How to read like a feminist

Fay Weldon’s metafictional style continues to deepen her vision of gender justice

Updated - July 10, 2016 12:58 am IST

Published - July 10, 2016 12:46 am IST

If I had to recommend just one name to the uninformed young woman who curls her lip at the word ‘feminist’ today, I would tell her to read Fay Weldon. Not only for Weldon’s vision of gender justice, but for her take-no-prisoners approach to fiction. Her plots move swiftly; her gaze is unsettlingly direct; her sentences can draw blood.

Her new novel, Before the War , opens in 1922. But we are told at the outset in Weldon’s trademark friendly, metafictional style that it is not straightforward period fiction: “I’m not asking you, reader, to step back in time. I’m asking you to stay happily where you are in the twenty-first century, looking back.”

A question of time Vivien is tall, awkward, mildly Asperger’s even before Asperger’s existed as a diagnosis. She is the daughter of a rich man, but in changing times; she is egalitarian in theory, but in practice class-conscious. She will soon die. Her death is a requirement of the form, explains the narrator: “It is not normal in books, films or on TV for much attention to be paid to unattractive women of any age… Why should I break the rules?”

The destiny of this fictional character reflects that of many women at the time: death in childbirth. “I will give her an easy death. It’s the least I can do. She will drift away painlessly from loss of blood after giving birth to twins… Ergometrine was not isolated until 1935.”

The narrator’s perspective moves back and forth across time, pointing to how much has changed in the space of one century, such as advances in medical science — and also how much has not changed, such as sexism and stereotypes. At 85, then, after close to three dozen novels and numerous TV, radio and stage plays, Weldon is still writing mordantly witty fiction about dysfunctional families. Three marriages, four children, numerous stepchildren and grandchildren later, her fiction gives the lie to Cyril Connolly’s statement that the pram in the hallway is the enemy of art. In Weldon’s case, the pram has just meant that the artist comes to the point a lot quicker.

Her own tumultuous life — especially her anxiety-ridden childhood in New Zealand — has given her an infinite source of material. It has also provided her with first-hand experience of poverty and prejudice, and a preference for metafictional interventions that allow her to arrange her fictional narratives within a moral framework.

To adapt Tolstoy’s famous words to the childhoods of writers, all happy childhoods are alike, but every unhappy childhood produces a different kind of writer. Weldon’s memoir Auto Da Fay, written when she was 70, about the first part of her life contains one of the most moving accounts of childhood that I have ever read. Born in 1931, Weldon was brought up by her fiercely independent mother, the novelist Margaret Jepson, and her gentle, piano-playing grandmother Nona, who had once been a student of Clara Schumann. After a disastrous marriage took her to New Zealand, Margaret struggled as a single mother to bring up her two daughters.

“There were advantages to having no husband, at least you could make your own decisions,” reflects Weldon in the light, ironic tone she adopts to describe the most difficult experiences. It was a bare-bones childhood that consisted of the solidarity of women, the absence of men, and endless anxiety about money. As their little family moved from one temporary home to another, Fay was racked by insecurity and fear.

Postwar London As soon as the war ended, Margaret used an unexpected legacy to take them back on the first ship out to England. In postwar London, she got a job as a live-in housekeeper. The family used the tradesmen’s entrance and lived in the basement. Green mould attacked their clothes.

At school, Fay’s name was up on the board every day for free lunches, “thus announcing my impoverished state to the world”. At college, she noticed that the professor of moral philosophy spoke only to the male students, refused to mark the women students’ essays, and failed the women on principle. Not that it mattered: “There were precious few jobs for women to get anyway, in which a degree made any difference.”

Weldon survived a series of temporary jobs — waitress, chambermaid, even receptionist in a members-only club for rich men who liked racy erotic novels — before stumbling into the world of advertising. Here, surrounded by poets writing slogans for a living, she acquired the valuable skill of brevity. The poet Elizabeth Smart taught her to write fashion copy: “all adjectives and no verbs.”

Weldon rose to copywriting success in the sixties with the slogan “Go to work on an egg.” This was the work of her creative team; her own copy was more direct. For a brand of vodka, she suggested, “Vodka makes you drunker, quicker”; and for a perfume, one word: “Yes.” Being too blunt for the clients’ comfort, these slogans were not accepted.

In her personal life, after several failed relationships, she embarked on marriage. Her first marriage to a school headmaster with a fondness for exhibitionism sounds ghastly; Weldon has written this entire section of the memoir in the third person. As for her second husband, he refused to have a washing machine in the house because he disliked the sound of domestic machinery. For the same reason, there was no typewriter in the house. Weldon had to start writing by hand.

But write she did — and, in her ninth decade, she still hasn’t stopped.

Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta is in the IAS, and currently based in Bengaluru.

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