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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.
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.
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.
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.
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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
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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.
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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 somewhat guarded critical approval of such flawed novels as Alix Shulman's Memories of an Ex-Prom Queen, Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, Susan Schaeffer's Anya, and Lisa Alther's Kinflicks. A more important result of such curiosity is the increasingly serious attention paid to writers like Lessing, Drabble, and Atwood, who have revealed the lives of women in major contemporary novels.
Because fears persist that a writer deeply committed to exploring the problems of women will produce fiction "contaminated" by sociology, political rhetoric, self-pity, or autobiography, one must show that while a new writer may be a feminist she is also an artist, and that while she understands and sympathizes with women, she also writes novels whose structure, style, point of view, irony, or other formal elements recommend them to repeated consideration after curiosity is satisfied. Such a writer is British novelist Fay Weldon, author of The Fat Woman's Joke (1967)—the American title is … And the Wife Ran Away (1968), Down Among the Women (1972), Female Friends (1974), and Remember Me (1976).
If one is curious about the lives of women, one can do no better than read Weldon. Her major subject is the experience of women: sexual initiation, marriage, infidelity, divorce, contraception, abortion, motherhood, housework, and thwarted careers—all receive consideration. But she is not tedious about the rich texture of everyday female existence she creates. Unlike the vivid fictional worlds of Oates and Lessing, which often depend on exhaustive detail and lengthy description, Weldon's exists because she most often selects the telling and the funny, the absurd and the horrifying. Her short descriptive passages also serve many purposes. For example, a few lines about contraception indicate not only the experience of numerous individual characters but also reveal the helplessness and hopefulness of a whole generation of women, suggest social attitudes, sketch life in London in the 1950's, treat a subject often ignored, and provide humor:
It is the days before the pill. Babies are part of sex. Rumors abound. Diaphragms give you cancer. The Catholics have agents in condom factories—they prick one in every fifty rubbers with a pin with the Pope's head on it. You don't get pregnant if you do it standing up. Or you can take your temperature every morning, and when it rises that's ovulation and danger day. Other days are all right. Marie Stopes says soak a piece of sponge in vinegar and shove it up.
Such brief descriptive passages are only part of Weldon's extremely effective rendering of female lives. Instead of relying on a single minutely analyzed protagonist, she creates numerous vividly individualized women within the same work whose lives intertwine. Weldon's fiction often mirrors the insights of feminist theorists about the nature and situation of women: love does not last, marriage is not happy, motherhood is not serene. Her multiple female characters function particularly well to make convincing a fictional world which indirectly questions many traditional assumptions. The experiences of her characters complement each other and, therefore, validate each other as well. Nine of Weldon's most important characters in Down Among the Women find marriage or other extended relationships with men unhappy and impossible to sustain—too large a number to dismiss, especially since these characters are clearly differentiated. If unconventional Wanda and too conventional Susan cannot be happy with the same man, retaining an optimistic view of male-female relationships is harder than it would be if a single protagonist or only one type of woman found men difficult.
Yet Weldon does not heavy-handedly use her female characters to hammer out a simplistic thesis about nasty men and victimized women. Through point of view and tone, her vision of women's relationships with men is more satisfyingly complex. True, her women suffer intensely; she writes, "Down here among the women you don't get to hear about man maltreated; what you hear about is man seducer, man betrayer, man deserter, man the monster." But she describes how her characters—who live "down among the women" rather than in some ideal world where gender is irrelevant—perceive and discuss men. Furthermore, the above sentence occurs close to one of several reminders that the reader is not in the midst of an unremittingly realistic novel, convincing though the scenes and characters may be: "There will now be a short intermission. Sales staff will visit all parts of the theatre." The reader is witnessing a performance, an artistic creation shaped by an intelligence which does not oversimplify. For after several anecdotes about male selfishness, which follow the statement about "man the monster," the narrator sympathetically observes, "Man seems not so much wicked as frail, unable to face pain, trouble and growing old." Likewise, incidents demonstrating the basic pattern—that relationships with men are very difficult—are highly inventive and varied, but not all incidents fit the pattern. Several happy relationships are achieved at the end of the novel, because women themselves have changed and grown.
One thematic pattern emerges with few minor incidents to contradict it. Weldon's women are not by nature monogamous, irrevocably attached to the one man who makes them suffer. If they are—as Helen and Y. in Down Among the Women or Midge in Female Friends, they eventually die at their own hand. Victims of an obsession that life without a particular man is impossible, these characters suggest symbolically that such obsession is self-destructive. Perhaps since the whole stereotypical pattern of monogamous women and polygamous men is very much alive in contemporary fiction in spite of feminist theory and biological fact to the contrary, Weldon does not undercut her own radical insight by varied incidents suggesting a different minor pattern. The theme of women's capacity for more relationships than the double standard would allow, made convincing by her multiple characters, is not insisted upon by rhetoric nor repetition. Rather, it emerges as one possible underlying pattern.
Weldon's multiple characters are also part of her most modern and most profoundly feminist theme: the significance of women's friendships. Virginia Woolf wrote of "how immense a change" is evident in a novel by one of her contemporaries who had chosen to describe friendship between two women: the "relationships between women … in the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted." In earlier literature, Woolf observes, "almost without exception they [women] are shown in their relation to men … And how small a part of a woman's life is that"; the writer who knows how to portray friendships between women "will light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been." For Woolf, female friendships are the key to fully human and complex characters as well as signs of a strikingly modern work. Although we have some notable exceptions—Mary McCarthy, Doris Lessing, and Marge Piercy, few contemporary novelists have treated the subject successfully.
Weldon treats women's friendships in all her novels, which her multiple characters give her plenty of opportunity to do, and they are her major subject in Female Friends. By recounting the lives of three women who in their childhood have been thrown together by the Second World War, she suggests, that the reasons for women's friendships are extremely complex. Majorie, Chloe, and Grace have all at some point slept with Patrick Bates, and two of them have even had a child by him. He is, however, mostly irrelevant to their continuing commitment to each other; the three have been young together, have had figuratively the same mother, and have seen each other's suffering. While they may disapprove of each other's behavior in the bitingly direct things they say, they nevertheless sympathize with each other and do not break off friendship for something as cruel and abstract as failure to "behave well." Chloe, the most maternal, cares for Grace's children because she understands that Grace's punitive ex-husband "battered the maternal instinct out of her"; she also keeps in touch with unloved and exploited Marjorie. Men come and go, but the relationships between women endure. Male friendships do not last and are based on money, drink, or promiscuous sexuality.
Weldon is not sentimental about undying loyalty among women, who hurt each other as often as men hurt them: "So you [Madeleine] were wronged; so were a million, million others, dead and gone on their way. You were wronged by women as much as men; you know you were. By your mother; by your friends; by your especial sisters." In a possible allusion to Lessing, Chloe reflects:
Our loyalties are to men, not to each other.
We marry murderers and think well of them. Marry thieves, and visit them in prison. We comfort generals, sleep with torturers, and not content with such passivity, torment the wives of married men, quite knowingly.
Well, morality is for the rich, and always was. We women, we beggars, we scrubbers and dusters, we do the best we can for us and ours. We are divided amongst ourselves. We have to be, for survival's sake. (Female Friends)
Unlike Lessing, however, who explains women's primary loyalty to men as unalterably rooted in psychology and biology, Weldon has a much clearer feminist perception of the social causes—the very fact that her women can be friends or make amends to each other is hopeful. Nor do Weldon's women brood like Lessing's that their deepest needs can be satisfied only by one man or that their friendships may be lesbian. Weldon's work is not marred, as a critic has argued that Lessing's is, by "alienation from the authentic female perspective, a perspective which is clearly sketched in and then smeared by the censor in Lessing."
Marjorie, at the deathbed of her mother, has the most significant vision of women's friendships, which seems to be shared by Weldon. Recalling Midge, the wife whom Patrick Bates has driven to suicide, Marjorie says, "We should interfere more in each other's lives, and not just pick up pieces…. We just stood back and let her die" (Female Friends). She gives her houses to Chloe, so the latter can leave Oliver, the husband whose monstrous selfishness and hypocrisy provide some of the funniest moments in the novel. Her act is responsible for the happy ending of a novel filled with the suffering of women. Weldon has shown throughout that women are at the hands of chance—"And wham, bam, so our lives are ordered," death, men, and even each other, but she singles out friendship and motherhood as two forces that can mitigate inescapable pain: "Maternal warmth … seeps down through the generations, fertilising the ground, preparing it for more kindness." Active friendship between women allows one to live and rejoice: "As for me, Chloe, I no longer wait to die. I put my house, Marjorie's house, in order, and not before time. The children help. Oliver says, 'But you can't leave me with Francoise,' and I reply, I can, I can, and I do."
Weldon's interest in the experience of women, her perceptions about their sexuality and friendship, her intelligent view that women's lives are of necessity different from men's, her successful rendering of what to live "down among the women" means make her a most valuable contemporary novelist for the committed feminist and for the general reader who is curious about women. But Weldon's novels are appealing even if one does not share her feminist insights. Their structure, narrative techniques, point of view, style, and humor place them among the finest achievements in recent fiction by women.
Weldon's first novel, The Fat Woman's Joke, is an apprentice work showing strengths only fully realized in the later novels. It portrays a crisis in the life of middle-aged, overweight Esther, who has discovered the exploitation inherent in a married woman's lot. Having gone on a diet, Esther and her husband, Alan, have faced each other across the void left by elaborately discussed and lovingly prepared meals. Stomachs have growled and tempers flared. Violence and adultery have proved irresistible to the half-starved Alan. Esther has moved to a squalid flat, where she gorges as she divulges her story in barbed language to visitors. Flashbacks and parallel scenes flesh out a situation more suitable for a short story, a symbolic joke that happy marriage is based on consuming.
Down Among the Women is far more ambitious. The lives of three generations of women are presented. Weldon has achieved coherence in a novel with so many characters and with incidents spanning twenty years by focusing on one family of women to whom all other characters have some link. The story begins in 1950, as radical, unconventional Wanda is preparing for a Divorcees Anonymous meeting, an unusual group in Post-War London. Her unwed daughter, Scarlet, whom she has named after the blood of political martyrs, is monstrously pregnant with Byzantia, representative of the third generation. Scarlet's friends, their lovers and husbands, Wanda's ex-husband and his new wife, as well as a few more distantly related characters people the novel.
The point of view also provides coherence. An unidentified first-person narrator is introduced in the first chapter. Watching her children play, she sits in the park, "a woman's place," where Scarlet occasionally joins her. The narrator—who may be either one of Scarlet's friends or a persona for the author—is referred to at the beginning of four of the fourteen chapters. Other chapters begin with observations about what "we" who are "down among the women" believe or experience; some chapters omit such formal introduction and plunge directly into the characters' lives. Incidents are presented repeatedly from a third-person omniscient point of view. Occasionally, however, the narrator tells us to "listen now" as Wanda sings or to take a short intermission. Only in the conclusion, "Down Among the Women," which follows Chapter 14, is the narrator's identity revealed: "My name is Jocelyn. I sit in the park and consider the past, and what became of us all, and how little the present accords with our expectations of it." Jocelyn is a specific character, accident-prone and repressed, who eventually comes to terms with her sexuality and motherhood. She is no more fully developed than Scarlet's other friends.
The point of view gives Down Among the Women a clean and unified shape. The first-person narrator provides a frame for the incidents presented since all of them seem available to a central intelligence. Weldon does not, however, limit the scenes to those at which Jocelyn is present. Rather, knowing the general drift of her friends' lives, Jocelyn has imaginatively fleshed them out with specific incident and dialogue. Since, in one sense, the whole narrative is a meditation Jocelyn has on the park bench, the events form a unified whole. The complex chronology, which includes changes in society and in individual lives from 1950 to 1970, is thus contained by a woman thinking. In addition, Weldon develops some of her most poignant effects by having Jocelyn range freely between past and present. For instance, we know from the beginning that the beautiful Helen is doomed to die, which makes us regard her single-minded, manipulative pursuit of the artist X. more charitably. At the bleakest moments in Scarlet's marriage to impotent, rigid Edwin, we know that "spring is coming" for her. The point of view and the resulting complex but unified chronology, then, are responsible for many of Weldon's best ironic and comic scenes.
The point of view is also an indication of the profundity of Weldon's feminism. To create individual incidents or characters who will exemplify some feminist tenet is probably less difficult than to create a work whose very structure is feminist. Weldon may be unique among the new feminist novelists in developing such a structure. Down Among the Women demonstrates that women's experience, though varied, has many common elements. The whole novel could profitably be analyzed as a definition of womanhood: passages describing how one has to live "down among the women" contrast with anecdotes of male behavior; characters leave the girls and join the women. Weldon is an essential writer for anyone who agrees with feminist theoreticians that women's culture has not been fully explored, and her decision to leave the narrator unnamed until the next-to-last page is one of her most brilliant strokes, unifying content and form perfectly.
When we learn the narrator's identity, the way we regard individual scenes does not significantly change. Jocelyn is neither more perceptive nor artistic than the other characters. The reader senses that any average woman could feel intensely and express movingly the joy and anguish of many women. Fay Weldon, whose intelligence and sympathy clearly shape the novel, does not claim exclusive authorial credit for its creation. To leave the "I" unassigned so that it could be an authorial voice must have been tempting. Instead, Jocelyn, the author, the women characters, and all women merge. The point of view underlines the theme that the experience of women is, in the best sense, communal. While feminist theory richly informs the novel, the structure itself elevates Down Among the Women far above a thesis-ridden book.
Weldon is also a superb comic writer, who can be enjoyed largely for her wit and humor. She is primarily a witty writer, who sees incongruities, uses skillful phraseology, surprising contrasts, epigrams, and comparisons. At the same time, she also has a large sympathy for human foibles, so that her work is incisive without the cold brittleness of a writer like Mary McCarthy. Her comic effects are rich and varied: visual descriptions, inverted commonplaces, slang, and verbal assaults by one character on another. She is not above including jokes and songs. Wanda tells Scarlet, who is in a sanctimonious mood about motherhood, the story of the randy milkman; impotent Edwin sings "an awful warning, / Never do it in the morning." She uses progressive repetition to suggest that the funny may also be the terrifying: Jocelyn accidentally freezes her parrot, gasses her cat, sets fire to her flat, and scalds her small son. The laughter increases, then dies. Coincidence provides many of the funniest moments: Scarlet has her baby in her new stepmother Susan's bed, who is then forced to have her son in the hospital, where she is put in isolation because she has post-puerperal fever:
Doctors come and stare at her, and ask her how she's feeling. "Fine," she says, and they look bemused, and at each other, as they inspect, tap, and medicate. They don't understand it, and why should they? They have their test-tubes mixed.
In the ward another young woman drifts slowly off towards death, unnoticed.
Susan rallies enough to turn her equally young stepdaughter out of bed. Such blending of the terrible and the ridiculous is one of the major reasons why a novel filled with the pain endured by women—lack of love, abandonment, violence, and death account for three-fourths of the events—is neither painfully depressing nor cheerfully sentimental. It also places Weldon in the mainstream of contemporary fiction.
Female Friends is also a very funny novel. In addition to using most of the comic devices mentioned above, Weldon, who has also written for Upstairs, Downstairs relies a great deal on dialogue. The narrative is interspersed with innumerable passages written in the style of a play with the characters' names set off on the left, followed by their words and sometimes brief stage directions indicating tone. Many conversations are startling. Like Ivy Compton-Burnett's characters, Weldon's are often terrifyingly direct, though more specific about physical facts. "Do they make you watch?" asks Grace as soon as it has been confirmed that Chloe's husband and the au pair girl are sleeping together. "And how was Marjorie's moustache? Or does she shave, these days?" asks Grace, as she tries to pack, in a scene that is visually comic: "she will lift a jersey or bra to her nose and sniff, and if she finds it offensive she will either throw it into the wastebin, if she considers it too far gone, or spray lavishly with cologne before returning it to its pile. Chloe is half admiring, half shocked."
The point of view in Female Friends has some similarity to that of Down Among the Women. Chapters including the first-person point of view of Chloe alternate with chapters told entirely from the third-person point of view. Chapters with the first-person narrator are again not restricted to events at which Chloe is present. Although the reliance on dialogue gives the impression that Weldon is using primarily the objective or dramatic point of view, the narrative as a whole is actually omniscient: it moves easily from the past to the present and includes reflections and incidents realistically available only to characters other than Chloe. Again, Weldon allows one of her women characters to speak for the experience of other women, to give imaginative shape and emotional weight to events she could only know about in general terms.
Introducing Chloe as a central intelligence at the very beginning of the novel has effects different from those achieved in Down Among the Women. Weldon is once more working with a complex chronology, but now the present of her first-person narrator, Chloe, is more definite than Jocelyn's musings on a park-bench. Two days and nights constitute her present: Chloe, isolated in the country because her husband insists on ecology as long as it is no inconvenience to him, visits her friends Majorie and Grace in London, then returns to the home she shares with her own and with her friends' Children, as well as to her husband, Oliver, whom she is forced to share with Francoise, the au pair girl. That night Oliver demands greater tolerance from Chloe than he has before. He insists that she make love with Francoise, only to accuse her of revealing her true lesbian nature. The next day Chloe meets her two female friends at the deathbed of Marjorie's mother, and Majorie comes to her insight about the need for active friendship among women. As a result, Chloe can move into her house and leave Oliver.
