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Book of the Week: Marion McLeod reviews ex-feminist icon turned Anglican fogey Fay Weldon

Marion McLeod reviews Before the War by Fay Weldon.

I threw away all my Fay Weldons last year. Well, I didn’t actually throw them. I piled them into a rusting supermarket trolley and pushed them across the road to Arty Bees. All of them – about two dozen novels (mostly hardback), a few collections of stories, some literary biography, even the nicely named Auto da Fay, her memoir. I don’t remember how much they gave me for them. Probably about $10.

I felt miserable at the time. Disloyal. Sad. Old. That’s the price you pay for a metre of bare bookshelf. And my Weldon years were well and truly over. From the 60s to the 80s, she was an icon. She crested the feminist wave. Where others were strident and dogmatic, she was playful and surprising. I devoured everything she wrote, as did all my friends. We were young mothers, down among the women. Fay Weldon was a tonic.

In the early 80s, she was a guest at Victoria University. She was plump, round-shouldered, smiling. She dandled someone’s baby and spoke in dulcet tones – truly, dulcet is the word. She had then and has still the sweetest voice: ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in a woman, indeed. She answered questions with questions. She shrugged. The audience, mainly women, adored her.

We read all her books and we watched the TV versions: The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, starring Patricia Hodge, Dennis Waterman, and Tom Baker. It came to our screens in 1987. I interviewed her that year in her Kentish Town house. She had a delicious giggle. She was charming but oddly vulnerable – despite the sly smile. She was both shy and sly. She reminisced about her childhood in New Zealand and said how much she liked “us” still.

She’s an English rose, really, despite being born in gritty Birmingham. Her father, a doctor, transplanted the family to New Zealand when Fay was young. So we formed her. When she was 14, her parents divorced and her mother returned to England with the two daughters. (Weldon never saw her father again.) But the girls are forever fixed here in Rita Angus’s famous 1938 painting: the two Birkinshaw girls, Fay and Jane, in red gingham, white collars and green cardies. Charm, intelligence and diffidence are all there in that portrait.

In the late 80s I went, as a journalist, to a creative writing workshop held over several days in the Waitakeres. Fay Weldon was the tutor. She was charming and lively throughout, despite the terrible food. I didn’t have the wit to ask why she was always so sweet-natured. Nor to find out what had happened to her big sister Jane, though I had occasionally wondered. But recently I found an interview with Christina Patterson of the Independent, now sadly deceased on paper anyway. In it, Weldon told Patterson that Jane had schizophrenia. “It is a very odd thing to have an older sister who is schizophrenic, because you cannot work out why they don’t love you. I had to be the sunshine girl, and I remember thinking that this was simply not fair, that you were not allowed to have the emotions, or to make a fuss.”

Weldon’s characters do emotions and fuss, no stops barred. And Weldon details their wickedness gleefully. I guess she must have been pretty gleeful, too, when the publisher’s cheques arrived. But by the turn of the century Weldon’s wave had crashed. The last novel I read and reviewed was The Bulgari Connection (2001), which runs to 30 mentions of Bulgari jewellery. Not what you’d call subtle product placement, though fitting for the times.

When I was offered this latest novel, I didn’t leap at it. On the other hand, I’d read the occasional piece about Weldon over the years and a part of me was curious to see how her Damascene conversion (she herself has compared it to St Paul’s) had affected her prose. At the turn of the century, when she was in her late sixties, Fay Weldon was baptised into the Anglican Church. She renounced the devil and all his works! She recanted: women should be nicer to men, they should fake orgasms and join the Mothers’ Union. I made up that last one but the first two are from the horse’s mouth. Then, to top it all, she had had a near-death experience in 2007, complete with a vision of pearly gates. Not very imaginative.

Based now in Dorset, she has four sons and four step-children, and a third husband, Nick Croft, a poet and ex-bookshop owner 15 years her junior. They’ve been together 23 years and live in a fairytale stone cottage decked with rambling roses. (The Guardian ran a charming photo so I know it’s true.)

This new novel, her 34th, is called Before the War.  Everybody’s doing it – before, after, between the wars. Weldon’s version begins in 1922 and closes in 1939. Actually, she wanted to call it Anyway but the publishers weren’t having it. Anyway they, the publishers, Head of Zeus – hitherto unheard of – gave the book a very ugly cover so I wouldn’t trust their taste.

Sir Jeremy Ripple lives in an English village called Dilberne Halt. It is November 23, 1922. And where better to start a before-the-war story than on a railway platform in the countryside? Vivien Ripple, 20-old daughter of the publisher, is waiting on the platform. The train is late. The sky is threatening snow. This could be Kate Atkinson, it could be Brief Encounter.

But no. For Vivien is not a beautiful young woman. She is 5’11”. (It is 1922, pre-supermodels.) She stoops. Her dreary brown scarf is moth-eaten. Vivien’s face will not appear from a corona of steam to startle with English-rose beauty. Vivien’s face is “unfortunate”.

This is not to be your standard historic novel then. Paragraph two makes that absolutely clear: “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 few pages on, she reveals what lies in store for Vivvie: “I will give her an easy death. It’s the least I can do. She will drift away painlessly from loss of blood giving birth to twin daughters.”

Not standard historical fiction, then, but standard Fay Weldon. The mix as before, with the bonus, if you like that sort of thing, of anachronisms aplenty. Vivvie has mild Asperger’s long before the condition is known. Kurt Vonnegut gets a mention. Characters, though described in minute and fascinating detail, are not meant to convince or concern.  They are, as always, Weldon’s puppets. “Look, all this happened a long time ago. Sooner or later we all join those who live in the past”.

She’s 84 now, Fay Weldon, and hasn’t reported any more near-death experiences. I trust the roses will continue to bloom on her cottage and that she’ll write for many years yet. She’s as irreverent and rollicking as ever. The Church of England seems to have affected neither subject nor style. Unless you count the appearance of the Angel Gabriel in a walk-on role. It’s he who fathers Vivvie’s twins, and very stylishly too.

Mind you, that wouldn’t be out of place in almost any Fay Weldon fable. They’re all fables rather than novels. Or entertainments – that’s perhaps the better word. Anyway, I’m pleased to have read her thirty-fourth and surprised to have been so entertained. It was a trip down memory lane. It was fun. Really, she can’t put a foot wrong when it comes to sentences – the rhythms graceful, delicious, sly. I confess, though, that mid-book the bizarre plot leaps and tangles became a a tad tiresome and the writing a wee bit thin, as if Weldon’s heart wasn’t really in it, and nor was mine.

A few days ago I asked the staff at Arty Bees if people still bought Fay Weldon.  They shook their heads in sorrow. No. The occasional customer wants a copy of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil but that’s about it.


The works of Fay Weldon are available at Unity Books.

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