but also their youthful love, ambition, and optimism. Infidelity, the novel therefore subtly suggests, is related to aging and to a more deep-seated identity crisis. Weldon frequently uses hunger or the satisfaction of food as a metaphor for other, more metaphysical and intangible, needs, and this theme recurs in a number of her works (for example, in the short story “Polaris,” 1985).
The influence of Weldon’s background as a scriptwriter (and the novel’s origin as a play) is also evident in this book’s form. Esther, who has left her husband at the opening of the novel, recounts her version of events to her friend Phyllis as she gorges herself on food to compensate for the self-denial she has suffered during the diet. Esther’s narrative is intercut with scenes of Susan telling her version of events to her friend Brenda. The novel is thus almost entirely conveyed through dialogue describing flashbacks seen from the perspectives of the female characters. This technique is evident elsewhere in Weldon’s early work—for example, in Female Friends, where parts of the novel are presented in the form of a script.
The Life and Loves of a She-Devil
The Life and Loves of a She-Devil stands as one of Weldon’s most accomplished works. It represents the themes that are the hallmark of Weldon’s fiction (a concern with women’s lives and the significance of human relationships such as marriage) while encompassing her use of fantasy in one of her most carefully constructed and formally satisfying novels. The plot tells the story of a middle-class, suburban housewife, Ruth, whose accountant husband leaves her for a rich and attractive writer of romance novels. Unlike the typical wife, however, Ruth does not simply bow to the inevitable. When her husband calls her a “she-devil” in a moment of anger, this becomes her new identity, and she musters a formidable array of resources to live up to it. Through a series of picaresque adventures, she makes the life of her husband, Bobbo, and his new love, Mary Fisher, impossible. She has Bobbo framed and then imprisoned for embezzlement, destroys Mary’s ability and will to write, and finally undergoes massive plastic surgery so that she looks just like her now-dead rival and can assume her place in Bobbo’s broken life. The configuration at the end of the novel thus mirrors the beginning, but with the variation that the power dynamics of the relationship have been inverted: Ruth is now in command, while Bobbo has been humiliated and accepts his fate like a downtrodden wife.
The tale not only presents a certain kind of symmetry reminiscent of fairy stories but also evokes a poetic magic in the telling of it. Many of the chapters begin with a variation on the opening line of the novel: “Mary Fisher lives in a High Tower, on the edge of the sea.” These incantations, repeated with variations, have the hypnotic quality of a witch’s spell, reinforcing both Ruth’s supernatural power and her obsession with Mary Fisher (whose residence in a tower evokes a fairy-tale princess). This poetic refrain also unifies the narrative and gives a cyclical structure to the plot.
The Shrapnel Academy
On the surface, The Shrapnel Academy is a variation on the stale British motif of the “country house weekend.” A group of characters, most of them unknown to one another, are seen arriving at the Shrapnel Academy, a military institute, for a weekend. Bad weather will ensure that they remain confined to the academy, cut off from the outside world and forced to confront one another and the problems that arise.
While many novelists fail to acknowledge the presence of the host of servants who make such country weekends possible, Weldon’s novel takes the reader below stairs and into the lives of the hundreds of illegal immigrant servants and their extended families and camp followers—as in Upstairs, Downstairs, the early 1970’s television series about an upper-class Edwardian family and its servants to which Weldon contributed an award-winning episode. The Shrapnel Academy ventures beyond realist conventions by presenting a clash between shortsighted, class-based militarism and the struggle for survival and dignity in the microcosm of the academy, eventually extending into quasi-apocalyptic allegory.
As in most of Weldon’s novels, no single villain is responsible for the misfortunes that befall the characters in The Shrapnel Academy; all the characters bear some degree of responsibility for the accumulation of trivial choices and decisions that combine to make up the climactic “frightful tidal wave of destiny.” Many continual thematic elements of Weldon’s work recur in The Shrapnel Academy, including revenge fantasy, food symbolism, and transfigurations of myth and fable. Formally, too, the novel displays typical characteristics of Weldon’s work (short narrative passages with aphoristic asides, the use of dialogue) as well as innovative and experimental qualities. The author interrupts the narrative at frequent intervals, sometimes to offer satirical summaries of military history, highlighting advances in warfare or giving accounts of famous battles. Weldon brings out the absurdity of celebrating such “progress” and uses her fine wit to draw the reader’s attention to the Orwellian doublespeak and underlying assumptions of military thinking. At other times, Weldon interpellates the reader directly, apologizing for the delay in getting on with the story or inviting the reader to put him- or herself in the place of one of the characters—invitations that pointedly drive home the lesson that the reader is no better than the characters he or she is inclined to judge.