The vivid two days of Chloe's present alternate with incidents from the past in the lives of the three friends. The numerous scenes are unified because Weldon chooses to focus on a character to whom all others have a direct relationship: besides being Marjorie's and Grace's friend, Chloe makes a home for her own children as well as those of Grace and of Midge (the dead wife of Patrick Bates, former lover of all three friends)—a fact that allows the tangled affairs of the adults to emerge naturally. In addition, Chloe thinks of herself as being "in the mainstream of female action and reaction": she, therefore, parallels other women from earlier generations—her own gentle mother. Gwynneth, and her surrogate mother, Esther, who, like Chloe, cared for other women's children and gave them security and a common past. Numerous other contrasts and parallels provide further unity.
The point of view of Female Friends, assigned extensively to a more specific central intelligence and situation, gives the novel complexity, unity, irony, and humor. In Down Among the Women, Weldon presents many women suffering as a result of their sex, yet she is ultimately optimistic about the fate of women. One of the central insights in the novels is an imaginative rendering of changes in attitude from generation to generation. By living without a husband, Wanda has preserved her integrity, but she has also paid for it. Her daughter's friends seek happiness through men, but her granddaughter, Byzantia, echoes Wanda's independence and foreshadows a new kind of woman:
"You amaze me," says Byzantia. "Fancy seeing success in terms of men. How trivial, with the world in the state it's in".
"Merely as a symbol of success," pleads Scarlet, "I don't mean to offer it as the cause."
"A symptom more like," says Byzantia, "of a fearful disease from which you all suffered. One of you even died on the way. I think the mortality rate is too high."
When asked to define the disease, Byzantia cannot. Definitions, she says, are in any case no part of her business. It is enough to tear the old order down.
Byzantia, like her grandmother Wanda, is a destroyer, not a builder. But where Wanda struggled against the tide and gave up, exhausted, Byzantia has it behind her, full and strong.
Down among the women.
We are the last of the women.
In Female Friends, however, Weldon shows significant dramatic development in one woman. Chloe has been taught by her mother, whose heart-rending loyalty to her beloved employer has caused her to be exploited financially and emotionally, to "understand and forgive," a phrase that becomes one of the motifs against which to measure Chloe's change. Weldon begins with "the day Chloe's life is to change—in the way that lives of calm people do change, through some alteration to attitude rather than of conduct." Chloe has found living according to her mother's precept exhausting. "I could do with some anger to energise me, and bring me back to life again. But where can I find the anger? Who is to help me? My friends? I have been understanding and forgiving my friends, my female friends, for as long as I can remember." Although the expectation is set up that Chloe's revitalizing anger will be turned against her friends, her understanding of them and other women, regardless of how they might be judged according to any exacting standard, remains Chloe's most attractive characteristic.
Instead, Chloe has to cease to "understand and forgive" Oliver's selfishness, infidelity, and hypocrisy in order to free herself from a marriage that is joyless and humiliating. She recognizes her mother's meekness in the face of terrible injustice as "a miserable, crawling, snivelling way to go, the worn-out slippers neatly placed beneath the bed, careful not to give offence." She eventually finds herself laughing at Oliver, "really quite lightly and merrily … and in this she is, at last, in tune with the universe." Grace has been saying that Chloe is "too dangerous a martyr," that "bad behavior is very animating." Chloe, supported by her friends in her change of attitude toward Oliver, rejects her mother's lesson: better to be alive to rejoice, to enjoy the present. Even Marjorie's and Grace's lives seem to take a turn for the better once Chloe has rejected the notion that women have to suffer, forgive, and endure.
By suggesting in Down Among the Women that hope for an easier life lies in future generations, Weldon seems to have set herself the task of showing that even for an individual, middle-aged, submissively conditioned woman a better life is possible if she can change and if she has female friends. Such a theme is only sketched in: the richness of the novel forbids a simple statement to stand for it. The mingling of the two days in Chloe's present and the varied incidents of the past are brought together into a complex whole through the interplay of the first- and third-person points of view, which merge when Chloe, ironically echoing the marriage ceremony, says about leaving Oliver, "I can, I can, and I do." In addition to the complex but carefully unified structure, Female Friends has many of Weldon's other strengths: vivid imagery, a strong sense of time and place, memorable dialogue, complex events, and multiple characters that are neither confusing nor superficially observed—a rich rendering of life with brevity and wit.
Remember Me shares the above strengths. Once again it reveals a complex chronology—a few days in the present are superimposed over past events—through it no longer uses the first-person narrator. Remember Me also shows Weldon's willingness to re-examine previous thematic concerns and her ability to adapt or invent new narrative techniques. The middle-aged wife displaced by a younger woman promising greater domestic serenity and renewed sexual vigor to a man all too aware of his age has appeared in all three previous novels. Here Weldon faces honestly the full implications of the rage such a woman may feel if she has no prospects for a better future, if her situation is different from Chloe's in Female Friends. Divorced, poor, and depressed, Madeleine lives in a squalid basement flat with her lumpy, hopeless daughter, Hilary, while ex-husband Jarvis shares the pleasures of his elegantly refurbished house and bed with his selfish, beautiful, new wife, Lily. Madeleine presents herself as the victim she unquestionably is, "elbowing and stamping to achieve a yet more ragged pair of jeans, a yet more matted jersey by way of illustration" of what Jarvis has done to her. "All Madeleine can do for Hilary, all she knows how to do, is despise Jarvis and Lily—and what kind of help is that to Hilary?" Weldon not only presents but also authorially comments on the costs of such hate to both mother and daughter. Madeleine's one ineffectual moment of hopefulness for a new future—another man, the pathetic Mr. Quincey from Dial-a-Date, rather than the serene life without men espoused by the lesbian Renee—is ironically a causes of her death in a car accident.
Madeleine, the angry victim, has not been able to affect others significantly while alive, but in death she becomes a powerful motivating force for re-examination, recognition, change, and growth in others. When Madeleine's leg is severed and the steering wheel driven into her chest, her spirit passes into the plump, kindly, compliant Margot, the doctor's wife who has always served her husband and children without questioning the loss of self in marriage and motherhood. As Madeleine is dying, the dinner at ex-husband Jarvis' house is disrupted: Margot experiences a searing pain in her leg and shortness of breath; windows bang, children wake, the clock stops. The next morning Margot's previously serene family is disconcerted by her sudden expressions of grim anger, resentment, hate, and regrets for her lost self. The "convulsive tumult of discontent and resentment" also produces positive results: selfish Lily recognizes some of her faults and feels intensely maternal love and pain, Jarvis rediscovers the ability to feel as he grieves for Madeleine, Margot recognizes that Madeleine is part of herself and makes amends to her by taking in the orphaned Hilary. Like Addie in As I Lay Dying, Madeleine motivates others to act after her death, but instead of bringing out heroism in her sons, she awakens a sense of human solidarity in characters of both sexes.
In spite of the sharply observed details of interior decoration, dress, food, and conversation, patterns and themes are more important in Remember Me than the conventions of realism. Supernatural elements are used to underline the power of women's resentment against injustice. Madeleine is a most active corpse. In the morgue, her eyes keep opening, her body seems warm, she looks beautiful rather than haggard as she was in life, the shrouds repeatedly fall on the floor in disarray. The ambulance carrying her to the mortuary has an accident, so that the corpse, falling out with eyes open, has a lasting effect on those passing by. The morgue attendants sense she is lively and hear murmurs.
The supernatural elements are appropriate since the resentment felt by women is powerful and authentic, yet not always scrupulously fair or rational. As "the focal point of some kind of group energy," "the focus of womanly discontent," Madeleine expresses anger recognized as valid and commonplace by those hearing the whispers:
How can I manage on the money you give me? How can I cope with a growing boy with you out at work all day? Of course the place is untidy; I'm at my wits' end coping with the mess you make. If you'd ever played football with the lad, his hair wouldn't be the length it is … How you ill-treat me, monster! Villain! Going off to war with two legs, coming back with one, and not hurrying home either. Beast!
Why are you going into that dark vale, why are you leaving me here all alone? What is your male death to my female misery? Devil! Monster! Deserter!
The sense of being misunderstood and mistreated is also evident in the lives and thoughts of both female and male characters.
The plot violates the conventions of realism in its extreme reliance on coincidence. The multiple characters from six families are shown to belong neatly within the same narrative by two paired sexual liaisons on the night of Jarvis' twenty-ninth birthday party sixteen years before. Staid, nice Margot, now the doctor's wife, had made love with Jarvis that night on his wife Madeleine's bed. Margot's son, always unquestioningly regarded as the doctor's, is probably Jarvis' son. When Margot takes in the orphaned Hilary, she notes the resemblance between the two children. Her husband had probably made love with the betrayed Madeleine on the same night. Scores of other coincidences, carefully enumerated in Chapter 10, emphasize the theme that chance, misunderstanding, and necessarily limited knowledge play a significant part in human life.
The dominant symbol and character is a corpse. Blisters, twisted ankles, vomit, blood-poisoning, abortion, post-abortion infection, menstruation, blows, slaps, pimples, burns, fat, sweat, hair, false teeth, operations, mutilations, drowning, paralysis, cancer, senility, and death are recurrent images underscoring human mortality. In the hands of a naturalistic novelist such details would be close to unbearable. Weldon's skillful handling of tone and her playfulness with narrative techniques, however, distance many of the horrors, make them comically absurd, and hence either funny or at least endurable for both characters and readers. What else can one do about past blows but laugh, as Madeleine used to about her mother's walking into an aircraft propeller, if one is not to be corroded by bitterness and grief? How else can one deal with mortality but defy it, as old Alice did, chomping with her dead husband's false teeth, two people speaking out of the same mouth, and clattering her necklace of polished gallstones?
Numerous techniques distance the horrifying, present a complex vision in a very brief space, and emphasize artifice rather than realism. The most important of these are refrains, riddles, interior monologues, incisive but tentative character analyses, and authorial comments. Refrains provide easy movement within individual chapters from one character or family to another, from the present to the past, from the trivial to the traumatic. Refrains such as "Good morning!" "Unfair!" or "Ordinary life!" allow for comic or poignant juxtaposition and give unity to individual chapters. The complexities of family life and characters' underlying motives are sometimes made explicit by passages Weldon calls "riddles." She reports an ordinary conversation about cereal, lost shoes, or a friend's visit in dialogue with each line numbered; a translation with correspondingly numbered lines follows. The riddles are delightful not only because Weldon has the good sense not to use them too often but also because the translations do not follow any consistent, predictable pattern. Ordinary words do not necessarily mean the opposite, the nastiest, the most self-revealing, nor the most universal. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and at other times Weldon sees meanings that would astound Freud.
Interior monologues in which the characters define themselves and explain their motives and insights are interspersed in the narrative. The monologues are stylized and rational statements rather than attempts to render tentative inner emotions, flux of sensations, and pre-speech levels so familiar in stream-of-consciousness novels. In simple declarative sentences characters define themselves first in terms of their relationships: they are wives, daughters, and mothers as well as sons and husbands, since here Weldon develops several male characters more fully and sympathetically than she had previously. The monologues are similar in style, regardless of the individual character's psyche as revealed in action and dialogue. They are artistically shaped summaries clearly different from the psychological realist's attempt to capture in language the complexity of an individual's inner life. Nevertheless, they increase our sympathy for the speaker and contribute significantly to the incongruities, comedy, and complexity of the novel. In addition, they also further several themes: the strong influence of mothers (rather than fathers) on children; the difficulties of modern marriage; the understandable individual motive unfairly judged by others; the kindness, guilt, and ability to feel in persons who, nevertheless, deal terrible blows to others; and the tension between being one's self and the inescapable truth that we are all part of one another.
Weldon is incisive in seeing the subtle, cruel motive lurking beneath surface kindness as well as the opposite. She allows the complexity of human motives to stand rather than making final neat judgments about her characters. Moreover, she does not resolve all questions about facts as a realistic novelist would: did Lily drown her inconvenient baby sister? did Jarvis deeply love Madeleine in the past or is the intense unhappiness of his first marriage a rewriting of history during his second one? does he love or dislike his second wife, Lily? are the fathers of the two children really reversed, as Margot decides after sixteen years of never questioning their paternity?
Although death and rage are in the foreground, Remember Me is a very funny novel, the result of narrative techniques as well as strengths in dialogue, description, and comic devices similar to those found in Weldon's earlier work. Undeniably, her vision is darker. Feminist insights into injustices suffered by women are too numerous to list, yet Weldon also understands and sympathizes with men. The war between the sexes in unavoidable because women do suffer, and their rage is a powerful force transcending individual life. While such anger is destructive, it cannot be dismissed. It can pass from one woman into another, and it can even bring out compassion and gentleness in both women and men after it has been recognized and expressed. After the upheavals caused by Madeleine's angry spirit, an equilibrium is re-established:
"Oh, my sisters," whispers the memory of Madeleine to the still troubled air, "and my brothers too, soon you will be dead. Is this the way you want to live?"
Which at least seemed to create some kind of concensus, for or against, because after that there was nothing but the wind to ruffle the grasses and disturb the little gay pots of dried flowers on the more recent graves, and whatever trouble there was dispersed, and there was peace.
Weldon's numerous authorial comments foreshadow and reinforce the conclusion. They are tentative enough to avoid sentimentality and oversimplification, but they suggest positive values in human life and reveal a cautious optimism in the face of forcefully delineated suffering. Such comments, yet another departure from realism, also provide unity and justify the reliance on coincidence in the plot.
As we grow older we sense more and more that human beings make connections in much the same manner as the basic materials of matter…. The linkages are unexpected; they can be of objects, plants, places, events, anything. It is perhaps why we should take good care to polish furniture, water plants, telephone friends with whom we apparently have nothing in common, pay attention to coincidence, and in general help the linkages along instead of opposing them—as sometimes, in our panic at our very un-aloneness, we are moved to do.
All things have meaning. Almost nothing is wasted. Old friends encountered by chance; old enemies, reunited to hate again; old emotions, made sense of and transmuted into energy; old loves reappearing; 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.
Fay Weldon is important because she has succeeded in uniting the negative feminism, necessarily evident in novels portraying the problems of women, with a positive feminism, evident in the belief that change or equilibrium is possible. She has also succeeded in writing feminist comedy, demonstrating that feminism is neither humorless nor impossible to assimilate into a work of art. Experimentation with narrative techniques, careful structure, complex vision, and artistic maturity place Down Among the Women, Female Friends, and Remember Me among the significant achievements in recent fiction.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 857
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 Woman's Joke. Here and there in the short stories Miss Weldon offers wry versions of yesterday's feelings. (During the Battle of Britain, a wife remembers, "quite a lot of women claimed that air-raids were preferable to their husbands' attentions.") In one or two pieces ghosts walk, breaking china in trendy vicarages. Mostly, though, the writer concentrates on hard-eyed, mushy-headed specimens collected from the contemporary media world—and they're a grotesque lot on the whole.
In "Christmas Tree" we meet Brian, a money-making, working-class TV dramatist retreating from Hollywood to Devon in hopelessly self-deceived pursuit of an honest rural mate. "Holy Stones" is about a fortyish atheistical newspaper columnist named Adam who's miserable on his honeymoon in Israel because he is unable to shake the religious faith of his 23-year-old Jesus-loving bride. "Spirit of the House" shows us a pair of publicity-mad peers whose home world includes a Disneyland, a zoo and a youngster who, having taken a first-class honors degrees in math at Oxford, sits all day at a computer terminal in the Great House library working out "efficient mathematical formulae for the winning of the pools." Elsewhere, we follow a parade of idle fornicators, 60's heroines, (owners of fading boutiques) lusting after lost glory, family groups fighting holiday tedium with endless games of Monopoly.
Our times. Harmonies abound between the stories and that first novel. The Fat Woman's Joke concerns Esther and Phyllis in their 30's, Susan and Brenda 10 years younger—Londoners who chat away to each other, chapterlessly, in sentences often reminiscent of Ivy Compton-Burnett. Esther has recently fled her unfaithful adman husband—and the tortuous discipline of a diet—for basement digs in Earls Court, where she's eating herself into defiant obesity and ruminating on the wretchedness of married woman-kind and of the general human lot as well. Phyllis listens partly because she's bent on persuading Esther to return home to husband and son, partly because she feels guilty (Phyllis has had her bosom lifted and has allowed herself to be seduced by Esther's husband), partly because she's fascinated by the ghastly portrait of her own future as a middle-aged wife upon which Esther's despairing honesty lifts a curtain.
As for Susan and Brenda: the former is a painter and part-time stenographer, immensely assured on such subjects as sex, clothes, diet and married men, and the latter aspires to comparable confidence on exactly the same matters. The link between Susan/Brenda and Esther/Phyllis is that Susan is involved in concurrent affairs with Esther's husband and Esther's teen-age son. The novel's narrative path traverses Susan's and Phyllis's various treacheries toward a climax at which Esther's husband, fed up with casual bed partners and poor meals, appears on Esther's Earls Court doorstep, pressing her to come home.
There's one splendid comic sequence in The Fat Woman's Joke featuring a non-English-speaking Indian gentleman whom Brenda picks up in a pub, brings home to Susan's apartment, admires aloud for the spirituality of his mien and copulates with on Susan's rug. The two women discuss the gentleman at length afterward as he sits on Susan's couch, and the gentleman never speaks; he does, however, place two one-pound notes in Brenda's hand on departing, making a telling moment. There's also considerable force and wit in Esther's sermons on the desperate hatefulness of women's lives. And the echoes of Compton-Burnett—the sound of poised and icy candor—aren't by any means unwelcome. (Esther's husband to Phyllis: "You are gentle and docile and slim and pretty and neat, like a doll. You endure. You are not in the least clever and you never say anything devastating. I should have married you.")
