Fay Weldon Weldon, Fay (Vol. 19) - Essay

Franklin Birkinshaw

Agate Nesaule Krouse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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…. But she is not tedious about the rich texture of everyday female existence she creates…. Weldon's [fictional world] exists because she most often selects the telling and the funny, the absurd and the horrifying. (pp. 5-6)

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….

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. (p. 6)

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. (p. 7)

Unlike [Doris] 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. (p. 8)

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. (p. 9)

[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…. 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. (pp. 10-11)

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…. [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...

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Rosemary Dinnage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Praxis] is an out-and-out feminist hard-hitter, addressed to, and about, women, and we can see that it tries to say: "Learn to be honest, independent, charitable; men or women, we are all in a bad way." But as generally in feminist propaganda, the message at times gets so clogged by overstatement, self-pity, and bias that personal reactions (irritation, in my case, but approval would be just as distracting) get in the way of direct imaginative response. Polemic spells death to the novel, and neither of these two is quite free of a moral mission that can tiresomely separate out, like a streak of oil in water.

[Praxis Duveen] has a bad, bad time; so monstrously and confusedly bad as fortunately does not happen to most of us, though Praxis seems intended to represent the female condition—all her women friends go through the same inexorable mincing-machine. The monstrousness happens in her childhood, through no fault of her own; the confusion in her adulthood, when she scurries from disaster to disaster, from betraying to betrayal, because of her neediness…. No wonder she feels "that pain in the heart, the soul and the mind—those three majestic seats of female sorrow—which seems to be our daily lot." (Where are the three majestic seats of male sorrow?)

Weldon's style is not always as bad as this. There are sparks of wit…. But the briskness of the pace—laconic dialogue, one-sentence paragraphs—disguises a vacuum where there should be substance. Statements are made, either in the body of the story or in the interleaved chapters where Praxis meditates on her life, which the narrative is too bloodless to support…. Men, conventionally, are said to be as much "victims of a crazy culture" as women—but there is hardly a male action that is not made to look mean or ugly.

Toward the end a diagnosis is thrown casually in: Praxis's trouble, after all, is not that men have beaten the shit out of her but that she cannot feel, cannot love. Nothing that goes before has made this clear: she has just been bounced from disaster to disaster, crying buckets all the way. (pp. 21-2)

Rosemary Dinnage, "The Corruption of Love," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, No. 1, February 8, 1979, pp. 20-2.∗

Patricia Craig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Overt] feminist fiction is beginning to move beyond the stage of realism and protest to a point where it can accommodate the personal and idiosyncratic. Fay Weldon is certainly among the novelists who are imposing a style upon the flux of feminine experience….

[The] eponymous heroine of Praxis is a late convert to feminism and briefly an enthusiast….

'A mad mother, a loony sister, an absent father. Enough, after all, to upset anyone,' Praxis muses, at a time when she is still trying to believe that the causes of her discontent are personal, not social. The line is an instance of the humour that works by classic understatement, and in the novel it is placed in effective juxtaposition with ironic exaggeration: all the horrors of female imaginings are recorded in one form or another, along with all the murky, underhand complications in women's lives. (p. 260)

Inevitably, perhaps, the theme is centred on mothers and sisters, no matter whose…. Hilda, the bad sister, the ill-wisher, the scholar, the professional spinster, represents one option open to intelligent females, but she is one of the least plausible figures in the book. The claim that her madness enables her 'to function as a man might do' is simply not convincing: to flaunt obsessions which focus, in turn, on rats, stars and anti-static is not a way to prosper in the Civil Service.

Occasionally, the outrageously appropriate event or fate becomes glib in the telling; the joke loses its sharp edge or the bitterness loses its undertone of humour. But these are minor defects in a novel that never descends to crass introspection; it increases the significance of its characters, in the manner of the fable, by keeping them at a proper distance, and presents its social observations in a form that is both eccentric and diverting. (pp. 260-61)

Patricia Craig, "Anti-Static," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 97, No. 2501, February 23, 1979, pp. 260-61.∗

Peter Kemp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Fay Weldon], hatcher of the famous slogan 'Go to work on an egg', was once an advertising copywriter. Designed to promote her brand of feminism, the novels and stories she has since produced carry all the trade-marks of this background. Puffball, her new book, is no exception. Its format consists of prose broken into easy little units—as if in response to some market-research survey on attention-spans. The line it pushes is the importance of eggs—this time, human ones.