Weldon also breaks strategically with her readers’ expectations in Life Force, which, instead of being an indictment of male callousness and infidelity, is a lusty tribute to male sexuality. The central figure in the book is Leslie Beck, a man with no virtues except his power to please women through the skillful use of his huge genitalia and his equally outsized imagination. Structurally, Life Force follows the pattern established in Weldon’s earlier novels: It begins with a seemingly unimportant incident that stimulates the narrator to relive and reassess complex relationships; that incident eventually becomes a crucial element in a dramatic resolution, in which a woman avenges herself upon a man who has wronged her.
When Leslie Beck turns up at the Marion Loos Gallery, carrying a large painting by his late wife Anita, it does not seem possible that this unappealing, sixty-year-old man could for so long have been the Lothario of upper-middle-class London. However, the owner of the gallery, who at this point is the first-person narrator, explains to the reader why she is so shocked when she sees the unimpressive painting that her former lover expects her to sell on his behalf. Its subject is the bedroom and the bed in which Leslie once gave Marion so much pleasure. Naturally, the painting prompts Marion to recall her involvement with Leslie and to wonder how much Anita knew about the affair.
Nothing in this novel is as straightforward as it seems, however. In the second chapter, Weldon not only changes narrators—now telling the story through the eyes of Nora, another of Beck’s former lovers—but also has Nora admit that it was she, not Marion, who actually wrote the first chapter, simply imagining herself as Marion. Although the two narrators continue to alternate as the book progresses, from time to time the author reminds us that Marion’s narrative is Nora’s fiction, based as much on gossip and guesses as on fact. Weldon thus suggests that since the only approach to truth is through what human beings see and say, what we call reality will always include as much fiction as fact.
Growing Rich describes the harassment of three adolescent girls by a Mephistophelian figure who has promised one of them as a prize to the wealthy businessman with whom he has made a Faustian pact. Cast in the same mock-folkloristic mode as The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, this novel seems to be casting around for a different moral but cannot in the end discover one. The demon is incarnate as the businessman’s chauffeur and is thus referred to as “the Driver,” which implies that the novel’s presiding proverb is “Needs must when the devil drives”—and, indeed, even the novel’s primary heroine, Carmen, cannot in the end avoid his driving. Carmen withstands his subtler temptations easily enough, although her friends Annie and Laura are not nearly so fortunate, but she cannot ultimately prevail against his nastier threats. In the end, the fact that she is not required to yield everything demanded by his blackmail cannot conceal the fact that she does yield.
The Driver is an intriguing literary creation: an apt devil for the modern age, whose acid observations reveal as strong a kinship with Alain-René Lesage’s Asmodeus as with Christopher Marlowe’s Mephistopheles. Growing Rich, like most of Weldon’s works, is so exuberantly good-humored that even its blackest comedy is little more than black-edged, and the same is true of the marginal gothic elements of many of its predecessors and successors among her long fiction, including the mock-Dickensian melodrama The Hearts and Lives of Men, the mock-science-fictional The Cloning of Joanna May, and the similarly fantasized Splitting and Mantrapped. Like many modern authors, Weldon simply cannot take the fantastic seriously enough to make the most of its inherent narrative energy, but the frothy frivolity with which she invests it carries its own rewards.
In Trouble, Weldon again turns her attention to a society that permits men to victimize women. The protagonist of this novel, which was first published in England under the title Affliction, is Annette Horrocks, a woman who, after ten years of trying, has finally become pregnant, only to find that her once-devoted husband, Spicer, has become monstrous. Not only does he now seem to loathe Annette, but also none of his tastes, opinions, and prejudices are what they were just a few months before.
Eventually, Annette discovers the source of the problem: Spicer has been seduced by a pair of unscrupulous, sadistic New Age psychiatrists. Before she is finally cured of what she comes to recognize as her addiction to Spicer, Annette loses her home, her baby, and very nearly her mind. If in Life Force Weldon shows the battle of the sexes as essentially comic, in Trouble she tells a story with tragic overtones. Again she points out how vulnerable women are in a society that believes men have a monopoly on the truth, but in this case she shows what can happen when the male version of reality is reinforced by the self-seeking therapy industry, the primary target of satire in this novel.