But in a Compton-Burnett book you don't just get chilling candor and rich syntax: you get non-schlock period furnishings, the occasional faithful servant (the day helper in The Fat Woman's Joke is exceedingly stony) and no obsession whatever with diets. I'm saying, in a word, that Fay Weldon's first novel (like most of the 11 stories) strikes me as a shade depressing—too icy and astringent, too relentlessly knowing. Miss Weldon has produced more that one dark book in her past—I think particularly of her Down Among the Women (1972). But she also has a cheerier side—witness the sunny ending of last year's lively "Puffball." I'm glad to know, at last, where this writer started, but what's really pleasing is her direction at the moment as a novelist. It's a lot less blackish mood than that in which she began, a dozen years ago, with The Fat Woman's Joke.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513
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 middle-class respectability in Camden Town. But as news coverage of the Primaries increase, people begin to notice the resemblance between Isabel's son and his real father: Isabel herself is seen by the candidate's campaign managers as a potential menace, and various moves, entirely credible, are made to dispose of her.
On this level, the invention is powerful and sustained. But it is not at this level that the gravity of the book is made manifest. Mrs Weldon has in the past been a devastating but partial protagonist in the familiar argument of man's inhumanity to woman. Here she breaks free of her own propaganda, and in one of the most lyrical passages written by a woman for many years, she acknowledges the primacy, the absolute necessity of passion, the centrality and totality of physical love, and the difference between this and whatever other arrangements may have to be made. Mrs Weldon's celebration of this discovery is not only fervent: it is worshipful. The spiky ladies who populated her earlier novels now fade into the background, while the foreground is dominated by a woman and her lover, and what passes between them is not scornfully reduced but restored to its rightful place. At a time when many women novelists are content to launch chronicles of sexual consumerism, it comes as an agreeable surprise to find Mrs Weldon calmly pushing these back onto the sidelines where they belong, and writing with complete conviction and with an edge of amorous sadness about a love affair marked off from all others. And, as always, she concentrates her meaning in a single phrase: 'He made me what my mother could not—he made me whole.'
And there is an even deeper level on which this novel is serious, for it deals with cause and effect, with right and wrong, with authenticity and bad faith. Bright facades reveal tragedies and delinquencies which one is somehow not surprised to discover. The snappy infighting of her previous novels is abandoned for a more sombre realisation of what life may be about, and in the course of this process perspectives undergo a change. 'Feminism is a luxury,' pronounces the narrator. 'The world is graded into fit and unfit, not male and female.' There are fewer possibilities than were once assumed to be available. Perhaps duty is inescapable. Perhaps even God exists. The moral burden is resumed with some dignity and is used to structure an already excellent fiction.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 816
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 Makeshift, oafish but agreeable, will deliver the Wellington lecture; Bella Morthampton, his secretary in title but his mistress in fact, will devour the tough caribou patties from a 1794 Canadian recipe; Mew Whittaker will be mistaken for a Times of London correspondent when, in reality, she represents the ferociously feminist Women's Times. Fold in, among others, an idiot savant who makes his living selling deadly weapons, an overage secret agent, a dithering married couple and two frightened faculty members—a human sampler of the old Empire in accelerated decline.
Imagine Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell, Joan Greenwood, Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas and Sir Alec Guinness at one table; discover they have hidden alliances and watch them savage each other.
Joan Lumb runs this foolish academy, a lady with an exquisite sense of putting people in place and putting classes in descending orders of status. "So important," according to Lumb, "to get the seating arrangements right. A dinner party's like a cocktail—no matter how good the ingredients, if you don't stir properly, everything's wasted." Male, white managers are at the top of her social hierarchy; male, black managers rank ahead of female, white servants in the middle; female, black servants are at the bottom.
And at the literal bottom of the academy are uncounted hundreds of servants of all colors—plus their spouses, friends and fellow runaways from Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Cuba, Soweto—all those impolite places where bigotry or battle make life dangerous. Lumb, like any colonial officer, doesn't know what malice lurks among the lower lives. She doesn't even have a census of the oppressed population.
Upstairs, the relics clutching to title and tiara. Downstairs, the refugees holding to life and limb. Boom.
That doesn't seem so funny, does it? More like a Marxist struggle knotted in old school ties? Well, Fay Weldon isn't any kinder to the huddled masses than the gross gourmands. She caricatures the grotesqueries of polite and impolite society, drums up a murderous little conflict within the building and uses the absurd academy as a microcosm for making a bloody mockery of all wars. Before she has finished clearing the banquet table: A servant has died in childbirth—from inattention; a dog has been slaughtered and served to the guests—as a mousse in finger sandwiches—and a nuclear explosion levels both class distinctions and the structure.
If that still doesn't seem so funny, Weldon interlards her story with asides to the reader and scraps of narrative from historic battles. Little shards, like shrapnel itself, can be devastating: "Peace may look good to governments," says the satiric authorial voice, "but it is only the quiet time an army needs to recover from the last war and prepare for the next…. Peace is good for agriculture, but bad for the economy, bad for love and bad for civilian morale. Civil unrest, blasphemy, discontent and crime flourish in times of peace."
Other scraps seem merely precious: "Gentle Reader! What have I said! You are no more gentle than I am. I apologize for insulting you. You are as ferocious as anyone else. The notion that the reader is gentle is very bad for both readers and writers, and the latter do tend to encourage the former in this belief." If readers were indeed gentle, goes the logic, then we wouldn't be blowing each other to smithereens.
Fay Weldon has worked her way through feminism and fantasy and plain fatness in nearly one dozen earlier novels. She has written for the stage and the screen. She carries a long, shiny needle, the better to puncture what passes for acceptable behavior. Here, as before, she knows the fatuity of people in highest places: "It is hard to imagine how barbarous the language of our leaders is, in private, how simple and emotive their judgments, how their love of money and power and vengeance rises to the surface like the white crust on boiling strawberry jam."
The cruelty also rises. Truly gentle readers may be appalled at the gore and violence flying around this farce. Truly cynical readers may be delighted by a comedy of manners in which everyone's manners are most atrocious. This reader was sometimes appalled, often amused—and generally disconcerted by the asides, wondering whether they were designed as playfulness, punctuation or simple padding. A belly laugh for strong stomachs.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1058
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. Nearly aborted by a panicking mother, she survives to become a Christmas Day baby, attended by astrological omens that give her an uncanny ability to attract dangerous events and nasty people into her benevolent orbit, but from infancy, she shines like a good deed in a naughty world.
Her mother, Helen, is a nice, sensible, pretty young thing, whose apparently fey character grows well in strength throughout the book, triumphing over the adversity of some unfortunate marriages, until years later, she blossoms as a prominent dress designer, hardened by the early experience of divorce from Nell's father, Clifford.
From the outset, Clifford is destined to be a celebrity, a London art dealer rapidly on the rise, not yet quite famous for being famous but fully aware of the advantages of a high profile in the art-schmart world of international dealing. Undoubtedly skilled both in commerce and connoisseurship, he is also a user, discarder, and wounder of women. Clifford's doubtful achievements bring with them the punishment of having to marry his mistress, than which few worse fates could be devised.
The mistress, Angie, belongs to a rather stagy cast of villains who represent the massed forces of Evil. She is rich beyond her deserving, with a few South African gold mines to keep her in mink and outbid any wool-clad opponents. Angie can well afford to make up for her inferior looks by buying whatever she wants in life, whether it is culture or revenge. Art galleries rise and fall to her manipulations, and this Queen-of-the-Night character has ample means to bide her time before she decides she can start "to upset a few people."
The forces of good and evil are not allowed to play out their match without interference. They are pursued by the author's voice intruding a commentary which is as unwelcome as a neighbor whispering throughout a movie. Fay Weldon has used this technique in earlier novels but never quite so insistently. It is a very feminine voice she writes in, as one would expect of so delicate a portrayer of pregnancy and childbirth, and the commentary is an odd mixture of triteness and shrewdness. "I am sorry to say …" too frequently introduces the author's remarks on yet another moral lapse in her characters. There is too often a conflict between Weldon's pity for her creations and her manipulation of them.
Is it too masculine to see her as overindulgent to the swinish Clifford, when she feels his overblown jealousy should be forgiven because he has deviously been given reasonable grounds for suspicion? Weldon is certainly too kind to Helen's father, a boorish, bullying artist of growing fame, who feeds his genius by his ill-treatment of his submissive wife. The father's slaughterhouse and torture paintings may be the finest artistic flower of their generation, but the domestic background in which they were nurtured is far from admirable. Too much is forgiven this half-mad genius because of a celebrity that turns out to have been partly engineered by the deft manipulations of Clifford's gallery. The temperamental license of the creative artist is allowed to go well beyond the point of patient endurance.
"Wait, dear reader," as our author would say. "Do not let yourself be put off by this glib, knowing commentator." Halfway through the book, the chattering Chorus becomes less annoying, and it is a measure of the author's skill that by the end the "dear reader" has come almost to welcome the commentary of the worldly wise lady in the next cinema seat. Instead of hushing her, we start agreeing and debating, perhaps with this view of marital discord:
Into the great bubbling caldron of distress we call jealousy goes dollop after dollop of every humiliation we have ever endured, every insecurity suffered, every loss we have known and feared; in goes our sense of doubt, futility: in goes the prescience of decay, death, finality. And floating to the top, like scum on jam, the knowledge that all is lost: in particular the hope that someday, somehow, we can properly love and trust and be properly loved and trusted in our turn.
Such ruminations should not give the impression of overwhelming seriousness in a novel with a strong vein of fairytale fantasy. Nell becomes a tug-of-love child, finds herself kidnapped, then in rapid succession is miraculously saved from an air crash and is bought by a rather endearing pair of elderly French black magicians who adopt her as part of a program of rejuvenation therapy. Spirited away from their mildly Satanic clutches, she casts up, traumatized but resilient, in an English home for "disturbed" children, but is soon off with the Gypsies to a hippie commune in remote rural Wales, kept buoyant by sheer niceness, however nasty her surroundings.
Even when mistakenly classed as mentally retarded, educationally sub-normal, even with her head shaved because of suspected head lice and hunted by dogs when she escapes from the mental hospital, Nell is a smiler and a survivor. Throughout her adventures, she has secretly carried a locket containing a precious jewel which is not only an amulet for her safety but eventually leads her back to her parents. Needless to say, it is she who reconciles them.
The embers of their marriage have never gone entirely cold. Helen's love for Clifford has been kept alive by the belief that her daughter never really died in the air disaster. Nell proves this by reappearing as a self-possessed, artistic young woman with her redeeming happiness intact. The novel, which goes somewhat deeper than its mere story-line would suggest, ends with the message: "Reader, to the happy, all things come. Happiness can even bring the dead back to life."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1210
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 was referring to the fact that Hearts and Lives originally appeared in the British weekly magazine Woman and that it was written piece by piece for serial publication. Perhaps she believed it less "literary" than some of her other works. Perhaps she was concerned that new readers would find her too frivolous, too glib. When asked why she decided to write a serial novel, she answered that Woman had approached her agent to see whether she would write a short story for them. "Being an agent," Weldon continued, "he said 'why not one a week?' and that's how it started."
Fortunately, Hearts and Lives does not suffer from the problems of disjointedness or frivolity that worried Weldon: It is a quintessentially and wonderfully Weldonesque novel. One of the best things about Weldon is that she has created a new category for simile. We can safely say, in response to the question "How are things going?" that life is like a Fay Weldon novel. This answer is all encompassing. Our lives become Weldonesque when the following elements can no longer be denied: that there is no such thing as coincidence; that justice—haphazard as it appears—is swift, satisfying, and ultimately inescapable; that we are none of us safe, however secure we feel; and that "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 keep 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."
The Hearts and Lives of Men can safely be called a comedy. The novel begins by telling us in the second paragraph, "There! You already know this story is to have a happy ending … Why not?" Has Weldon turned traditional? Hardly. She creates a comedy that depends on the inversion and subversion of traditional, masculinist comedy. She overturns convention in much the same way as the artist in her novel, John Lally, paints "the Rape not of the Sabine Women, but by the Sabine Women. It was they who were falling upon helpless Roman soldiers."
It is a story of love at first sight and of divorce, of black and white magic, of airplane crashes and near misses, of children abandoned and reclaimed. Helen and Clifford, the lovers whose catalytic romance prompts much of the tale's adventure, fall into one another's arms in the early sixties when people "wanted everything and thought they could have it…. Dinner, in other words, and no washing up." Their relationship continues through marriages to various people, including one another on occasion, over twenty years or so. They have "as good a chance as any" of "getting away with" a happy ending, but of course they might not deserve it. Who of us does deserve happiness? After reading this novel, such questions no longer seem rhetorical.
After reading The Heart of the Country, we realize that there is no such thing as a rhetorical question in a Weldon novel. Ask a question and (by God or the Devil) you will get an answer. The Heart of the Country is marginally a better book than The Hearts and Lives of Men. Weldon is in more familiar, more mythical territory where judgments are not weighed with caution and where we are not asked to have sympathy for the despicable characters, as we are in Hearts and Lives. Instead of opening with love at first sight, this novel (written before Hearts and Lives and already successfully adapted as a British miniseries) opens with the exclamation "Oh! The wages of sin! Natalie Harris sinned, and her husband Harry left for work one fine morning and didn't come back."
Natalie commits the usual sins of lust, pride, and envy, but she is cursed finally for the "special sin of splashing the poor." This is a modern sin, Weldon's first-person/third-person narrator, Sonia, explains. Sonia, instructed by her psychiatrist, is attempting to step outside of herself and look at herself as others see her ("that is to say in the third person") when she enters into Natalie's story. She describes the way that Natalie, driving her two elegant children to their private school in her Volvo station wagon, splashes unemployed, unhappy Sonia as she is walking her three children to the state school they hate. "'God rot her,' said Sonia aloud … she could deliver a curse or two effectively. God heard. God sent his punishment on Natalie. Or was it the Devil? He forgave her other sins, but got her for this one. Natalie committed the sin of carelessly splashing Sonia. Sonia cursed her. Misfortune fell on Natalie. Cause and effect?" Words have power in Weldon's reality. "One must be careful with words," she wrote back in The Fat Woman's Joke, her first novel. "Words turn probabilities into facts and by sheer force of definition translate tendencies into habits." Nothing is more powerful than language. Language is the stuff of love and, equally, the stuff of politics.
The Heart of the Country is an explicitly political novel, as is any novel dealing with getting benefits from the state (Natalie must get "tutorials on the Welfare State" from Sonia, among others.) Women shifted to the margin by society become political because they do not follow "the advice given to economically dependent female spouses since the beginning of time—wait for her husband to cease his wanderings, and be as loving as lovable in the meantime." Not unlike Ruth in Life and Loves of a She-Devil, the women get their own back. It happens during carnival. Carnival is comedy, right? But this is a women's comedy, and so there must be a sacrifice and not a ritual one either. "That was the purpose of the event. Burn a virgin, fire a barn, drown a witch. Clear old scores and start afresh! What do you think the carnival is about? Fun and games? Oh, no."
As for comedy, well, this book has one of the happiest endings of any I have read, acknowledging as it does that challenge, not stasis, is what makes for happiness; that comedy for women depends often on what was always misread as her pain, "that it is up to women to fight back, because the men have lost their nerve"; that, in fact, through the guise of dependence and sentiment "she had been laughing at him all the time." Weldon maps the territory where comedy and terror meet, consume one another, and create an altogether new landscape.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900
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 enormities open to enterprising operators. The story is this: Joanna May's husband Carl May, without her knowledge and with the co-operation of a Dr Holly, has imposed a novel means of reproduction on his thirty-year-old wife. An egg is removed from her womb, split into four and implanted elsewhere, and with the resulting births new versions of the original are obtained. This outrageous multiplication is supposed to have taken place in the 1950s, and it's thirty years before the prototype gets to hear about the copies. In the meantime, Carl May has divorced her for infidelity with an Egyptologist, relegated her to a house on the banks of the Thames, near Maidenhead, and dealt with the man, the culprit, by having him run over.
Carl May, a power in the land as the blurb describes him, has risen not only from sordid but from unspeakable beginnings. His mother kept him chained in a dog kennel. Weldon often lumbers her characters with some egregious ancestry, as if in deference to a tabloid view of the world, or at least in acknowledgement of all the awfulness that exists and gets reported in newspapers. Her fiction tends to be sensational in content, to underscore her aversion to this or that social abuse, but very much toned down in manner: she is famous for being both audacious and sardonic in her approach. She sets out to make the preposterous plausible (more or less), as in Life and Loves of a She-Devil, as well as indicating the universal significance in all the little individual plots and predicaments she creates. All her characters come complete with striking life histories and sociological implications, neatly summarized. The new novel considers (among other things) the question of identity, and whether this is strengthened or diluted by replication; the effect of environment comes into it too. The book's peculiar premise enables it to demonstrate what becomes of an individual in varying circumstances: the May clones are, respectively, a journalist, a fashion model, a childless suburban housewife and a knocked-about mother-of-three.
As well as the topical decoration we expect from Fay Weldon—child abuse, genetic gimmickry and nuclear alarms—the narrative accommodates some not very pointed punning ("If the I offend thee pluck it out") and some over-insistent patterning, as, for example, with the paired-off systems of nuclear physics and Egyptology, technology and the Tarot pack, self-determination and divination. It is all too much, like Carl May's posited power over life and death, which leads to the notion that it is possible to get yourself re-created as your ex-wife's quasi-grand-child. Fay Weldon would seem to be upholding the life-instinct, in however distorted a form it manifests itself; with this novel, however, she has got herself into something of a muddle through mucking about with the universe.