Charting the tribulations of an ovum that has lodged low in the womb, the book regularly slides its narrative into the heroine's interior…. The prose teems with gynaecological vocabulary…. (p. 254)

[There are, however,] external obstacles to a peaceful parturition. One of them is Liffey's husband, whose unsatisfactory nature is held up to scorn…. A monster pack of male inadequacies, Richard rapidly emerges as a wash-out…. In Female Friends, Mrs Weldon clucked impatiently at the spectacle of a wife having to soap the stains of promiscuity from her husband's clothes. In Puffball, Liffey's loyal launderings offer an immaculate contrast to her husband's grubby infidelities…. (pp. 254-55)

[The] greatest threat to Liffey's little one comes from her neighbour, envious Mabs Tucker. The female urge for impregnation demonstrates itself in Puffball as a formidable thing…. Mabs's unfertilised state...

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Anita Brookner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

That old alliance, that old conspiracy of women against men, is … as likely to shatter at a touch of sexual rivalry as it was in the dangerous days before sisterhood was officially established. In that area, nothing has changed.

No one knows this better than Fay Weldon whose archetypal heroine is innocent, helpful, a child bride, sexually active, eager to please, easily hurt, puzzled and valiant, burdened with an unsatisfactory mother and an absent father, and above all endowed with friends whom she has known all her life and who have been doing her down for as long as she can remember…. Fay Weldon's heroine is not liberated; her friends are. And although Mrs. Weldon is on the side of the...

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Francis King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are women novelists and novelists who happen to be women. Fay Weldon belongs in the first of these categories…. I have nothing against women novelists … [but] I prefer novels about the human predicament to ones exclusively about the female one.

In Puffball there are a number of chapters headed 'Inside Liffey'…. These chapters are full of … gynaecological details…. It would be unjust to declare pages of such information to be irrelevant, since Miss Weldon's theme is clearly the tyranny of women's biological functions.

Among the majority of women of the world—as among the majority of the men—this tyranny is, of course, chiefly one of the stomach…. But even if that tyranny of the stomach were to be the subject of a novel, a minute description of digestive processes might well begin to pall, even while making its wholly valid point. That Miss Weldon makes her point with force, elegance and precision cannot be denied; but nor, alas, can it be denied that many a male chauvinist pig may eventually wish to avert his eyes from this perpetual waving of a sanitary towel as a bloodstained standard on the barricades between the sexes….

Miss Weldon sets out this narrative—as she has set out others—in paragraphs, sometimes of no more than a line or two, divided from each other by blank spaces. In preferring this kind of patchwork to a seamless robe, she seems to have taken to heart Camus's remark 'We communicate in communiqués'. Smoothness is sacrificed; but there is the compensating gain of the kind of dramatic tension that can be produced by expert cutting on the screen.

Francis King, "Obstetricks," in The Spectator (© 1980 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 244, No. 7912, March 1, 1980, p. 22.

Loralee Mac Pike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At first Puffball will remind you of Rosemary's Baby. Liffey Lee-Fox talks her pompous husband Richard into moving to the country …; in exchange she will become pregnant…. [One of the neighbors] Mabs is—a witch. When Liffey becomes pregnant, Mabs jealously tries first to induce a miscarriage and finally to kill her. But here the book's resemblance to a superficial thriller ceases, for Liffey's baby, in utero, becomes a force for Good and manages to blunt Mabs's schemes. Still the pregnancy is touch-and-go 'til the very end, and Weldon treats the reader to a deliciously exasperating scene as Liffey's labor begins. The characters are every bit as good as the plot. Weldon manages to present, then skewer, almost every human foible attributable to selfishness and pettiness.

Nor is that all there is to it. Weldon has the audacity to include technical information on fertility, conception, and fetal development as an integral part of the story. She makes the physical processes preceding and during pregnancy not only interesting but essential to the development of both story and character.

Nor (alas) is that all there is to it. For all her apparent feminism, Weldon seems to lapse into age-old beliefs about the effects of pregnancy on women. Liffey changes from a shrill, silly, "flimsy" girl into a soft, capable, pliant parent. Mabs, un-pregnant, unleashes her full witchiness; impregnated at the book's conclusion, she too becomes sweet and loving. It's all in the body's chemistry, Weldon implies. And she seems to know what women want: babies.

I was ambivalent when I finished Puffball. Weldon has opened up a new world of physicality and meaning, and then crammed them back into the same overflowing pigeonhole. I loved her audacity in creating possibilities; I was angry at her refusal to realize them in any fully human, non-stereotypic way.

Loralee Mac Pike, "Fiction: 'Puffball'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1980 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 40, No. 7, October, 1980, p. 245.