Add to researchFay Weldon
- Non-Fiction, Children, Drama, Fiction, Short Stories
Novelist, playwright and screenwriter Fay Weldon was born on 22 September 1931.
She was brought up in New Zealand and returned to the United Kingdom when she was ten. She read Economics and Psychology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and worked briefly for the Foreign Office in London, then as a journalist, before beginning a successful career as an advertising copywriter. She gave up her career in advertising, and began to write full-time. Her first novel, The Fat Woman's Joke, was published in 1967. Fay Weldon is a former member of both the Arts Council literary panel and the film and video panel of Greater London Arts. She was Chair of the Judges for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1983, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews in 1990. She was awarded a CBE in 2001.
Fay Weldon's work includes over twenty novels, five collections of short stories, several children's books, non-fiction books, magazine articles and a number of plays written for television, radio and the stage, including the pilot episode for the television series Upstairs Downstairs. Much of her fiction explores issues surrounding women's relationships with men, children, parents and each other, including the novels Down Among the Women (1971), Female Friends (1975), Praxis (1978) (shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction), The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983), The Cloning of Joanna May (1989), and Wicked Women (1995), which won the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award. Her 1997 novel Big Women was based on the events surrounding the creation of the feminist publishing house Virago. Other novels include Puffball (1980), The President's Child (1982), The Rules of Life (1987), The Hearts and Lives of Men (1987) and Rhode Island Blues (2000), the story of a young woman and her grandmother, an 83-year-old with a strong appetite for life. A new collection of short stories, Nothing to Wear and Nowhere to Hide, was published in September 2002. In her novel, Mantrapped (2004), the heroine wakes up to discover that she is a man.
Fay Weldon lives in London. Her memoir, Auto Da Fay, was published in 2002. Recent books are What Makes Women Happy (2006), a book of non-fiction; and The Spa Decameron (2007), about ten women who meet at a health spa and tell the stories of their lives. Her most recent novels are Chalcot Crescent (2010) and Kehua! (2011).
Throughout her long career Fay Weldon’s writing has provoked opposing reactions of popular acclaim and critical controversy.
Her primary subject – the lives of women trapped by domestic duties, abusive, adulterous or neglectful husbands and the demands of small children – has defined her as one of the leading literary propagandists for sexual egalitarianism in the post-war period. But though she has been a fellow-traveller of the feminist movement, her writing challenges its guiding principles and confuses its directives. In her early novels, she frequently blames women for their own predicaments, accusing them of pursuing Darwinian rules of individual survival rather than the possibilities of solidarity. Her later works, on the other hand, suggest that her true heroines are the pragmatic or subversive manipulators of a masculine world order of militarism, genetic engineering and corrupt international government.
Besides her satirical perspective on gender politics, Weldon has been celebrated for her distinctive style. Her approach to form is experimental and self-conscious. Her spare, economic prose pares back its descriptions to bare essentials, relying heavily on dialogue, multiple voices, present-tense narrative and short, punchy paragraphing. She often employs theatrical techniques, such as the insertion of a chorus or epigrammatic refrain. Some critics have identified the resultant ‘sloganeering’ effects as the result of Weldon’s early career in advertising; others see her style in terms of what Lorna Sage describes as ‘matriarchal realism’, a substitution of key symbolic episodes for the continuities of a patriarchal bourgeois realism (Women in the House of Fiction, 1992).
In addition to pursuing experimental narrative structures, Weldon displays in her fiction a strategic awareness of genre and the literary market-place. In The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983) for example, she satirises the conventions – and readership – of stereotypical romantic fiction, while in Remember Me (1976) she draws ironically on clichéd conventions of Gothic. She incorporates in her writing a series of references to literary and cultural myths, from the Creation story and fairytale to Frankenstein, but is almost deliberately superficial in her use of these intertextual allusions. Wary of the ‘feminist’ novel per se, a concept she explored in her saga of a feminist publishing house, Big Women (1997), she has expressed a regard for the strategies and subversive potential of what she calls ‘frivolous fiction’ (in Fay Weldon’s Wicked Fictions, ed Regina Barrecca, 1994). All this combines to complicate her critical positioning between ‘literary’ and ‘popular’, but also contributes to her accessibility for a wide readership.
Weldon’s early novels, from The Fat Woman’s Joke (1967) onwards, focus on the crippling domestic spaces inhabited by women oppressed by economic and marital circumstances. In Down Among the Women (1971), for example, she details the lives of women across three generations, from their collapsed marriages, perilous finances and adulterous liaisons to their betrayals of friendship, illness and suicide. The novel offers a bitter portrait of female identity, in a world ‘where the body is something mysterious in its workings, which swells, bleeds and bursts at random; where sex is a strange intermittent animal spasm; where men seduce, make pregnant, betray, desert’. At the same time, it highlights the rivalry between the characters as one source of their misery, a theme of failed solidarity Weldon picks up again in Female Friends (1975) and several later short stories.
In addressing the issue of female oppression, Weldon foregrounds women characters who struggle to meet conflicting demands. The protagonist of Praxis (1978) must play several parts in the course of her life, from good mother to career woman to feminist political leader. Other characters are ‘divided’ in more dysfunctional terms between oppositional identities as they try to meet the economic, sexual and social demands of modern life, or – as in several works – to combine artistic expression with domestic drudgery. This idea evolved to form the basis of Splitting (1995), in which the main character breaks down psychologically into varying personalities, from the wronged wife to the promiscuous harlot, and can also be identified as the grounds for Weldon’s tendency to project women as ‘types’, illustrated by her 1995 story collection Wicked Women.