As Weldon's concerns get larger, her style seems to go to pot. Instead of the usual sharpness we find banality ("Where did clouds come from?" wonders one of the characters in a woolly moment, while another thinks with affection of "his wife, sharer of his chips"). Overwriting and tiresomeness come into the picture too—"how could she, being female, give birth to something male?" Exchanges of the utmost childishness take place between the Chairman of Britnuc and his repudiated wife: "You have made me bad, Joanna May …"; "You have destroyed me", she says to him. Worst of all is the clumsiness that has overtaken Fay Weldon's prose. The following sentence isn't untypical:
Without the assault of these passionate saving graces she would have aged slowly and gracefully, developed a touch of arthritis here, a backache there: Oliver would have drifted off … and her fate would have indeed been that of the elderly woman who has never been employed, has no husband, no children, no former colleagues or particular interests, a handful of friends still around, with any luck (though their particular loyalties stretched by distance, exhaustion, their own problems) but who is fortunate enough to have a lot of money.
The plot keeps coming back to Carl May, his "bimbo", Bethany (brought up in a brothel), his spectacular progress from dog house to executive suite, and his vengefulness; but it only becomes gripping, in the customary Weldon manner, when we got to the clones and their eventual meeting. What this leads to is an assertion of feminine, or sisterly, solidarity: all very fine and inspiriting, but not quite sufficient to quell our unease with ingredients such as rebirth, rottenness and a kennel upbringing—presented, by and large, without the deftness we associate with this author. Still, what with man-made disasters, like Chernobyl, and those coming out of the blue, like the great wind of the autumn before last, Fay Weldon perhaps has a point in envisaging all our days as dogdays.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1744
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 novel, but one so truly amusing and consistently intelligent that even a guilt-ridden male chauvinist can't resist it.
The publication of even one Weldon book is a cause for celebration; this time out we are fortunate to have two, Polaris and Other Stories and Leader of the Band, a quirky, jazzy novel. Both books show us an artist who is attempting to deepen her talent, who is taking serious artistic risks.
The 12 stories that make up Polaris are widely varied in tone, ranging from lyrical, straight-ahead dramatic to almost Gothic horror. All of Ms. Weldon's familiar concerns—sex, sexual politics, the joys and agonies of family and adultery and an obsession with the horrors of gynecology—are evident. (Indeed, this medical obsession reminds me of William S. Burroughs's Dr. Benway, who stabbed patients with his scalpel in order to save them with last-minute, operating table heroics.) Most of the stories have a dead-on surety of tone, a maturity that tells us there is indeed a second act in Ms. Weldon's career.
The title tale is a love story about a Navy submariner, Timmy, and his new wife, Meg. The plot is simple: they meet, fall in love unexpectedly (in Weldon as in Lawrence, love is the great unknown, the wild ride that hurtles the lovers toward disastrous ends even as it carries them away in glory). They marry, Timmy goes away on duty in the submarine, and all too soon events conspire to ruin their perfect happiness.
When Timmy goes to sea, Meg visits Zelda, the wife of another submariner, Jim. (Unbeknown to Meg, Timmy has already had an affair with Zelda.) The two women begin talking about their husbands, and Meg gets a very nasty shock:
"If the Navy chooses to put him on Polaris, that's their responsibility. He's still just a navigator," Meg persisted. "A kind of timeless person." And indeed, she saw Timmy as one of the heroes on Odysseus's boat, underneath a starry Grecian sky, steering between Scylla and Charybdis.
But a few minutes later, Zelda sets her straight:
"Darling, your husband is one of the Attack Team. There are three of them on Polaris. The captain, the first officer and the navigator. With a little help from the captain, your husband and mine could finish off the world. Didn't he ever tell you?"
"They wouldn't want to finish off the world," said Meg, presently, taken aback. Timmy had never told her this.
It's the last line, of course, that's devastating. Timmy and Meg are so close they may even share ESP. He can practically communicate with her from under the North Sea, yet he never bothers to tell her what he really does. In the end, it is not simply the isolation from one another that causes the rent in their relationship but their failure as political people, a failure of both intellect and nerve. At one point in the story, Ms. Weldon writes of Meg:
She was like a child: she would not ask more, for fear of finding out more than she cared to know: of having to do what she ought, not what she wanted. A little girl who would not look down at her shoes before school, in case they needed cleaning.
Meg is not the only character created by Ms. Weldon to fit this description. Bitterness, a deep disappointment and concurrent anger are often starting points for her fiction. In "Delights of France or Horrors of the Road," the narrator talks to her psychiatrist about her sudden unexplained paralysis and about her wonderful husband, the particle physicist, Piers. Piers is a success, Piers is a Nobel Prize candidate, Piers loves to hike in the wild, Piers knows wine and so on. In the end, the pathetic narrator says: "Talking will get us nowhere. I do love my husband." She would rather be paralyzed than admit to her own rage, her fury at her condescending, domineering bully of a husband.
Love, in Ms. Weldon's world, is mystical, blinding; but also fearsome and savage. In this she also reminds me of Lawrence and his romantic dreams of a perfect union of blood. In "Who?," Howard, a 38-year-old area sales manager (with a wife, Alice, and three children) goes to the doctor to check on his recurrent headaches and falls in love at first sight with Elaine, the doctor's wife and secretary. Ms. Weldon tells us that "Elaine was bending over the T-Z section of the filling cabinet when Howard came up to the desk." Then, "It was as if, they told each other later, they recognized each other. That is to say, they knew in advance what was to come: how they were to move into the light, leaving others in the shadows."
Their affair takes a radical course; they leave their spouses, lose their jobs and end up penniless. Worse, when Elaine telephones Howard one day, he doesn't know who she is.
"Darling!" she said. "Who's that?" he asked.
"Elaine, of course," she replied.
"Who did you say?" "Elaine." There was a silence. Then—
"Oh, sorry, darling. I was dreaming."
The story could end here, but Ms. Weldon goes on to nail it down, with a final paragraph:
Nevertheless it had been said, and was the beginning of the end. He knew that she knew, and she knew that he knew, and so forth, that although love flowed out of him, freely and passionately, it was the love itself that mattered, and not the object of the love. They were both, when it came to it, strangers to each other.
A nicely written moral, as morals go, but unnecessary. If Ms. Weldon's writing has one serious flaw, it is her lack of confidence in her readers; too often she steps in and adds these little messages.
In her best stories, no moralizing is needed. Indeed, there is one story—a gynecological horror tale called "And Then Turn Out the Light"—which is quite simply one of the most ghastly stories I've ever read: a small masterpiece of evil involving a woman, her surgeon and their "love." There's not a word wasted in it, and it shows us what brilliance Ms. Weldon is capable of when she fully trusts her art.
Leader of the Band, her new novel, reprises all of the familiar themes. A picaresque romp, it tells us the story of Starlady Sandra, a brilliant and witty astronomer (discoverer of the planet Athena) who also happens to be a television star. Married to a boring barrister, Sandra meets Mad Jack, the trumpet player in a Dixieland band called the Citronella Jumpers. She is swept away by a tide of passion, and runs off with him on tour. Of course, many feminist novels (from Kate Chopin's Awakening to Sue Kaufman's Diary of a Mad Housewife) have mined this territory before, but few feminist heroines have been this liberated from the outset. Sandra is not a guilt-racked liberal, worried about the life she left behind. Rather, she is a brilliant, feisty woman who loves sex and her own opinions in equal amounts. Here is Sandra on fame:
Fame in a man is for a woman a great aphrodisiac: fame in a woman appeals to the man who likes public [sex]. Pity.
These are cool and witty comments, but therein lies the book's problem: Sandra's intellect and wit dominate every scene. We never really get to know Jack at all. Again and again, Sandra says, "Jack … oh, Mad Jack," as if, by repeating this incantation, she can will the character into existence. But will is no substitute for artistic invention. We learn too little about Jack, too little about the other band members and their groupies to even care about them. Instead we are borne back into the narcissistic and hyped-up voice of Starlady Sandra herself. This isn't all bad; she is funny, charming and brilliant, but one begins to grow weary of her endless self-absorption, as one does of an after-dinner monologuist who is still droning on long after the port has been drunk and the cigars have burned down to ash.
There are also forays into the author's obsession with gynecology. We learn, shockingly, that Sandra's father was a Nazi, that he "became medical officer in one of those camps where non-desirable races—those most closely aligned to the monkeys—that is to say gypsies and Jews and others recognisable from the shape of their skulls as being very like chimps, and lagging behind in the evolutionary race—were used as work-horses."
This is of course a bombshell, and a strange one to drop in a comic novel. Naturally, the lines above, and later ones concerning her "pride" in her father's work, are meant ironically. Sandra admits that thinking of what her father did in the camps "doubles me up with pain once a month." But the problem with introducing loaded material of this sort is that it begs to be fully dramatized. An entire novel could be written about the daughter of a German medical officer, but we get here only wisecracks, irony and a smidgen of pain, then move on to other matters.
A friend once said, "Novelists have to be smart, but not too smart," and I believe this to be true. Fay Weldon's wit, her intellect, her love of play—usually so effective—get in the way in Leader of the Band. There is ice where there should be warmth, opinions where there should be flesh and blood. Yet even a minor Weldon novel is welcome. She is a rare writer—impassioned, angry, quirky and brilliant, and even her failures are interesting and instructive. Leader of the Band will undoubtedly land her somewhere else, a better place. Meanwhile, we have Polaris, as fine a group of stories as we are likely to get this year.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2397
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, coincidence, the mandates of biology, the darker demands of society.
Weldon is like a hornet, buzzing angrily with topics, ready to be politically shrill about almost anything that comes up in the chaos of contemporary events. The more she writes, it seems, the more she wants to write. Her last two novels have come out in less than a year. In the most recent, The Cloning of Joanna May, Weldon takes up the ancient question of nature and nurture. Her villain is Carl May, who has risen, through his own talents, from a horrifying childhood—his parents kept him chained around the neck in a dog's kennel—to become head of the British nuclear power industry and a member of the Board of Directors of practically everything else. He is a nasty piece of goods, the coldest, most manipulative man of science, all the human juices squeezed out.
The one love in his life was his wife, Joanna, a beauty of good, middle-class family, who, like Desdemona, married him because of the pity and terror she felt at his story. He wants her exclusively for himself, so he rules out children and keeps her like an ice queen in the abundance allowed the wife of the CEO. When, at age thirty, the restless Joanna thinks she is pregnant (wrongly—she is merely hysterical), he insists that she have an abortion, and without telling her has the head of the abortion clinic clone one of her eggs four times. The results are donated for implantation to four applicant-mothers. For Carl, the self-made man making self-made women, it is a peculiar mixture of love and spitefulness to reproduce his wife at the height of her beauty, a height from which she can only descend—and not tell her about it.
When the novel opens it is thirty years later, the time of the Chernobyl disaster, when the air over England and all of Europe is malignant and no one knows what to do. We learn that a few years earlier Joanna May had grown restless and frustrated with her life as her husband's most treasured acquisition, and had taken a lover. When they are discovered in flagrante, Carl has the lover killed and throws Joanna out, this time imprisoning her in the sterile comforts of alimony in a house on an island in the Thames. In the meantime the clones have grown up in their various homes, unaware of one another and of Joanna, further illustrations of The Influence of Early Home Life on Behavior (not on Character, though: they all have more or less the same character, more or less the same looks) and Weldon's view of modern women's options.
One is child-ridden and worn; her husband beats her. The others are childless. One is a bored suburban housewife in a perfect house whose husband is always off on another business trip. One is a self-absorbed photographer's model, one a university graduate, a reader for HBO who refuses to give up her independence to live with her sometime boyfriend. None is happy or attached to any man worth the attachment. When their men are not brutal, they are whiny, selfish, petulant, or vague one-night stands.
To Weldon's credit, the women are not much better; Weldon's ideology is never quite so primitive. Joanna and her clones are cranky, weak-kneed, unfocused, boring co-conspirators in the narrowing of their choices. They all meet very late in the novel when, in what seems to be a burst of impatience to get to the end, Weldon puts them through a quick series of coincidences dubious even in one of her elaborate fantasies, and has them determine to make better sense of their lives. Still, she takes the time to kill off Carl with poetic justice. As a public relations gesture meant to reassure a public anxious over Chernobyl, Carl and his mistress (Weldon's version of the tart-with-a-heart) jump into a nuclear reactor cooling pond to demonstrate the harmlessness of atomic energy. He dies of radiation poisoning.
Leader of the Band, which Weldon published last year, is the story of Sandra Harris, Starlady Sandra of a popular science program on television, forty-two years old, a first-rate astronomer, next in line for Royal Astronomer, one of the lucky few to have discovered a new planet. Astronomer, or no, Sandra has more than the usual sense of rattling around in an uncozy Creation. Like Carl May, she has a horrifying family history. Her mother, now in a madhouse, was the dusky issue of the coupling in a hedgerow of an Anglican bishop's daughter and a passing gypsy.
Because of her swarthy good looks, she had been selected at fifteen to be impregnated by a Sylvia Plath fantasy de luxe, a Mengele-type Nazi doctor who conducted genetic experiments with his own sperm. (People do get born in complicated ways in Weldon novels.) Mengele-daddy was shot (not hanged) after the Nuremberg trials and never saw his perfect, blond Master Race replica, Sandra. Mother eventually married, gave birth to a son more entirely in her own image, madness included, who reached manhood just in time to throw himself under a train. Sandra is worried that she, too, may be off the rails.
Her reaction is to retreat into an outer tightness and control, a pure selfishness. Determined not to pass along any of her complicated genes, to stay childless, she is lured into a yuppie marriage with a chubby little achiever, divorced, who installs her in the well-equipped house of her predecessor. Good housekeeping is Weldon's nightmare. Here, too, the poor thing is kept as a prisoner of her husband's ambitions, serving as his cook and hostess; she, too, escapes into adultery. One day, at a party at the Greenwich Observatory, she and a member of the band lock eyes. Suddenly we are in the middle of a Gothic romance. Sandra all but swoons into his arms, he peels back her white satin dress (in the foliage, like her grandmother), and she leaves bed and board, tiled bathroom, chic wardrobe, and all her medical records to move into his camper. Gypsy blood will out!
Weldon can make good use of exorbitant plots like these when she can make them work as metaphors for the accidental nature of existence, for the liberty it gives individuals to be successful by being unscrupulous. She writes about the claims of nature, which are always outrageous (often thanks to the meddlings of man), and the constraints of nurture (which are always nightmarish, certainly for women). But the fantastic twist of her fantastic plots is a triumph over imprisonment, a celebration of free will that exposes the inequities of social life. Despite Weldon's weakness for rhetoric, the spirit behind the exposé is less fiery radicalism than fairy-tale optimism, all-lived-happily-ever-after.
They are flimflam, of course, but pulled together with wit and verve. What makes her distinctive is her mad vitality, the always interesting way she tends to rush about in her own mind. When Weldon flies high, she is entertaining, even enlightening about the pretenses, absurdities, cruelties of life, gender, and society. As a storyteller she uses her satiric, mocking plots not only to tell us that the world is a tangled place but to draw us in—often in the same manner, the same voice—as any tale of once upon a time. In Weldon's novels, things happen, there are beginnings and endings. They may not satisfy the characters, but they can satisfy us.
The world, Weldon is always saying, just pulls the rug out from under you. Still, the good at heart may make their way to a steady corner, given time. A basic Weldon theme is that children, new lives, the old-fashioned nuclear family, for all its shares and pitfalls, for all its conversations spoken with forked tongue, may still be the best—the only—shot we have. Weldon has described herself as a feminist who washes her sons' socks, and she is careful to note her wifehood and motherhood on her books' jackets.
Weldon's mind is a furious one, but always for the obvious cause. She is against meanness, exploitation, and cruelty, and for the generous impulse. She wishes in the usual way that the world were a decent place, that something could be done. When her writing is zippy, what comes through, along with her more than usual indignation, is her quirky quarter-turn away from the absolutely pat and predictable position. For example, she resists making women into long-suffering, noble, patience-on-a-monument types. At her best, Weldon is sharp and witty, gets the twitches, impulses, mannerisms exactly right. Her point of view allows you to be contentedly irate; she peoples the landscape with characters you can like, dislike, or even fear. As her following has recognized in the easy succession of "Weldons," she is another British pro.
Leader of the Band and The Cloning of Joanna May have a family resemblance to the earlier books. (There are fourteen previous novels and short-story collections.) They have the regular jumble of characters leading lives that we recognize as modern by their snarled netting of impulse, incoherence, and battering by uncontrollable forces. They are lightly spiced with Weldon's beloved metaphor, magic, without which her readers would feel they had not gotten the genuine article. Her wrath is everywhere in evidence, her ideas skitter and glitter in every direction.
But in these recent books, something has happened to her writing. It's as though Weldon, who like the rest of us must feel the despair-a-day that comes with the morning paper, has finally been overwhelmed. The crush of all that anger, all that desperation, appears to have squeezed out of these novels what Weldon, as a novelist, does best. Both books sound as though they were written from the top down. So many topics tackled—heavy topics, too: feminism (especially as it applies to women inching into middle age), heredity, power, ambition, love and marriage, sexual mores, free will, the hollowness of the middle class, the absurd social order, the wickedness of unbridled science, the sins and futility of war, and more. In The Cloning of Joanna May there is a lot of wheel-spinning over what constitutes the self, many paragraphs on the "eye" that sees and the "I" that is. Some topics come packed in little essay-ettes:
Those who have rows are more alive than those who don't: make better friends, more interesting companions. They may wreak havoc but they understand their imperfections—witness how they project them upon others—they cry to heaven for justice. They believe in it.—Cloning
Love, honor, obey and support, as long as we both shall live. Been to India, lately; seen the men sitting, while the women building workers heave and shovel: been to Africa, where the men smoke ganja and the women hoe the brick-hard soil: been out to dinner and counted the number of times your hostess gets up? No wonder the men feel bad about it.—Starlady
A lot of angry chatter. But meanwhile the characters have becomes dangerously thin and standoffish, the absurdity of the plots no longer entertainingly pointing to something more serious. In The Cloning of Joanna May, in which the writing takes on a peculiarly dispirited quality, all the people are, fittingly enough, as flat as cards. Starlady Sandra is a wan creation whom we do not especially like, whom we are not meant especially to like, who hardly likes herself:
I had had affairs, even fallen in love, with various men: most wanted children: those who did I did not like. Sad. To prefer a Porsche and a peaceful annual holiday to the creation of children may seem sensible, but it is not likable.
