I’ve been a fan of Fay Weldon’s writing my whole reading life, from the time I finished the reading scheme at school and started to read proper grown-up novels. My imagination was really stirred when the TV series Life and Loves of a She-Devil hit our screens in 1986. I was thirteen, the age when a program with even a hint of sexual content was the subject of school playground chatter – if we’d had phones back then the boys would have been showing us all the ‘dirty bits’. I wasn’t allowed to watch the series. Those were the years of my parents being in an evangelical church and completely losing their minds. Anything thought to be a bad influence, particularly if it had sexual content, was banned. Pre-marital sex was a huge no-no, to the point I had to pretend to be seeing something else when all my friends went to see Dirty Dancing. Yet my reading material wasn’t policed quite as strongly and I raided the library for books by the author who’d caused all this furore. I fell in love with her combination of dramatic relationships, strong and transgressive women, feminism, and a sprinkle of magic realism.
Of course my first port of call was The Life and Loves of a She-Devil and it crossed almost every boundary I’d ever been given. After her husband reveals he’s leaving her for his delicate and dainty mistress Mary Fisher, wife Ruth lots herself in the cloakroom and starts a transformation. She will leave being a vulnerable, human woman behind. She will become a she-devil. What follows is a rather visceral journey to becoming a creature without feeling, capable of wreaking the ultimate revenge. I loved her freedom, even when it meant making choices that I couldn’t believe, like sleeping with the dirty old park keeper in his cluttered shed. Her power was intoxicating and her sheer force is too much for the old man who has a seizure. Ruth takes on many guises to get to where she wants to be – joining a commune where food is minimal and hard work is a daily reality in order to lose weight. Her sexuality is completely fluid as she sleeps with women and men, a priest and the doctors who carry out her extensive cosmetic surgery. I loved that there was no judgement and no boundaries. I think the best revenge is to live well rather than follow Ruth’s path, but it’s a bold path and it’s the ultimate in evil.
At the edge of 18, while studying for my A’Levels and applying to universities, I was drawn to the book Growing Rich. The three girls at the centre of this novel – Carmen, Annie and Laura – live in a rural village called Fenedge and are at the same crossroads in life that I was. Local businessman Bernard ? Has sold his soul to the devil, in return for the fulfilment of all his desires and one of them is Carmen. Unfortunately, Carmen is not easily obtained. The girls have always dreamed of flying far away from their little village and no one has wanted to leave more than Carmen. However, it’s Annie who flies off to the glaciers and mountains of New Zealand and into the arms of the man of her dreams. Laura gets married and starts having babies. So it’s Carmen who seemingly stays still and is ripe for the picking with Sir Bernard and the Devil in pursuit. However, they underestimate Carmen’s will and self-worth. She is not giving away anything, including her virginity, until she’s good and ready but she’s not above enjoying Sir Bernard’s inducements to change her mind. This is a beguiling mix of hormones, magic, astrology and a deadly game with the ultimate adversary.
The Cloning of Joanna May asks questions about motherhood, identity and the ethics of scientific research, whilst also being an entertaining and humorous read. Joanna believes herself to be unique, but when she is unfaithful her rich husband exacts a terrible revenge. He fractures her identity by creating Jane, Julie, Gina and Alice, four sisters young enough to be her daughters and each one is a clone of Joanna May. If there are five of us, what makes us an individual? Is self innate or formed by experience? Is self even a constant thing? Weldon has the wit and creativity to explore and answer those questions, in very cunning ways. How will they withstand the shock of meeting and if they do become close, could Carl, Joanna’s former husband and the clones’ creator, take the ultimate revenge for his wife’s infidelity and destroy her five times over? This is a witty and deceptive read, that’s much deeper than it seems especially where science has now caught up with fiction.
Finally, there’s Splitting and Affliction, both of which concentrate closely on state of mind and sense of identity. Affliction is a remarkably easy read – despite it’s difficult subject matter. I don’t know whether I’d fully grasped how abusive this man was at the time I first read it, but reading it again having gone through the experience for real wasn’t comfortable. Spicer is the abusive husband in question, he’s selfish, he undermines wife Annette and has a full set of skills from victim blaming and gaslighting to being physically, emotionally and financially abusive. We’re unsure whether Spicer has always displayed such extreme behaviour, because he has started to see a therapist which seems to have been the catalyst for talking about these issues. It’s a clever and witty novel, but is probably for those who like their comedy jet black not those who are sensitive about physical violence, alternative health converts, or trendy London types. The premise is that Annette and Spicer’s marriage is doing okay, even if not entirely faithful. This is the second time around and the proof that they’re enjoying their newfound sex life is a baby on the way. Spicer becomes embroiled with two hypnotherapists after becoming jealous when Annette writes a successful novel and starts to see things differently. Annette seems to be changing too, each seems to think the other person’s perception is altered and it becomes very difficult to work out which narrative is reality. I enjoyed the depiction of unscrupulous therapists and there’s a lot of humour despite some traumatic themes and events.