As her writing matured, Weldon also developed an interest in scientific subjects related to the female body. From her novel Puffball (1980), which painstakingly details the physical changes experienced in pregnancy, to her recent story of career women and frozen embryos, ‘Freeze Eggs! Freeze Eggs!’ (Nothing to Wear and Nowhere to Hide, 2002), she has explored with frankness the biological and technical contexts of reproduction. Science blends with science-fiction in The Cloning of Joanna May (1989): here, a woman wreaks havoc after discovering she has been secretly ‘cloned’ by her scientist husband, while in The Life and Loves of a She Devil, the protagonist embarks on a painful and implausible course of plastic surgery to become the object of male fantasies. Such works not only rupture any assumed alliance between women and Nature, but also speculate ambiguously on the consequences of scientific advancements for the politics of female identity.
Elsewhere, Weldon has taken on universal concerns such as the corrupt economics and politics of a masculine world order, in Darcy’s Utopia (1990), and the threat of militarism and nuclear technology, in The Shrapnel Academy (1986) and The Leader of the Band (1988). Her recent book of essays on contemporary politics and culture, Godless in Eden: A Book of Essays (1999), suggests that she is instinctively drawn to subjects which are both controversial and topical, and her 2001 novel of high-finance, The Bulgari Connection, confirms her willingness to adapt to contemporary material in this respect.
Weldon is not without her adverse critics. Among them, D. J. Taylor has accused her of producing novels which are ‘notoriously pre-programmed, the victims of an altogether rigid determinism’ (After the War, 1994). But this is to suggest that her fiction lacks sincerity, a view undermined, recently, by the publication of her autobiography Auto da Fay (2002). Here, Weldon relates – with characteristically deceptive flippancy – the difficult circumstances of her own upbringing and married life, highlighting the strains she experienced between expectation and reality. ‘Male and female, we all busily gender role-played, in a way that seems extraordinary today’ she recalls. This sentence perhaps sums up the substance of her writing, which maintains a unique place in a school of politicised post-war fiction.
Dr Eve Patten, 2003
- Kehua!, Corvus
- Chalcot Crescent, Corvus
- The Stepmother's Diary, Quercus
- The Spa Decameron, Quercus
- What Makes Women Happy, Fourth Estate
- She May Not Leave, Fourth Estate
- Mantrapped, HarperCollins
- Nothing to Wear and Nowhere to Hide, Flamingo
- Auto Da Fay, Flamingo
- The Bulgari Connection, Flamingo
- Rhode Island Blues, Flamingo
- Godless in Eden: a Book of Essays, Flamingo
- The Pocket Canons Bible: Corinthians, introduction, Canongate Books
- A Hard Time to be a Father, Flamingo
- Nobody Likes Me!, Bodley Head
- Big Women, Flamingo
- Worst Fears, Flamingo
- Wicked Women, Flamingo
- The Lady is a Tramp: Portraits of Catherine Bailey, Thames & Hudson
- Splitting, Flamingo
- Angel, All Innocence, Bloomsbury
- Affliction, HarperCollins
- Life Force, HarperCollins
- Growing Rich, HarperCollins
- A Question of Timing, Colophon
- Moon Over Minneapolis, HarperCollins
- Darcy's Utopia, Collins
- The Cloning of Joanna May, Collins
- Party Puddle, Collins
- Wolf the Mechanical Dog, Collins
- Leader of the Band, Hodder & Stoughton
- The Rules of Life, Hutchinson
- The Hearts and Lives of Men, Heinemann
- The Heart of the Country, Hutchinson
- The Shrapnel Academy, Hodder & Stoughton
- Rebecca West, Viking
- Polaris and Other Stories, Hodder & Stoughton
- Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen, Michael Joseph
- I Love My Love, Samuel French
- The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, Hodder & Stoughton
- The President's Child, Hodder & Stoughton
- Watching Me, Watching You, Hodder & Stoughton
- Simple Steps to Public Life, with Pamela Anderson and Mary Stott, Virago
- Puffball, Hodder & Stoughton
- Action Replay, Samuel French
- New Stories 4, editor with Elaine Feinstein, Hutchinson
- Praxis, Hodder & Stoughton
- Little Sisters, novelisation of 'Words of Advice', Hodder & Stoughton
- Remember Me, Hodder & Stoughton
- Female Friends, Heinemann
- Words of Advice, Samuel French
- Scene Scripts, contributor, Longman
- Down Among the Women, Heinemann
- Mixed Doubles: An Entertainment on Marriage, contributor, Methuen
- The Fat Woman's Joke, MacGibbon & Kee
- PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award, Wicked Women
- Booker Prize for Fiction, Praxis, shortlist
'Well, there's no time to waste. Life's short, the world's history is long and its societies diverse. If I am a prolific writer and turn my hand, with what seems to some as indecent haste, from novels to screenplays to stage and radio plays, it is because there is so much to be said, so few of us to say it, and time runs out. Readers crave explanations of their lives: the writers of fiction provide it, enlarging experience, giving meaning and significance where none was before. I see myself as someone who drops tiny crumbs of nourishment, in the form of comment and conversation, into the black enormous maw of the world's discontent. I will never fill it up or shut it up; but it seems my duty, not to mention my pleasure, to attempt to do so, however ineptly. See me as Sisyphus, but having a good time.'