When Weldon stops carrying us along in the rush of events, when her characters have no vitality, then we are forced to confront her less as a novelist who is engaged and more as a pure idea-monger. And then we are in trouble. Of course we recognize that she still stands on the side of the angels. But now the ideas have the ring of boilerplate bombast, the writing sounds choked-up and deadened, or pumped up into "cute" or simply soap-box-shrill.
In Leader of the Band, Weldon is still able, here and there, to cut some of the minor characters loose from all this message-bearing and pneumatic prose-mongering, and they can be vivid. There is Mad Jack the trumpeter's unhappy teenaged daughter, confused and wretched over her father's taking a mistress, a situation she is barely old enough to understand. There is Matthew, Sandra's pretentious twit of a husband, for whom we genuinely suffer when Sandra deserts him at the party.
There is a fine moment when Sandra, like many another Weldon heroine, learns that she is pregnant (Weldon likes to resolve things with a new life when she can. In The Cloning of Joanna May, she does it by producing a new clone, one that Joanna can raise herself—the right way):
I went to the doctor's surgery, just up the road from the Crédit Lyonnais, and sat only briefly in a small white room among posters of poisonous snakes and mushrooms…. Doctor Tarval was, or so I thought at first, a not very bright young man in his middle twenties, with an owl face, cropped hair, and perfect French manners. Language was a slight problem, but the vocabulary of pain can be mimed.
When Weldon can bring herself to resist the temptation to write tracts, she is once again the Weldon we remember. Otherwise, there is a sense that she is too obviously miming her own pain, not her characters', that the gestures have grown too frantic, or, finally, too exhausted.
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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 a good time it. Her book is part satire, part social commentary, part comedy of manners, part fantasy, but its true charm is that it ultimately refuses to be anything but itself—which is surely welcome relief to readers who might have begun to fear that dreary minimalist clones would lurk behind every book jacket forever.
Throughout most of The Cloning of Joanna May, the fallout from Chernobyl is being blown over England. But it is emotional fallout that immediately concerns Ms. Weldon's heroine. Joanna May is the childless, sixtyish, spurned former wife of Carl May, an old-style baron of a new-style industry, nuclear power, a man who had the misfortune to spend a good deal of his childhood chained in a dog kennel. While she's recovering from the divorce, Joanna discovers that, as an experiment in another kind of power, Carl secretly had her cloned 30 years before. Somewhere she has four unknown sisters/daughters/twins.
At first, Joanna reacts angrily, "I want my life back," she demands. Carl has used up her youth and kept her from having children, but "he shan't have the clones. I want them. I need them. They're mine." However, as she searches for them, she calms down a bit and discovers that "I wanted to see what I would be, born into a newer, more understanding, world; one which allowed women choice, freedom and success…. How very interesting to see how it all turned out. What fun it would be—that rare commodity."
Eventually, Joanna and her four younger clones find one another, as clones will. All have been in unsatisfactory relationships with men, all have been bored or in despair. Lysistrata style, they band together to readjust their lives and their men, share what children they have and begin at last to have a good time, while Carl goes down in his own private, ego-triggered Chernobyl.
Seeing the novel in such simplistic plot terms, of course, makes it appear thematically simplistic: male power bad and life-destroying, female power good and life-giving. While the book suggests that its author has no serious argument with this premise, to stop there would terribly misrepresent the very rich complex of character, theme and form that Ms. Weldon has built.
In good 18th-century manner, for example, her omniscient narrator often uses the events of the novel as occasions for mini-essays on society, civilization, relations between the sexes and humankind in general. In equally good 20th-century style, she switches with impunity between that narrator and Joanna May's first-person account. And the plot starts, backs up, interrupts itself; the story grows by accretion and indirection, the way modernism has taught us to tell stories. What counts is what works.
Likewise, Ms. Weldon's characters obey no ordinary rules of fiction. Sometimes, as is the case with Joanna and her clones, they behave generally like quite credible contemporary people with quite credible problems, clonehood notwithstanding. At other times, as with a rock group that Carl hires to do his dirty work, they are delightfully sinister burlesques, as if the Monty Python troupe and Anthony Burgess had collaborated to produce them. At yet other times—and here Ms. Weldon is least successful—the characters are less people than creations that stand for people, grab bags of attitudes and ignorance and idiosyncrasies who wander somewhere between real people and burlesques and never quite cohere as either. Carl himself, despite wonderful moments, is one of these, as are his young mistress, Bethany, and the doddering half-mad scientist, Dr. Holly, who has done the cloning at Carl's behest.
However, it is the book's energy, its wit, its intelligence, its humor that win through. If the targets of all these writerly virtues are a bit easy and shopworn by now—television, nuclear energy, soulless science, big business, male power, clinging or frivolous women—the joy of watching Ms. Weldon's quirky talent at work on them isn't at all diminished. What must be said in the end is that if a reader wants breakthroughs in feminist theory, wants a realistic novel of character, wants heart over head, political correctness over delight in contradiction and maverick vision, she or he had best look elsewhere. Every page of The Cloning of Joanna May makes it clear that this is Fay Weldon's fiction; she'll tell her story just the way she wants to. Try to stuff it into anyone else's pigeonhole and it won't fit. Classifiers, it proclaims, simply need not apply.
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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 more than a score of novels, story collections and plays, she has never let us forget the ruinous consequences of this war—the state of perpetual heartache we call Modern Life.
In her latest novel, Darcy's Utopia, Ms. Weldon introduces us to a character with a plan to end the hostilities, or at least to lessen the carnage. Eleanor Darcy, a strong-willed woman with a flair for provocation (both sexual and intellectual), finds herself an instant media sensation in England after her second husband, a high Government adviser, is jailed for misappropriation of public funds. Taking advantage of her celebrity, she consents to a series of interviews to set forth her vision of the future—the utopia of the book's title, a theoretical society, in which "all men will believe in God and all men will be capable of love." While Eleanor is understandably a little fuzzy on specifics, the details that do emerge—the abolition of money, the requirement that all procreation be approved in advance by the community—are iconoclastic, to say the least. Like most ideological visions, however, Eleanor Darcy's has a seductive internal logic that can easily blind the unwary to its practical inadequacies.
It's this blindness, this intoxication with the closed world of the utopia, that Ms. Weldon makes the target of her satire. The novel is full of utopias of every stripe—social, political, erotic. Primary among them, of course, is Eleanor's experimental society, outlined in conversations with two journalists—Hugo Vansitart, who is interviewing Eleanor for a highbrow intellectual journal, and Valerie Jones, who is working on a profile for a woman's magazine called Aura. But there are also the various failed utopias of Eleanor's past lives—the smug Roman Catholicism and self-important Marxism of her first husband, for instance, and the radical economics of her second (his attempt to erase poverty by distributing cash wholesale to the British public is what landed him in jail). Finally, there is the romantic utopia of Hugo and Valerie themselves, who in the course of their assignments become so infatuated with each other that they decide to leave spouses and children behind and set up a love nest together in an expensive Holiday Inn in central London.
Jumping from interview transcripts to sections of the Aura profile-in-progress to bits and pieces of Valerie's own internal monologue, Ms. Weldon displays her usual glee in knocking her characters about. Few writers are as merciless as she in doling out misfortunes and hard times. But there is a certain wistfulness to her satire here. Ms. Weldon has never been overly generous with her sympathies, but she depicts several of the people in this book—Valerie in particular—with uncharacteristic fondness.
Perhaps that shouldn't be so surprising. Blind passions, for all their impracticality, do possess a kind of grace; those who succumb to them have as much of God in their eyes as the Devil. And one senses in Ms. Weldon's kinder mockery an element of nostalgia for the certainty of the true believer—whether the creed be an all-consuming romance of the kind promised in magazines like Aura or the economic dogma of, say, a Margaret Thatcher (to whose ideological fervor Eleanor Darcy's has more than a passing resemblance).
But, of course, nonbelievers can always console themselves with the fact that events tend to prove their cynicism right. The bill at the Holiday Inn, after all, must eventually be paid; the children cannot stay with a sitter forever, and society's poor cannot be made to disappear permanently in the creative bookkeeping of supply-side economics. Hugo and Valerie, like the lovers at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, do finally awaken from their moral slumber.
Darcy's utopia, however, doesn't die so easily. Eleanor continues her crusade, attracting converts, causing more casualties than she prevents in the War Among Men and Women. By novel's end, she has become the patron saint of the Darcian Movement, a new and growing religion complete with its own hymns and clergy. While the book's last twist of plot may tax the credulity of even the most indulgent readers, Ms. Weldon tosses it off with such aplomb that we find ourselves accepting it. Credibility, after all, has never been one of this author's priorities. She's more interested in telling the truth than in making it believable. And in this, one of her most ambitious books, she tells it without flinching, reminding us that as long as there are mortals on this earth, the supply of fools will never run out.
My advice to everyone is to change their name at once if they're the least unhappy with their lives. In Darcy's Utopia everyone will choose a new name at seven, at eleven, at sixteen and at twenty-four. And naturally women at forty-five, or when the last child has grown up and left home, whichever is the earliest…. Then life will be seen to start over, not finish. It is a perfectly legal thing to do…. So long as there is no intent to defraud…. But so many of us, either feeling our identities to be fragile, or out of misplaced loyalty to our parents, feel we must stick with the names we start out with. The given name is a dead giveaway of our parents' ambition for us—whether to diminish or enhance, ignore us as much as possible or control us forever…. No, it will not do. It will have to change.
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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 sexual adventure of True Confessions and the far-fetched but somehow satisfying coincidence of a novel by Charles Dickens.
Realistic as its surface tends to be, Life Force is hardly an old-fashioned novel. Weldon's comic, self-reflective, postmodern perspective turns the whole melange into subversive social commentary.
Nora tells the story of four female friends whose lives are turned upside down by the return of their lover-in-common, Leslie Beck, now a widower whose vigor, after 20 years, is undiminished. He possesses the Life Force of the title, being endowed with astonishing sexual prowess, though his energy is "not so much of sexual desire as of sexual discontent: the urge to find someone better out in the world, and thereby something better in the self; the one energy working against the other, creating a fine and animating friction."
Nora, Susan, Rosalie and even Marion "the spinster" worship the phallus in the person of Leslie (for whom they have epithets unprintable here); one by one, back in the 1970s, each of them succumbed to his appeal, cheating on their husbands, bearing his children, betraying each other and his wives. Yet for the most part all has gone along quite evenly—at least on the surface—in this safe, chaste suburb of London. Until now, that is, when Leslie comes back on the scene, and the consequences of all that misbehavior fly home to roost.
The wonderful fun of this novel is in Nora's voice. Alert to every movement in the mating dance, she comes to terms with her own marriage by writing about her friends. On Rosalie and her husband, she comments, "I think Wallace treated sex with Rosalie as he treated mountains: something to be attacked with energy, but not too often; surmounted, finished, a flag planted to automatic applause, and then a nice long rest." And here she is exploring her ambivalence toward marriage by writing in the voice of Marion: "Marriage is easier when the man is noticeably taller than the woman: it makes the balance of power, usually in the man's favor, seem a more natural state of affairs."
As Nora's tale unfolds and the facts become too dreary for her to relate with glee, she turns from "autobiography" to "fiction"—and is quite pleased by her efforts when events take more and more startling turns. Yet as her marriage unravels, the grim reality of Nora's life can be felt beneath all the fun. At one point, quickly picking up a cigarette after thinking she might give them up, she comments, "Self-destruction is the natural state; anything else is an effort." The life force is also the death force, and in Weldon, to resist it is to live a half-life, to be paralyzed; to go with it is be hurtled in to chaos, to speed through mishaps and miseries and ecstacy, stolen pleasures and rewards.
Weldon's attitude toward all of this is distinctly un-American; she never tries to fix anything; indeed, she actively enjoys the absurdity of life. There is no self-improving impulse lurking beneath these pages; no morals or maxims to take to heart. Life is learned not by sitting back and taking stock but by plunging into it—and messing up, like everybody else.
According to Nora, there's not much use in fighting the current anyway. She is not the only Weldon character to voice the following belief, but perhaps she says it best: "The way it goes when you're a child, that way it continues … We play the cards of life a certain way, albeit unconsciously; we can acquire skill in handling them, of course we can, but mostly it just comes naturally, and the most important factor is the hand we are originally dealt: it is our fate pattern, like it or not."
Such a perspective is sharply at odds with our current therapy culture, wherein we are encouraged to reshape ourselves and start anew. And Weldon takes sly pleasure in her characters' retrograde philosophies. Nora, turning conventional wisdom on its head, remarks on the danger of contemplating her life: "If only the recession would end, and the property market look up again … there'd be no time to so much as consider the state of my navel, out of which, like scarves from some magician's very deep and personal hat, I seem able to draw events and memories, like bloody entrails…. My fear is this: Supposing I were to draw out too many, or they started spilling out of their own accord, uncontrolled; how could I continue to digest? I might just die from loss of undisclosed material."
Interestingly, the last four stories in Weldon's new collection, Moon Over Minneapolis, are in the voice of women speaking to their silent pyschoanalyst. Several others show characters revealing themselves in the form of a monologue—in "The Year of the Green Pudding," a copy editor confides her guilty secret to her personnel manager; in "Down the Clinical Disco," a woman just released from an insane asylum tells her story to another woman at a pub. Certainly Weldon knows a good deal about the nooks and crannies of repression and denial and the roundabout ways that people make decisions.
On the other hand, her voice is so intimate, so passionate and funny, that one comes away from her fiction with the sense of having made contact with the author's fully present, forceful self. It is hard to read Weldon's work without thinking of her—and not Leslie Beck—as the embodiment of the Life Force.
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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 stages, from posh gatherings and day-care centers to the intimacies of bedrooms. Like so many of her fellow ironists—Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark come to mind—Ms. Weldon can lay waste the pretensions of a decade in the sketch of a single dinner party. And, like her greatest predecessor, Jane Austen, she specializes in that particularly risible comedy of errors that exists between those incompatible creatures, men and women.
In this battle, Ms. Weldon stands, as the title of one of her novels has it, Down Among the Women. Hers is a fictional world populated by women of all ages and classes: women with their lovers and babies, their friends and enemies; women who experience a full range of fears, jealousies and unabashed lusts. Look at the titles: The Fat Woman's Joke, Female Friends, Little Sisters, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. But if Ms. Weldon fires her cannon from the female vantage point, this feminist student of sexual politics has a tolerant heart for most of the men in her books, even for the womanizers, even for the bounders—even for Leslie Beck, the "hero" of her deft and vibrant new novel, Life Force.
In this account of roughly 20 years in the lives of some upper-middle-class Londoners, Leslie Beck, a politically, morally and esthetically incorrect businessman, represents the life force—or, rather, his penis does. In fact, for the women in lustful, flame-haired Leslie's world, this penis symbolizes creation itself, a 10-inch organ that is one-seventh his entire height and that has earned him the nickname "The Magnificent."
To the four central female characters of Ms. Weldon's novel, the size of Leslie's "life force" is far from a matter of indifference. Indeed, one look at it and they are hooked for decades. Nora (the book editor's wife), Rosalie (the mountaineer's wife), Susan (the writer's wife) and Marion (the unmarried art gallery owner) have all slept with Leslie, and greatly enjoyed it. And all but one have been impregnated by him—in some cases after a one-night stand. Leslie is nothing if not potent. (Indeed, he is exactly that: aside from his sexual vitality, he is an utter loss.)
In the early 1970's, in a handsomely refurbished Victorian house, Leslie Beck and his first wife sat at the center of a circle of married friends. Almost 20 years later, as the novel opens, he suddenly re-enters their lives with news of the death of his second wife, a painter whose canvases portray the settings of her faithless spouse's affairs. Life Force is a series of flashbacks about how Leslie's infidelities with each of these four women began and ended—and how they changed everything in the intervening years.
"Nothing happens, and nothing happens, and then everything happens," observes Nora. Indeed, during the Beck-less years, these women find that "life dribbles away"—feeding their cats, raising their children, planning vacations, watching nature documentaries on television and worrying about their decreasing property values. For this novel is also a wonderful social commentary about how a certain class of couples evolved from the liberal idealists and artists of the 70's into the affluent, health-conscious professionals of the 80's, and then declined into the politically constricted, sexually defeated men and women of the financially fretful 90's. Now middle-aged, they can no longer afford to squander their talents and their money and their sexuality. Their profligacy has led, or so at times they fear, to the political backlash and the recession and the AIDS epidemic. Even the fecund Leslie the Magnificent has become old and shriveled up, shorter in every way.
It is Nora, now a secretary at Accord Realtors, wife to a mild-mannered editor and former mistress to Leslie, who tells the story of the affairs, the story of these women's long-finished, and still nostalgically remembered, entanglements with the life force. Nora has time to set down this account because of Britain's economic slump: the real estate market is so puny that no customers interrupt her at the office. This economic reality for "real-tors" (a pun?) allows time for Nora to write non-reality (fiction), just as the times allow Susan's husband finally to start his philosophical book on "reality" when he leaves Susan for Nora, after Nora's husband leaves her for Susan. Or do they leave at all? Does Rosalie's husband (long thought dead in a mountaineering accident) really return, a victim of amnesia?