Worst Fears is one of Weldon’s novels most clearly marked by the scars of her 1994 divorce. Its protagonist, Alexandra, an actor, is suddenly precipitated into crisis by the unexpected death of her husband, Ned, and is required, as conventional parlance has it, to “put his affairs in order.” This involves her in a disquieting sequence of discoveries about the “true identity” Ned had succeeded in hiding from her for many years, which eventually extend to nightmarish extremes. Members of all of the professions that Weldon learned to hate in the course of her own divorce—especially therapists and lawyers—become targets for her bile here, although the burden of the role of primary traitor within the plot falls on a child-care provider: a dangerous cuckoo in the domestic nest.
Rhode Island Blues
In Rhode Island Blues, Weldon presents an elaborate examination of female family ties, dominated by the character of eighty-five-year-old Felicity, whose granddaughter Sophie, a film editor—the novel’s primary protagonist—undertakes a quixotic quest to find the old woman’s “lost” granddaughter. In the process, Sophie uncovers a great deal of family history extended over the generations and begins to reassess her relationship with her own mother. The novel’s transatlantic movements, occasioned by the fact that Felicity was a war bride, add an extra dimension of cultural comparison, while a fantastic edge is added by Felicity’s consolatory delusions.
The Bulgari Connection
The Bulgari Connection is an interesting experiment in novelistic product placement, as the writing of the work was financed by the Italian jewelry company. This connection is, however, incidental to the network of the plot, which develops a version of the eternal triangle. Businessman Barney Salt deserts his wife, Grace, for television personality Doris Dubois, thus inviting a she-devil-like revenge. The revenge in question is duly visited after Grace takes up with artist Walter Wells and receives a new lease on life that is quite literal—an aspect of the plot explicitly modeled on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).
As on several previous occasions, Weldon picked up themes from this novel for further extrapolation in her next work, the identity-exchange comedy Mantrapped, whose heroine awakes one morning to find herself in a man’s body. There, as in The Bulgari Connection, elements of Weldon’s own autobiography are clearly recycled, but the fantastic embellishments in both books serve as useful distancing devices for putting “reality” into a broader and more comfortable perspective.
She May Not Leave
She May Not Leave is an elaborate expansion of the child-care-worker subplot from Worst Fears, complicated by intergenerational issues echoing those in Rhode Island Blues, both elements being carefully ameliorated by a conscientious attempt to strike an evenhanded balance. The protagonist, Hattie, is busily employed in a literary agency and has trouble juggling her relationships with her partner, Martin, a political journalist; her grandmother, Frances, who is busy tracing the family history; and her daughter, Kitty. Polish au pair Agnieszka is an extremely dubious godsend, but she might well be indispensable no matter how problematic she eventually proves to be. As in many Weldon novels, the eventual “resolution” of She May Not Leave is unashamedly artificial and rather tokenistic, but the breezy tone illustrates the author’s recovered sense of well-being and the essential irrepressibility of her character.
The Spa Decameron
In a plot that echoes The Shrapnel Academy but lacks that novel’s male/militaristic component, The Spa Decameron features wealthy female guests who are snowed in for ten days at a Cumbrian health spa over the Christmas/New Year holidays. As the facilities gradually begin to fail and the staff who maintain the guests’ comforts and privileges begin to desert or rebel, the women pass the time by telling one another their instructive life stories, somewhat after the fashion of the plague-beleaguered characters in Giovanni Boccaccio’s classic Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620). The Spa Decameron is, however, much more tightly organized around a thematic core than is its model; it really is a novel in spite of its discursive structure.
The characters’ experiences gradually add up to a grotesque survey of the possibilities open to modern women and the threats facing them, including adultery, gender reassignment surgery, incest, abortion, husband murder, lesbian sexuality, and child abuse—to name but a few. The principal viewpoint character, Phoebe, is able to supplement the tales she hears further by virtue of her (possibly imaginary) ability to hear other people’s thoughts; she does not tell her own story, partly—the reader suspects—because it cannot withstand melodramatic comparison with the stories the other characters tell, but also, and more appropriately, because it still remains to be equipped with a satisfactory sense of closure.
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