Splitting covers similar ground in that a couple are at war and perceptions might not be what they seem. Lady Angelica Rice was teenage rock sensation Kinky Virgin, but she gave up her career to marry Sir Edwin Rice. Unfortunately he turned out to be lazy and completely bankrupt, so in this unhappy union Angelica’s ‘splitting’ began: a chorus of four women in her head, each with an opinion and all of them clamouring to be heard. Now, eleven years on, Edwin is suing her for divorce and her alter egos want their revenge – the usually meek Jelly, the sexually insatiable Angel, the competent and practical Angelica and Lady Rice make a formidable team. It’s a slightly chaotic novel, with many voices and the possibility of more emerging over time as she deals with a derelict house. Is this really a house or do the rooms represent parts of Angelica’s identity. How can she ever find her real self, with four women and only one body to house them all? Is she going to be able to fight for her place and does she even want it anymore? I wondered whether she would ever be able to reconcile these different identities or if the splitting would continue.
One of the most interesting of her written works was her 2002 autobiography, wittily titled Auto Da Fay, where she still played with ideas of identity and the ability to capture a person in writing. She conveyed the difficulty of writing a life that is continuing to grow, change and evade you, even while you’re trying to pin it down in words. She was born in New Zealand, the youngest of two sisters born during her mother Margaret Jepson’s short marriage to Dr Frank Birkinshaw. Her birth is interesting, because it is surrounded by themes of turbulence, change, dislocation and separation. After a large earthquake in Napier spooked Margaret, she fled to a rural sheep farm for three months, away from their normal home, their things and her husband who was being unfaithful. It was an emotional earthquake that echoed down through the women of the family, derived from Fay’s aunt who was discovered in bed with her Uncle at the age of 17. The family fall out caused psychosis in that the aunt never recovered from, possibly because she was blamed rather than the Uncle. Weldon felt her grandmother deserved blame too, because she had failed her daughter. Her mother’s upbringing was very bohemian, she was shaken by her experience in New Zealand and returned to England. There she lived with her husband’s extended family and gave birth to her daughter, who she named Franklin but became known as Fay. This could have been the basis of her interest in split identities, as she noted that she had to take library books out in the name Franklin but was always Fay when she read them. In fact she ended up studying psychology at university, started her writing career drafting pamphlets for the foreign office then became an agony aunt in a national newspaper.
For someone who’d been taught there was one correct way of living, reading about Fay’s life was inspiring and gave me permission to make mistakes. Fay’s marriage to a school teacher who was twenty-five years her senior, with an agreement that her sexual needs would be satisfied by partner’s outside the marriage. I was fascinated by how she wrote about this period of her life, distancing herself from it by referring to herself in the third person. It was during her marriage to her second husband that she wrote her first novel The Fat Woman’s Joke in 1967. It was as if her creativity was unleashed as she wrote thirty novels in quick succession, along with television plays and a version of Pride and Prejudice where she played with the marital politics of Mr and Mrs Bennett. This was to become a theme in her work, becoming more and more extreme as she found magical ways for women to transform themselves in order to negotiate a male dominated world. This could land her in hot water, particularly in her ‘she-devil’ sequel The Death of a She-Devil where a man must change gender in order to inherit, something she blamed on fourth wave feminism and a lesbian character who did not relate to men at all. Sometimes, it was as if she enjoyed controversy, such as writing a novel containing product placement for a luxury jewellery brand. At the end of her autobiography she says nothing interesting happened to her after thirty, she was just scribbling; but she was also offering controversial views on rape, porn, cosmetic surgery and transgender rights. At 91, she was still creating, supporting other authors and managing to keep herself in the public eye. For me, she dared to make women misbehave. She made them powerful, badly behaved, successful but also gave them permission to fall apart. I didn’t agree with everything she said, but I loved her ability to confound, to say the thing you didn’t expect and create these complex psychological and magical worlds to get lost in.