All these tidy knots, which Nora ties at the end of her "autobiography," may be (she warns us) not true at all, but make-believe, chosen because fiction makes life more fun. Nora is, in the end, more than a recorder; she's a creator, making herself the collective voice of the women, and so she is their authority, their author, just as Leslie Beck is the author (the progenitor) of the illegitimate children he fathers.
In this way, for all its social barbs and dry humor, Life Force is less a comedy of manners than it is a parable about the act of creativity itself. As Nora says, "The novel you read and the life you live are not distinguishable. Leslie Beck's Life Force is the energy not so much of sexual desire as of sexual discontent: the urge to find someone better out in the world, and thereby something better in the self." To create that something better in the self is the province of art as well as fornication.
Significantly, three acts of infidelity with Leslie take place in primordial, elemental sites. One in air (high-rise scaffolding), one in earth (a cave), one by water (at the seashore as the tide comes in), while the paintings of these sex acts are destroyed in a fire. Also significant is the fact that only unwed Marion, who—at Leslie's request—sold her baby (to a South African industrialist, no less), gives birth to a male. And that male is an artist. Marion only sells art, she doesn't create it. Leslie's life force is male, but it is females who in the marvelous art of Fay Weldon's novel take that force and with it create life. Or fictions.
Fay Weldon's Moon over Minneapolis is a collection of fast-paced stories about contemporary life. Many of these 19 tales (never previously published in book form) describe women in painful, circumscribed or exploitative relationships, but the tone is satiric and the effect comic. Ambitious, overbearing and unfeeling mothers and their gullible, passive daughters appear in a number of guises, from the rigidly feminist Liz and her airline stewardess daughter, Romula, in "I Do What I Can and I Am What I Am" to avaricious, elegant Marion and her ungainly offspring, Erin and Elspeth, in "A Visit From Johannesburg: Or Mr. Shaving's Wives" to sexually promiscuous Greta and naive, earnest Bente in "Au Pair." Other stories describe delusive affairs, tormented loves or burned-out marriages. A 25-year-old graduate student on vacation with her professor-lover abruptly ends the affair in "Ind Aff: Or Out of Love in Sarajevo." ("Ind Aff" is their private abbreviation for "inordinate affection," which, despite her earlier avowals of passion, is precisely what the narrator discovers she does not feel for her lover.) Although their plots can be absurd and thin, these stories are enlivened by Ms. Weldon's caustic wit. Occasionally harsh in her judgments, she is typically perspicacious, consistently clever and always entertaining.
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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 a vengeance.
The book does indeed deal with Leslie Beck "The Magnificent," as he is usually known, who is a catalyst in much the same way that Ruth from Lives and Loves of a She-Devil was. "Things happen because of Leslie and his sense of energy; he is slightly unholy, lower-class, ready to take on challenges in order to mount/surmount his destiny." Leslie is remarkable because "he likes women. And women never forgot him." Weldon had described a character from an earlier novel as someone who did not "regard women as sex objects, but thought of himself as one," and the same applies to this hero. The most seductive thing he says to women is "Tell me about why you are unhappy", and this is what draws them. The community of women at the heart of the book are all Leslie's past, present, and future lovers, bound to one another by love and betrayal, with Leslie simply an emblem of their connectedness.
Yet, as in all Weldon's works, the central questions here concern women's lives and choices. "Forget Leslie Beck," says one of the two narrators, "Were we good women or bad?" With her characteristic wit and her brilliant detailing of the everyday, even as she moves from the realistic to the fabular, Weldon has provided us with a book that is bound to become another classic feminist novel.
In the brief, cautionary tales in Moon Over Minneapolis, Weldon also questions the nature of fate and individual will, desire and imagination, as well as the relationship between the political and the personal. In a particularly effective tale titled "Ind Aff," the narrator falls in love with her older thesis director (married and the father of three children). She confuses "mere passing academic ambition with love," believing this man's assessment that she has "a good mind but not a first class mind." The narrator wishes to believe that this is "not just any old professor/student romance," but since Peter Piper likes to "luxuriate in guilt and indecision," and has taken her with him on a holiday to see whether they are "really, truly suited," we are certain that Weldon is indeed presenting the quintessential student/teacher relationship.
Desperately drawn to her teacher because he represents much more than he offers, the narrator must overlook his stinginess, his whining, and his "thinning hair" because he seems powerful and authoritative (speaking in "quasi-Serbo-Croatian"). She loves him with "Inordinate Affection," she claims. "Your Ind Aff is my wife's sorrow" Peter moans, blaming a girl who was born the first year of his marriage for his wife's unhappiness, absolving himself from blame.
Yet when they are waiting to be served wild boar in a private restaurant, she notices a waiter her own age, and, looking at this virile, handsome man, she feels "quite violently, an associated … pang." Having associated love with a sensation of the heart or the head, she describes this desire as the "true, the real pain of Ind Aff!" The waiter has no authority but does possess "luxuriant black hair, [and a] sensuous mouth." She asks herself in a moment of clear vision "What was I doing with this man with thinning hair?" Weldon, as forgiving as she is ruthless, concludes that sometimes we "come to [our] senses. People do, sometimes quite quickly." With her blessing, and informed by her wise wickedness, we are permitted to review, revise, and go on with our own lives renewed.
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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 home. Weldon no doubt is laughing at this cat-and-mouse game. Her novel, after all, wants to shed light on this symbol of male power and female desire. She intends not to cover up any of the myths surrounding it, and she has a great deal of fun puncturing society's presumptions about it.
The novel follows the lives of four middle-class couples about twenty years after all four of the women had sex with Leslie Beck. Leslie has one claim to fame, his "10-inch dong," which all the women find magnificent and irresistible. As Nora, the narrator, says, "Women are too kind to men … Forever telling them that size makes no difference." Without this size, Leslie would be the sum of all his other parts, and the women recognize him as sleazy, cruel, and vulgar. He is not someone for whom one should risk home and husband and child, yet Rosalie, Nora, Marion, and Susan do exactly this.
Life Force begins when Leslie's second wife dies and he attempts to sell her paintings to Marion's gallery. The women discover that Anita Beck has somehow painted all the rooms and places where her husband was unfaithful. Her studio seems a bewitched place, and Nora eventually burns it down so as to stop the chain of events Leslie's reappearance in their lives has caused. He has fathered some of the women's daughters, and now the wives have to be careful whose sons their daughters date. He has fathered one son and sold him in order to make money for his failing businesses. He had his first wife committed to a mental institution so he could marry his secretary and thus gain access to her father's money. In short, he is a thoroughly unlikable man, and it is a tribute to Weldon's writing that she somehow makes Beck and his forays among the women amusing and sometimes even touching.
As usual with Weldon, the novel also examines friendship between women. The news is not good. These women say they are friends, but they really see no life or meaning with one another beyond comparing notes about husbands and lovers. They have sex with the other husbands and then blame the women for these transgressions more than the men. This is not to say that Weldon's women admire men more; they do not. In fact, they seem resigned to knowing that the men are inferior beings, yet they can't imagine living without them.
This then is Weldon's legacy. She writes satirically about a particular class in England located "somewhere between the street protestors and the bourgeoisie establishment." We laugh at their pretensions and perhaps pity their aspirations, but Weldon implies there is nowhere else to go and no other game to play. Like most satire, Life Force leaves us laughing through our tears.
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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.
Why would Ruth Patchett, the eponymous protagonist, say, "I am a lady of six foot two," when she had already "had tucks taken in her legs" and was therefore only five foot eight? Grammatically speaking, we could read the subject complement "a lady of six foot two" and the dependent phrase that follows as a unit indicating that Ruth's final state is, unquestionably, an altered one. Yet I would also suggest that Weldon's use of "I am" in her protagonist's closing statement is indicative of the ontological problem the text requires the reader to confront: Exactly who, by the end of her narrative, is Ruth Patchett?
The Life and Loves of a She-Devil chronicles the process by which the ugly duckling Ruth achieves high-tech revenge against her faithless husband Bobbo and his mistress Mary Fisher, a writer of popular romances who is "small and pretty and delicately formed, prone to fainting and weeping and sleeping with men while pretending that she doesn't." Through an elaborate scheme involving constantly changing identities and egregious acts of computer fraud, Ruth brings about Bobbo's financial ruin and subsequent imprisonment for embezzlement, while she personally acquires wealth and success through her more legitimate business endeavors. Her ultimate revenge against the guilty pair, however, is her becoming Mary Fisher by means of plastic surgery. Ironically, by doing so she becomes, both literally and figuratively, her own worst enemy.
Weldon's concluding fragment employs the figure of chiasmus to indicate the constantly evolving, and devolving, nature of Ruth's identity as she changes not only names but also the conventional character types that she enacts through the course of the narrative. She is first presented as a tragicomic variant of the pharmakos, masochistically accepting blame and victimization from her husband, her children, and, ultimately, her idol Mary Fisher.
Yet while Northrop Frye dictates that ironic comedy requires "driving out the pharmakos from the point of view from society," Weldon's woebegone scapegoat turns the table on her persecutors. As Bobbo abandons her, she experiences a moment of enlightenment and embraces as her new identity the diabolical character he attributes to her: "Self-knowledge and reason run through my veins: the cold slow blood of the she-devil." This shift in Ruth's subject position, together with her new, secret self-consciousness, marks her evolution into the eiron. In this comic figure, she is empowered as she accumulates worldly experience, material wealth, and self-esteem through her adventures as she avenges herself on the self-deceived Bobbo and Mary. Although she achieves enviable material and personal successes, Ruth is nevertheless unwilling or unable to accept the ironic adage that living well is the best revenge, and she embarks on an inevitably self-defeating and self-erasing strategy, that of becoming the very object of her own wrath.
As she is externally transformed through plastic surgery into the physical image of Mary Fisher, she is simultaneously transformed mentally as she unconsciously assumes the romance writer's self-deceptive world view. The final chapter serves as Ruth's apologia, in which she triumphantly boasts of all she has accomplished, the usurpation not only of the now-dead Mary's outward form but also her wealth, her social contacts, and her lovers, including the broken Bobbo. In her smug superiority, however, Ruth reveals her own self-deception. In the strangest of comic turns, the eiron has subsumed the alazon and thus has turned ridiculously—and even pathetically—serious.
The Life and Loves of a She-Devil would seem to validate the argument of The Anatomy of Criticism that irony is the polar opposite of romance. Weldon's novel is not, however, merely a clever deployment of Frye's flow charts of modes and mythoi. Rather, through this examination of the complex and overlapping relationship between the female eiron and the female alazon, Weldon anatomizes the self-deception afflicting women who relentlessly internalize not only the falsehoods presented by the purveyors of romantic fiction but also the limited and limiting gender roles that the genre supports and attempts to reify. Through Ruth's eiron phase, her ability to form community with other women, although motivated, ironically, by nothing more recondite than her obsessive desire for revenge, nevertheless allows her to escape her initial abjection and results in personal and economic gain for herself and for the women around her. But although Ruth is aware that "Mary Fisher did a wicked thing" in offering false hopes and dreams to her readers, she is herself unable to eschew such chimera. Subsequently, she rejects what she perceives to be "the muddy flood of purgatory wastes" of cooperation with other women in order to pursue illusionary glamors "flickering and dangerous with hell-fire."
Late in the novel Ruth surreptitiously observes the daughter that she abandoned long before. Noting that Nicola lives and works with, rather than against, other women, she assesses her with disdain: "She will never make a she-devil." Ruth fails to see that Nicola, having found an alternative to the deceptions of romance fiction, has no need to be a "she-devil." For readers who read Weldon's multifaceted irony clearly, it is apparent that Ruth has chosen the wrong plot upon which to structure her metafiction.
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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 reader's identification with the heroine as victim. After Claude, Fear of Flying, Kinflicks, The Dud Avocado—in these books, women are seduced and abandoned by various men, kicked out of hearth and home, and so forth.
Fay Weldon's latest novel, Trouble, is not only funny but extremely painful; the pain is like the pleasure to be found in scratching a mosquito bite. Perhaps her humor can be categorized as women's humor: certainly among various women acquaintances of mine many are fans, yet I have not found a man who picks up her novels for entertainment. And Trouble is entertaining, in a way that is not—at least by me—to be found in most novels that slice open and dissect the intricate patterns of human interactions. Such novels can be pompous or dry, yet Ms. Weldon manages not only to be witty but to keep the reader engrossed, tearing along to find out what happens next.
The scene is London. Annette is married, happily, she thinks, to Spicer, who after 10 years of marriage abruptly turns out to be a real rat. Or perhaps he was all along: it is only when Annette becomes pregnant and Spicer begins seeing a New Age therapist that his various injustices and manipulatory patterns become clear to her.
Early on, after an argument, Annette attempts to heal the rift by preparing a special dinner for two, sending their two children (one from her earlier marriage, one from his) out to the movies, putting on perfume (which previously Spicer always requested and which, as of late, she realizes she has forgotten to wear) and opening a particularly good bottle of wine (Spicer is a wine merchant).
Still in a rage when he comes home, he manages to thwart her attempt at reconciliation, exclaiming: "You're wearing scent, so I know that in your calculating way you have sex with me planned for tonight…. You open a bottle of St.-Estephe '85 without consulting me—you are so competitive it extends even into the world of wine!… You must have me all to yourself, so you send the poor kids off to the cinema, regardless of what they want, let alone the fact that I might want to see them. You cook beef although you know perfectly well the only protein I can eat these days is white meat—chicken or a little fish—and you overcook the mange-tout in a way that can only be deliberate…."
At this point, one recognizes an event that perhaps all women—and possibly men as well—have experienced: at attempt to do something good that is seemingly deliberately misinterpreted. Ms. Weldon is a master at exposing anguished moments: the moment when, on coming home from a cocktail party, your spouse accuses you of acting foolish; the moments in life when one's soft spots of insecurity are probed. Reality, as one sees it, rewritten by someone else.
Annette confides in her best—her only—friend, Gilda, about her deteriorating sex life with Spicer; naturally Gilda instantly relays these intimacies to her husband, Stephen, who naturally repeats these confidences to Spicer, who sees this as another treachery on Annette's part.
As Annette's pregnancy progresses, Spicer's behavior grows worse. (It doesn't help that she has a novel about to be published and has been invited to appear on Oprah Winfrey.) It seems he's been quite the cockatrice all along, having affairs, secretly extracting funds from his company. Yet his behavior is not accounted for by Annette's pregnancy, or her novel, but rather by his extensive sessions with the New Ager-Jungian-Astrologist-Therapist, Dr. Rhea Marks.
Spicer forces Annette to see Rhea Marks's husband, another therapist, Dr. Herman Marks. Dr. Herman very nearly rapes her under the guise of attempting to help her with her sex problems. This molestation is rewritten by the doctor and later held up as an example of Annette's paranoia. And eventually the therapists are responsible for the denouement.
Of course such things happen: there are plenty of corrupt and manipulative therapists. But Ms. Weldon can portray the most ordinary interactions in scenes from a marriage, the ritualized behavior of men and women together, in so bitterly funny and accurate a way that it is almost a shame to lay the trouble in this marriage on two therapists whose canon involves the magical powers of some mysterious underworld of archetypes, Saturn and Medusa and Lilith. The premise grows awfully close to the world drawn in Rosemary's Baby. Ms. Weldon's uniqueness is her insight into motivations of modern types, a capability so honed that there must be moments of truth for every reader. She exaggerates what would ordinarily be boring—the mundane exchanges between people—so that we recognize and laugh at ourselves. This enlivens a good deal of the bleakness in the commonplace world and inflates our roles in it.
To objectify human existence is to remove our shame at being ourselves, and for this we must praise and thank Ms. Weldon and her wicked pen. (Or word processor.)
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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 up in a sort of marital Darwinism, a brutal process of natural selection in which secretaries continually usurp their boss's wives, who, in turn, often retaliate with creative forms of psychological torture. The vindictive heroine of her masterpiece The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, for instance, systematically sabotages her husband's newfound happiness with a writer of treacly romances by transforming herself through plastic surgery from a sexless frump into a voluptuous centerfold. In such bitingly satiric cautionary tales, divorce frequently proves to be an unexpected boon for the forsaken wife, who experiences both romantic and economic rebirth after being summarily dumped, as in the short story "Redundant! or the Wife's Revenge," in which a humdrum piece of domestic chattel blossoms into a liberated woman when her husband leaves her for their daughter's lesbian lover.
Weldon takes the hackneyed scenario of sentimental betrothals followed by inevitable midlife adulteries and infuses it with the gleeful malice of one of the most reductive examinations of the human body in all of contemporary fiction. She describes sex as a kind of genetic battlefield, a desperate effort on the part of that abstract entity, the human race, to create the perfect specimen; marriage is just the fig leaf with which we camouflage this imperative to procreate, a flimsy disguise that Weldon delights in snatching off—exposing to her readers again and again the fierce physiological dramas that we sublimate in this duplicitous institution.
Central to many of her plots is the rise of the Nietzschean superwoman, an embodiment of naked ambition who, like Becky Sharp in Thackeray's Vanity Fair, manages to escape from her proletarian upbringing to become the Machiavellian consort of a prosperous spouse or even an entrepreneur in her own right, like Marion in Weldon's last novel, Life Force, who finances her art gallery by auctioning off her baby to a South African millionaire. It is tempting to interpret these self-made heroines as an extravagant burlesque of Weldon's own meteoric rise to fame, which occurred after a decade of relative poverty during which she scrambled to make a living as a temp, a profession that takes pride of place in her fiction as the spawning ground of her most ingenious and diabolical she-devils.
The paradox of her fiction, however, is that, while Weldon admires the chutzpah with which many of her characters trample over the wives and children who stand between them and the men they use as the vehicle of their ambitions, she ultimately despises the state of complacent affluence that these greedy materialists aspire to achieve. No sooner do the conniving temps of these embittered fairy tales ensnare a successful corporate executive than they are cast aside, like the wife they replaced, and deposed by yet another Becky Sharp. These women emerge out of the seething multitudes of hungry romantic careerists just waiting for their chance to advance up a hierarchical power structure that Weldon describes as the equivalent among women of a food chain. It is the much compromised feminism of this unending round of musical chairs, in which the relentless exuberance of her scheming Lady Macbeth is at once celebrated and reviled, that gives her fiction its distinctive note of scathing cynicism.
While Annette, the downtrodden protagonist of Weldon's new novel, Trouble, is certainly no superwoman, she fits to a T the classic profile of the usurper. She is the second wife of a gullible chauvinist, Spicer Horrocks, who turns against her when she inadvertently challenges his self-esteem by publishing a successful novel. Their relationship abruptly deteriorates when Spicer falls under the spell of a manipulative pair of "healers" who, preaching a unique blend of psychobabble and astrology, succeed in convincing him that Annette is the incarnation of the "Inner Enemy" conspiring to molest his Child Within. At once a tirade against the unconscionable scam of quack psychotherapy and a wicked broadside of the whole institution of marriage, the book ends apocalyptically when Annette miscarries in her final month of pregnancy and is then booted out of her own house, which Spicer, now the glassy-eyed disciple of these two unscrupulous Charlatans, converts into an institute for the Assn. of Astrological Psychotherapists.
This catastrophe leads Annette to deliver a series of delirious monologues about the disappointments of marriage, a raving manifesto of Weldon's own sexual nihilism. Her concluding speeches are really the only saving grace of this otherwise capricious novel, which, regrettably, bears the hallmarks of a hasty piece of contract work dashed off to satisfy a publisher's implacable demand for this most gifted of author's annual pound of flesh.
The major problem with Trouble is not only the absurdity of its basic premise—about bodysnatching astrologers poisoning a once uxorious man's mind against his pregnant wife—but also its form. The novel consists almost entirely of interminable gab sessions in which Annette and her best friend Gilda rattle on over the telephone about Spacer's increasingly icy indifference, as well as his escalating tendency to spout meaningless shibboleths about "internalized negative figures" and "anti-synchronicity." In choosing to keep the book's third-person narration down to a bare minimum, Weldon has deprived her readers of one of the most interesting aspects of her incomparable style as a storyteller, an idiosyncrasy that can perhaps best be defined by the typographic convention that distinguishes many of her short stories and novels: the extra space with which she sets her paragraphs off by themselves so that any given page looks like a heap of disjointed fragments, a mosaic of sententious proclamations, each of which has its own internal unity.
The effect of this fragmentation is extraordinary. What Weldon essentially does in her best work is to strip her stories of the transitions between individual scenes and distill the lives of her characters down to discontinuous moments, emblematic episodes that are often separated from each other, not only by blank spaces, but by huge leaps of time. By drastically foreshortening the period that elapses between an action and its consequences, a crime and its punishments, she heightens the impression her books make of being instructive fables that show men and women making bad decisions in one paragraph and then reaping their just rewards in the next. In this way, she creates the atmosphere of a parable, a folk tale, the sort of story that does not attempt to give you full-blooded, naturalistic characters in real situations but animated cartoons. Rumplestiltskins and Rip Van Winkles who move quickly through the decades, as if their lives had been speeded up through time-lapsed photography. Weldon is most comfortable with these capsulized abridgments and is far less successful with an experiment such as Trouble, in which the reader will miss the unusual style of Britain's preeminent laughing tragedian who guffaws with such irresistible cruelty at her characters' sexual adversities.
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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 been visited upon Fay Weldon, one of the most independent and vigorous writers of contemporary fiction, and her new novel [Affliction] chronicles the sinister takeover that wrested an amiable but credulous man from the bosom of his family and turned him into a zombie, spouting idiot-speak, and eventually into a criminal who despoils his wife and children and who is prevented from feeling a scintilla of remorse by the gurus who control his life, his property, and what remains of his brain.
But revenge is a dish best served cold, as is novel writing. In a book composed largely of dialogue and fairly bristling with rage, Fay Weldon contrives to be both brutal and indelicate, in ways which do her argument no favour. Her argument, I take it, is that unauthorised intrusion into the psyche is a dangerous malpractice, and it makes little difference whether the therapist is qualified or not, for, as the author is justified in pointing out, fictions are best kept on the page.
The interpretations which Dr Rhea Marks erects on the ruins of her patients' minds are in fact debased fictions, all the more reprehensible for being untalented. Dr Rhea Marks, I hasten to add, is the therapist consulted by Spicer, the male protagonist in this marivaudage from Hell. He is, or was, married to Annette, who is pregnant and unhappy, and who thought she was pregnant and happy until Spicer started mystifying her with star signs and sextiles and Iron John platitudes. Invited, together with Spicer, to Dr Rhea Marks's Hampstead consulting room, Annette learns that her negativity is putting obstacles in her husband's way, and that it would be better if they parted, at least for a while. It should be added that, acting on the suggestion of friends, Annette has already been seeing Dr Herman Marks, who just happens to be the husband and partner of Dr Rhea. Dr Herman's interest seems to lie in the area of sexual molestation, of which he is also a glib practitioner. Any protest, of course, is merely a reaction from the past, and from the all-registering subsconscious. Thus it is not Dr Herman who is at fault, but Annette's father.
This delusional system, which is at last being revealed for what it is, at least in the States, where it first became popular, is grimly dealt with by Fay Weldon, but her readers will have to struggle with a rising tide of exasperation, not only because of the nature of the material but because her treatment of it lacks deftness and is totally without irony. Both her main characters, Annette and Spicer, are unsympathetic, and although it is Spicer who goes off the rails, his victim wife is merely hesitant and irritating. Despite the nonsense Spicer talks he is far from being mystical or other-worldly: he likes his wife to be compliant, and the couple's sex life is tiresomely explicit. Nor does Annette appear to have many resources. She has a job as a television researcher, but spends most of her time in bed. And on the strength of a first novel, not yet published, she is invited onto the Oprah Winfrey show. This detail, like so many others (but in fact there are rather few) fails to convince.
It is inevitable that Annette's fate is to go from bad to worse. Once she has collapsed in a taxi and been taken to hospital she falls into the net of bereavement counsellors, holistic healers, and hypnotherapists. Apparently this saves money on the drugs bill. Peter, the hypnotherapist, does not have much success, but his sales pitch is persuasive. By this stage Annette is talking into a tape recorder, but Spicer puts paid to what could for once have been a genuinely therapeutic exercise and orders her to leave the hospital. At home the Doctors Marks are waiting for her. They have moved in. This is very convenient, as the lease on their Hampstead house has expired. Naturally it is Annette who leaves. In this contest of three against one she was always outnumbered. The gain to the therapists, apart from money, has been self-justification. But the gain to the patient, in this case Spicer, is also self-justification. The beauty of the whole nefarious process is self-evident.
I admire Fay Weldon. She has collapsed the confessional novel into something amusing and effective, and formally she deserves her place in the history of fiction. And it may well be that she has produced a tract for our times—she has always been unnervingly topical. But the greater thrust of this book is contained in soliloquies (the tape recorder, the telephone) and it seems as if she has abandoned her usual method and gone back to the confessional. 'Never mind', says Annette finally, I can put it all into a novel.' Whether it was this novel, and whether one would care to read it a second time is open to doubt. But if Affliction—even the title is significant—opens avenues for discussion it will be seen to have done this work at least with no little acumen.
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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 never writes proper stories with plots and resolution at the end, and her characters seldom behave like real people. However, for all the tricks she plays, her books are well grounded in her own hard-earned wisdom and her sad, shrewd observation of the ways of the world.
Her new novel concerns a contemporary commonplace, an impending divorce. A woman is living alone in a London hotel while she struggles to come to terms with the fact that her husband wants to marry someone else. Lady Rice, before she married into the landed gentry, was a pop star, Angelica, rich and famous on account of a song entitled 'Kinky Virgin'. She gave away her success and her money for love; now, as her marriage disintegrates, her personality also fragments. Rejected by her husband, she hardly knows who she is any more. Out of the splintering woodwork come assorted alternative or repressed personalities; from time to time they take her over and act on her behalf. Thus Lady Rice becomes Jelly White, the neat and calculating secretary to her husband's lawyer, and able to derail his plans; at times she is also the delinquent Angel, openly craving sex with strange men. It is Angel who comes closest to explaining what is going on in Splitting: 'Women tend to be more than one person,' she remarks, 'at the best of times. Men just get to be the one.'
As is usual in a Weldon novel, men do not come too well out of Splitting: they are all weak, dull, lecherous or crooked. Not that she lets women off lightly either; she remains beady-eyed about their capacity for self-delusion, dependence and self-pity. 'How can he possibly prefer her to me?', wails Lady Rice, as she schemes, in her secretarial guise, for all the alimony she can get. But then we all know, as Weldon reminds us, that victims are seldom nice, and that 'a woman scorned is thrust into hell and must work her way up out of it'. Behind all the antics and the transformation scenes lurks real pain at the cost, emotional as well as financial, of broken marriages. Divorce, she tells us, is 'war against the self, and there can be no real victory in it on either side.'
At the same time, Fay Weldon remains determined, as a writer, not to let her readers settle down. Lady Rice turns out to be related to a dotty old couple living in a vast gothic house on the river in Chelsea; suddenly the novel is full of ghosts and hallucinations and guest appearances from Aleister Crowley and Nina Hamnett. For her next trick, she switches narrators to a male voice. Ajax, 'the purifier, the scourer of thought; the hero of old; the banisher of the bath ring of guilt.' In this voice she proceeds to tell the story of Angelica's marriage, entitled, clearly with malice aforethought, Ajax's Aga Saga. A series of ludicrously confused village affairs ensues, as Susan, the 'Great Adultress', devours other women's husbands, Weldon is clever enough to get away with this, but only just. Her prose sparkles distractingly with wit, allusions and puns.
The end of the novel is weak. A bang on the head banishes the alter egos, and produces normal, well-integrated Angela, who takes up with nice ordinary Humphrey. Sexy Angel is still about, so anything can happen, but it hardly matters any more. This is not a novel to analyse or to take too seriously, but admirers will find it vintage Weldon, not a smooth ride but a wild, daft, exhilarating read.
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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 single-minded, self-serving capacity for revenge and vindication. None have ever been so exotic or so marvelously contrived as the multiple personality with which Ms. Weldon has endowed Angelica White in her 20th novel, Splitting.
At 17 years of age, the lovely Angelica is about to become compliant, docile, passive: she wants to be a wife, married to Sir Edwin Rice. Angelica used to be a rock-and-roll star, Kinky Virgin. Hence, she is rich, not the least of her attractions, because young Sir Edwin, who is fat and lazy and does drugs, is not. Edwin's mother died a raving drunk, but appears as a ghost at her son's wedding, still raving drunk: his mad father passes the time by knocking his own front teeth out with a rusty cleaver, and despises Edwin for his obesity. The Kinky Virgin band also disapproves of Edwin; their kindest, least obscene assessment of his character is "snobby twerp, nerd … from the posh end of yuppie-dom." The ceilings of Edwin's yuppie-dom, Rice Court and its surrounding acres of countryside, are literally and figuratively falling in when he decides that he loves Angelica. "Who these days could win a virgin bride?" he wonders.
Angelica is in a bit of a collapse herself. She is still reeling from the shock of catching her mother wearing a miniskirt and living with a lover—transgressing against youth by posing as the daughter. "Widows are meant to fade away." Angelica protests. Consequently, she loses her "appetite for excess," removes the rings from her nose and colors her hair a respectable brown. "The exhilarations of the rock stadium" are replaced by the new, docile sensation of becoming helpmeet to "Edwin's woes."
In effect, Angelica's troubles begin when she resolves that it's "time to give up and grow up." With marriage, the splitting of Angelica begins: Angelica White, former rock star, is now Lady Rice, wife and hostess. The voices in her head start giving her some hardheaded advice: "Who, lately married, ever anticipates divorce?"—which Lady Rice ignores. "I'm not interested in money," she declares, "I'm not one bit materialistic," and promptly forks over nearly all of her 800,000 Kinky Virgin pounds to the Rice estate. Edwin's conniving land agent (upper class by osmosis—he's in love with Edwin) has reasoned that the money "was the tax Angelica had to pay because she had no presentable family and no social status." A tidy bit of legal skulduggery committed behind her back insures that "in case of future litigation," Lady Rice will have no claim on her own money.
Eleven years pass, during which Edwin's father starts taking Prozac and, six weeks later, marries a "blond and leather-booted woman" who believes that Angelica isn't classy enough to be Lady Rice. More traitors to their sex—the classic floozies, bimbos and home wreckers that populate every Fay Weldon novel—arrive on the scene, all bent on furthering their own wicked designs at Lady Rice's expense. The sensible voices in Angelica's head begin (to Lady Rice's surprise) to speak up for her when she would rather go on believing the best about men and women. But her hardheaded alter egos, no matter how protective of their hostess, are no defense against Anthea Box, the forceful, weatherbeaten Empress of Home Wreckers, who carries a "riding crop from force of habit."
Thanks especially to Anthea, Edwin turns conclusively against Lady Rice (he'll be sorry!) and drags her by the hair out of Rice Court and locks her out. His expensive solicitor is already in place, waiting to file a divorce action against Lady Rice that includes charges of adultery, bad cooking, lesbianism and bestiality ("her kissing of the family dogs" is "a major matrimonial offense"). Edwin can afford the most expensive lawyer—with Kinky Virgin's money, the Rice family's properties have been restored and are making money hand over fist as an English heritage tourist trap.
Edwin believes he has thrown Lady Rice into the world destitute and alone: "He was vanishing her." And she deserves no less; although his charges against her are claptrap, she did once remark, "Flop and wobble," while in bed with him. Lady Rice was only musing about a dreadful jelly her mother used to make, but Edwin chooses to believe that she has unforgivably committed "verbal assault."
Lady Rice agrees with Edwin: she is lost. But not so. Like avenging guardian angels, her alternate personalities emerge to snap her out of the doldrums. The most practical one, Jelly, has absorbed the computer skills Lady Rice acquired while helping out in the Rice Court Offices; in no time. Jelly has stolen the Rice Court credit cards and sets up Lady Rice (and herself) in luxury at the Claremont. Jelly also takes a secretarial job in which she deftly sabotages Edwin's divorce solicitor. With Jelly, verbal assault against Edwin is the least of it.
When Angel, who dresses similarly to Kinky Virgin, emerges, she insists that the "four-fold entity"—Lady Rice, Angelica, Jelly, Angel—enjoy some super sex with a chauffeur (he has a heart of gold and his name is Ram) in the back of a limousine.
Ultimately, the heroine of Splitting—all four faces of her—triumphs. Resourcefulness, cunning, aggressive sexuality, secretarial skills, plus the gift for unexpected music that she makes with delightful and also musical Ram—she has always had it, all of it, in her. And Fay Weldon's fiction, all brilliantly complex and hilarious as it is, is forever and unsentimentally also on the side of the oppressed—especially if they listen to the voices in their heads that tell them to snap out of it and get a real job.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 736
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 written for well-intended bodies from the British Council to Teenage Trust.
The selection opens with far the longest tale, a new offering, 'End of the Line'. It concerns a redundant nuclear scientist, married of course, assailed (not unwillingly) by a beautiful New Age journalist called Weena. I shall get it out of the way and then move on to the wonderful upswings that follow and justify having this book on your bedside table. The faults of this main offering—and they are pretty relentless—are imposed, I think, on Weldon-the-writer by a massive wound she has suffered.
In order to air it yet again, she has a cast of static cartoons—even the odious Weena unseriously odious because she is a cut-out. We don't require character development in a short story, but we do need to care a teensy bit about one or two participants. Otherwise, there's no tension.
Moments of redemption occur when the author empowers ruthless-young-Weena with gifts of observation and unlaboured jokes. When told, 'There's a dozen Vegan girls out there already lining up for your job,' Weena replies, 'Let 'em line,' confident that 'she was safe enough. She blow-jobbed the editor on Friday afternoons, and not many Vegan girls would do that these days, not even for the sake of employment.' But too soon we are dispirited again by buzz word predictability.
And then, lo! 'Run and Ask Daddy If He Has Any More Money', first published in the Radio Times, races from the starting-gate and tears around the course. Lovely observations: 'In Milly's view a man was only working if you could see him working, and who can see a man thinking?' Or: 'He used to be a mere lecturer but his Polytechnic turned into a University and voila! there he was, Professor Frood, a pillar of society: looked up to and trusted: a family man.'
Weldon first became the Feminist's Guru in the Seventies when solemn women wrote earnestly about oppression of the superior sex. She drove the same points home entertainingly—thus with far more effect—by wrapping them up in irony and scintillating humour. Her stories were peppered with insights, literary allusions thrown in as a bonus that teaches you something irrelevant along the way. She became the Wise Woman.
Yet 'Guru' and 'Wise Woman' are heavy burdens for a creative writer to bear: more becomes expected of her. Weldon had resonance with her flip-canny observations that we recognised. Now readers, notably those under 30 who still imagine everlasting heaven on earth exists if only someone will show them the way to it, feel let down when the Wise Woman doesn't give them a map.
This occasional disappointment is compounded by the span of Weldon's illimitable energies: the prolific writer adorns liberal platforms on every subject under the sun. The spin-off from the public persona has, I think, weakened some of her writing, impelling her to start off with an opinion and use her characters as vehicles for that opinion: instead of personalities that can expand, she presents social/political cartoons. When she puts these back in a drawer until the next public platform, then Weldon-the-writer captivates afresh.
Take 'Wasted Lives', written for the New Yorker. Poignant, witty, it is about a middle-aged Western man and the Eastern European woman who is his lover on his business trips to what I take to be post-Wall Prague. 'I was fond of her but did not love her, or only in the throes of the sexual excitement she was so good at summoning out of me.' Here Weldon abandons stereotypes and sex-war to deal perceptively with colluding, ultimately conflicting techniques used by a good-natured man and an aspiring young woman in the bigger battle of survival. Read it.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 699
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 seller The Life and Loves of a She-Devil calls it as she sees it—not a popular approach when dealing with our most cherished state of self-delusion, romantic love.
Alexandra Ludd is a minor actress who lives happily in the West Country of England in a historic hovel called the Cottage, along with her husband. Ned, an Ibsen scholar, their 4 year-old son, Sascha; and Diamond, an ill-tempered Labrador retriever. Worst Fears opens with the untimely death of Ned, at 49, of an apparent heart attack, suffered while Alexandra was up in London starring as Nora in A Doll's House and Ned was home alone watching a tape of Casablanca. Also apparently.
What follows is a snappy whodunit of the heart. The plot unfurls to reveal that Ned was not, in fact, alone when he died, and, on the heels of this, the more complicated and profound revelations that the marriage of Ned and Alexandra was something of a sham, Ned was a cad, Alexandra was a dunce and the women who called themselves Alexandra's friends were duplicitous in just about every way imaginable. In short, Alexandra's worst fears turn out to be true.
One of the pleasures of Ms. Weldon's novel lies in the way the tables are turned on Alexandra. Midway through Worst Fears, all the sympathy she would naturally receive as the grieving widow are accorded instead to Ned's mistress. "It's hard for women when their married lovers die," says her brother-in-law, Hamish, piously. "Rightly or wrongly, the widow has the sympathy of the world: surely you could afford to spare a little for her?"
Alexandra is abandoned by her friends, browbeaten by her own mother, sold out by the producer of her play. Even the dog snubs her.
Ned's mistress is Jenny Linden, a gnomish set designer and every contemporary woman's worst fear. She has a puckered face; short, dirty hair; double chins and, the ultimate horror, flab. But, during the course of the novel, Alexandra realizes that Jenny possesses a "stubborn, sexy helplessness in the face of her own passions, which men found so attractive." That Jenny—initially absurd to the point of caricature—grows into a convincing and even touching love object is a testimony to Ms. Weldon's knack for writing about desire and the unexpected power of the weak.
Ms. Weldon's earlier books are hysterical, fierce and gleefully mean in a way that only British novelists seem to be able to get away with. Yet Worst Fears also possesses a few uncharacteristically quiet moments, the sort that betray an unvarnished kindness that's part of genuine understanding.
In the belief that a woman had to be beautiful, and sensuous, and witty, and wonderful, in order to trigger real love, erotic love, the kind of emotional drama that ran through to the heart of the universe, the hot line to the source of life itself, the in-love kind, Alexandra had been wrong. More, she had shown herself to be vain, and foolish, and shallow, and Ned had noticed. Not that his noticing had anything to do with it. You did not love necessarily where you were admired or cease to love when admiration failed. Love came and went; it was there or it wasn't. The blessing of the gods, and their curse.
I can't imagine that Fay Weldon has suddenly gone kinder and gentler on us; she's the quintessential anti-romance novelist and always will be. But she's filed down a few sharp edges in Worst Fears, and that makes it one of her best novels yet.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1199
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 against the illusions of these things rather than to swan along smiling and imagining that we are happy?'
It's a stringent, almost puritan, almost Old Testament code. 'When the moment of reckoning comes,' she says, 'beware'! Only Job's comforters will come knocking at the door and if you happen to be someone like Job, someone in the public eye, beware even more, for there will be no comforters at all, only a photographer from the Sun lurking in the vegetable patch.
Then must the poor widow barricade herself inside her lovely country house alone and brood on why the corpse of her marvellous husband ('She will never see his like again') was not found in bed, why her best friends were present at the time of his death, 5.30 am, and why his bedsheets had already been laundered by breakfast time.
It is Agatha Christie country, in a way, though Weldon's concern with evil is more lively than ruminative Miss Marple's and her characters are not from Loamshire but from 1990s Metroland-in-Wessex. All are classless, pagan, pragmatic and sexually obsessed. In fact there's nobody in the book you'd want to spend five minutes with except the cat and kittens, and the cat, a dismal object who's always walking away—maybe he's got sense—is only worth six.
No, this rustic place is much worse than Loamshire, for in Loamshire there is comfort—rooted communities and mealtimes and manners and minimal fornication. Metroland-in-Wessex is a sink.
But for some folks a very attractive sink, I suppose, a fat white porcelain one, repro. Vic. c.1880 (all the antiques in this novel are carefully dated), shiny and clean. A 'Belfast' of course, with perma-polished taps and a preserving pan of home-made jam standing on its teak draining-board. Above it hangs a bunch of local herbs of the meadow, for even the doctor in M-in-W prescribes lime tea instead of sleeping pills, and nearby hangs a kingly mirror, mercury-based, c. 1790, before which the heroine, actress Alexandra, would stand beside her golden, theatre-critic husband and hear him say, 'What a divine couple!'
Now these things might lull a hard-working actress slogging away with Ibsen on the London stage in order to bring in the only money that is around; might cause her to believe that she can't be living in a tainted village with a multiple adulterer who has secretly disinherited her of her estate, disclaimed their child, is selling her house over her pretty, unobservant head and has begun secret proceedings for divorce and remarriage. Well, you wouldn't believe it, would you? Especially when you have been totally faithful to him. Well, sort of.
Nor would you suspect that when the grim reaper came to gather in this energetic man he would be wearing only a black and scarlet satin suspender belt and would confront him in your marital bed in the arms of another of your friends, who is dressed more or less in wellingtons.
Now Alexandra is not noticeably a very good woman but she's better than the rest and the only one who's not a hater. She understands fast that she has not been an adequate lover and has not been loved herself by anyone. But instead of collapsing she gets on the phone and with the openess of a nice old-fashioned schoolgirl, as it might be in What Katie Did, asks everybody whatever has been going on. All the friends reply with lies, then with half-lies, then with terrible truths and basilisk glares—the wellingtoned one and the really dangerous slutty one and the criminal's wife up at the Big House who has plastic breasts and a creepy peasant mother whom nobody minds but asks only to lunch and not to dinner.
And everybody else turns on her. Her hyperactive three-year-old doesn't need her. The undertaker disapproves of her for being late visiting the body. The village shop and the solicitor dislike her, and even the dog takes to snarling at her and wagging its tail when weeping mistress number one comes to take him for a walk at half-hourly intervals. And then there's a terrible woman, the first wife, who installs herself in the London flat and says it's hers and please will Alexandra clear off as she's counting the crockery. And there's the pally lot in the theatre all saying, 'But, darling, surely you knew?' And there is her mother who was at Cheltenham Ladies' College and proffers pedantry and philosophy and says that now she will be bringing up her grandson.
So now this wronged woman goes crashing through her world like a demon. She breaks and she enters, she burgles and she steals, she smashes up cars and rampages and flings people about. No Mrs Job, she. Away she goes with her knife and her axe as soon as look at you and when you're stirring your boiling home-made jam on the draining-board she causes you to pour it over your feet. The only enemy Alexandra ignores is the nastiest, the nanny, the seeming sycophant, a gargantuan woman bred in pig slurry in a refurbished hovel that turns out to be full of Alexandra's lost possessions ('Everything not plastic is nicked') She hears this creature's true opinion of her with what in another book might be called patrician unconcern. But she is by then maybe just tired. And so Alexandra comes at last to deal the lot of them a gloriously avenging blow that frees her from them for ever and leaves them reeling. And as she strikes—what is this? The heavens open and another force joins in what in yet another book might be called the hand of God. But no—of course not. Not God in M-in-W. Retribution anyway—and glorious. I only wish I could be bothered to like Alexandra a bit more and I might cheer louder. But then, if Alexandra had a bit more to her she'd be more clued up about her friends and there'd be no story. I was quite glad about the happy ending though, and she'll be fine in Hollywood.
What tosh it all sounds. And yet evil and slander do spawn and snowball and destroy. Unlikely worlds—Swift's, Voltaire's—are real enough to be wonderful settings for satire. Weldon's world may not be yours or mine but it's clear she's been there herself and seen suffering in it. And she's one of the few women novelists who can make our idiot, sinful lives look funny.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347
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 Line," she's covered with white ash (she happens to be cleaning the fireplace), and when she kisses him she leaves the ashy mark of death on his cheek. What better indicator that it's time for Defoe to bail out with the fiendishly seductive Weena Dodds, a New Age Times journalist itching to move into the manor house? Weena is certainly evil (she specializes in married men, taking pleasure in ruining their lives and leaving them begging as she moves on to greener pastures), but there comes a day when even the cleverest siren racks up one too many enemies. On the other hand, it's sometimes the man who turns out to be cold-blooded, as in "Wasted Lives," whose film-executive narrator casually dumps his Eastern European mistress the moment he learns that she's pregnant with his child. In "Valediction," an aging couple's children show their true colors by trying to push said parents out of the family home. And in "Through a Dustbin, Darkly," a ghost works her vengeance by pushing her former husband's young second wife to burn down the house they live in. Every kind of evil that lurks in the heart is gleefully explored in all its permutations here, and somehow it all ends up very cheering—wherein lies Weldon's tremendous talent.
Though the stories date from as far back as 1972, and in one or two cases their age shows, there are far more hits than misses in this unsentimental education in the war between the sexes.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 950
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 revenge on her accountant husband and his romance-novelist lover by turning their own conceits against them. Exploiting the husband's financial arrogance and his mistress's fantasy of the invincibility of love, Weldon's heroine siphons off their bank accounts, their fizzy champagne romance and, finally, their sanity.
With 21 novels and three story collections, Weldon has reigned as the champion of the discarded wife, the embryonic woman who grows up by default and becomes shrewd by suffering. Her genius is to portray all this heroic self discovery not with sermonizing but with deft satire.
In Wicked Women, Weldon's bristling new collection of stories, she broadens her targets. Attuned to the deeper currents of family and sexual unrest, this satire is so stinging that reading it is like seeing someone stripped of clothing in a public place. Yes, Weldon's heroines still deal with cheating spouses and struggle to protect the family nest. But now they also use a bit of wickedness to contend with insecure househusbands who punish their wives for surpassing them, self-absorbed adult children who can't see beyond their own muddled lives, and the culture's communal hand wringing over sexual identity.
Throughout the book there is a sense that apocalyptic winds are gathering force all over Weldon's England: shadowy "market forces" are leveling picturesque villages to build "development complexes" infested with social dry rot; woozy New Age shrinks and astrologers are subverting the national discourse; rumors are swirling about a potion called Red Mercury that has shadowy origins in the Russian Mafia and the potential to polish off the world.
Weldon is a worthy adversary for these post-modern devils. Delivering a knockout blow to those old punching bags, touchy-feely therapists, she blames them for the casual shattering of marriages and for the delusive idea that family loyalties and relationships can be paved over or efficiently rerouted like England's M1 highway. In "Santa Claus's New Clothes," the children and the grandchildren have their first Christmas dinner with Dr. Hetty Grainger, their father's former therapist and new wife, who "murmured rather than spoke." Hetty hadn't thought twice about taking over Mum's house; she paused only in the master bedroom to "perform some kind of ceremony with candles and incense which would, she said, deconsecrate the bed" and "free the material object from its person-past." Her mistake is to murmur over dinner about the "civilized" way the divorce and remarriage have proceeded. The remark elicits from her new 9-year-old stepson the fatal question, "What's civilized?" Hetty's fatuous answer opens up a hilariously deadpan inquisition by the other children that peels away her soothing earth-mother disguise to reveal the baby-eater underneath.
In the riotous and startlingly timely "Not Even a Blood Relation," Weldon draws on some frisky revisionist science to help her protagonist defend hearth and home. Beverley Cowarth, 61, is the widow of Hughie, a recently deceased and bankrupt earl, and the mother of three angry adult daughters. And no wonder: the oldest, Edwina, was meant to be Edwin, the Cowarth male heir, and when she arrived, her parents "just added on an 'a' and ignored her thereafter"—as they did with her sisters, Thomasina and Davida. Now the three plan to sell the ancestral home out from under their mother, who, in terms of the Cowarth family line, is "not even a blood relation"—and far too old to produce a male heir, even if Hughie were still alive. But by enlisting the help of a much younger, adoring Australian fiancé and the services of a very good Roman synecologist, Beverley outwits them all—making for a few delectable twists best left for Weldon fans to gloat over.
Other stories end in devastation, lost humanity and profound sadness. The graceful "In The Great War (II)" tells of a careless love triangle that exacts the suicide of two women and the death of a 6-year-old child. "Web Central," one of the few heavy-handed stories here, takes on the terrors of futuristic isolation. It pictures a society whose privileged classes are sealed in solitary rooms, their moods regulated by drip feeds and their intercourse with the world conducted entirely on computer screens. And the powerful "Heat Haze" annihilates the idea that a child's agony over her parents' messy life can be managed and explained away like a nasty case of flu, with no one taking any blame. Deciding that someone must pay for the fallout from her father's admission of homosexuality and her mother's subsequent death, a young ballet dancer offers herself up—refusing food and intimacy, and bartering her body—to protect the remnants of family she has left.
With the year 2000 and its tidy string of zeroes reawakening our external longing for conclusive endings. Weldon's wrap-ups are eloquent and absolute. They are born of her belief in the dogged persistence of genetic bonds and in an uncompromising universe of clear rights and wrongs with their own inevitable consequences. With Wicked Women, Weldon has become one of the most cunning moral satirists of our time. In her rueful stories, justice is done—whether we like it or not.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 716
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 woman whose nearly 30 books include The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. And then her glance falls on the lighthouse on the back of her new book. "That really is very phallic," she murmurs, and laughs. It was the first of many small shocks.
Her book tells the story of a small boy called Rex, who has temper tantrums and rips up his yellow and mauve party invitation. He crawls into the black under his bed and pretends to be a bear. In his fantastical dreams he is always the odd one out. But he awakes to his mother's new-found attentions and promises that the party will be fine. The language is poetic and the storyline as finely drawn as Claudio Munoz's illustrations.
The title seems not to fit, though. "Nick, my husband picked it. It's terribly rash to call a book something like this," she says, happily. "It's sort of a turn-off, isn't it?"
She wrote the book 15 years ago because she was asked to. But, having made the request, the publisher then rejected the work. A previous version was eventually published in 1989, but sank without trace. This edition will not suffer the same fate.
The story is improved and, as Weldon notes, the illustrations are beautiful. It is also truly a child's-eye tale. "Writing for children is slightly like writing advertising copy in that every word counts," she says. "The relationship between sentences has to work exactly."
Fay Weldon's women are always noteworthy, and Rex's mum does seem rather glamorous in her "clickety-clack silver sandals" and lovely red dress. Weldon disagrees. "Again, it is a child's-eye view of clothing. She is wearing her best red dress and she's been to the dentist, so her teeth are terribly white. She is ever so slightly horrific, because mothers are. It's all quite terrifying."
So where is father? "Oh, he's at work." Does the mother work too? "Oh no. She's a very frivolous mum. She can't stand the little boy. This is the difficulty. The little girl is very pretty but the little boy stamps in puddles and tears up invitations and is just a boy. And his trousers are too tight." This is said with a flourish. "The whole thing is about being inappropriately clothed, or mothers not loving you enough or mothers loving your sister, who wears a pink coat and is perfect."
But the mother does make the boy a costume. Surely that was nice? "Yes, she does, but that may have been my editor, who insisted she show some of her good side."
She suddenly asks if there are cannibals in the book. There are girls in pink gingham, an eagle in a greeny-white egg and an old-fashioned party with golden forks, but no cannibals. There were cannibals in a former version, she says. "Rex is left on a desert island and the cannibal asks him to tea. But then Rex realises he is going to be the tea. My editor talked me out of putting that one in."
She leans forward. "Really, the dream is just an anxiety dream." This is worrying, in that Fay Weldon's aversion to therapy (her first husband left her during his) is well-known. She adds: "This is a sort of therapy book. It's a self-help book that works subliminally. The child has these dreams and they make him angry. So if you write about them and explain them and solve them, it can help.
"Just because I don't go to a therapist doesn't mean I am against emotional literacy."
There the lesson ended. And the colour? Gold streaked with bolts from the blue.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 161
Buckley, Christopher. "Misery Loves Company." Washington Post Book World XXIII, No. 46, (November 14, 1993): 2.
A review in which Buckley appreciates Weldon's wit and intelligence in Trouble, but ultimately finds the book overwhelmingly depressing.
Cumming, Laura. A review of Wicked Women. The Observer 10651 (December 10, 1995): 16.
A review of Wicked Women in which Cumming finds the novel to be didactic and journalistic, with little human interest or character development.
Maddocks, Melvin. "Mothers and Masochists." Time (February 26, 1973): 91.
A review in which Maddocks discusses feminist elements in Down among the Women.
Skow, John. "Elsa Undone." Time 110, No. 8, (August 22, 1977): 72-3.
A review in which Skow finds Words of Advice superficial but a worthy summer read.
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