In the 1980s, when I was lent Fay Weldon’s first novel, The Fat Woman’s Joke (1967), my school friend fashioned a jacket for it from brown paper, so shocking did she think the title. What was inside was exhilarating and defiant. There were devastating truths spoken with impunity and mountains of food consumed with abandon. The book was a stunning counterpoint to what girls and women were told back then — that if you had too much flesh it would render you unlovable and that would ruin your life.
In a distinguished career spanning six decades, Fay wrote brilliantly in her novels, her myriad television scripts, short stories and plays, about the more intolerable aspects of being female. In a TV interview in 1982, she said she wasn’t motivated by indignation with men but “a dislike of the conditions in which women have to live and the expectations placed upon them, that they should do all the work and have none of the fun”.
When I met her in her early seventies at a literary festival, she seemed ageless, with a baby’s born-yesterday wonder, a teenager’s sharp defiance, the shimmering confidence that success brings and an older woman’s past-caring freedoms. I admired her belief in the transforming power of rage. In my world, female rage was considered revolting. To Fay, it was a viable alternative to moral anguish, self-harm and Valium.
For all her generosity — especially to other writers, whom she championed unfailingly — I sometimes wondered whether Fay believed good was always morally superior to bad. Bad might be grander, more de luxe, more legitimate. There was something about her species of kindness that was not just dynamic — it was anarchic.
When I heard she had died at the age of 91 I sat down and re-read The Life and Loves of a She Devil, her most famous novel, about the ultimate triumph of a betrayed woman, with just a 10-minute break for soup halfway through. I recited a line from the book to the saucepan: “The mushroom soup simmered, waiting for its dash of cream and splash of sherry.” If only. In the novel, after the tureen is fully upended on the carpet, Ruth, the anti-heroine, declares to herself: “It isn’t love I want, it is nothing so simple, what I want is to take everything and return nothing . . . I want to be loved and not love in return.”
Not caring what anyone thought of her was an important part of Fay’s make-up. In a recent interview she said her writing students — in 2012, she took up a professorship at Bath Spa University, having previously taught at Brunel — often created alternative universes in their novels to avoid expressing what they thought about this one. “It seems important that you should risk not being liked,” she said.
Fay was no stranger to mischief-making. Controversial statements were meat and drink to her — who can forget the slogan from her spell as an advertising copywriter early in her career, “Vodka makes you drunker quicker”? — especially when she had a book coming out. Speaking in 2017 about the disappointments of contemporary feminism, she recalled: “What went on behind the filing cabinets is why you went to work.”
Of course, she wasn’t as highly acclaimed as she should have been. Although her 1978 novel Praxis was shortlisted for the Booker, she wasn’t overly troubled by such nominations. This may have been because of her belief in satire and humour, which make prize committees nervous, and her desire that her books be read with pleasure.
She led a magnificent life filled with reinventions, great friendships and celebrations. She created characters that stay with you — I often think of cook and butler Mrs Bridges and Mr Hudson huffy and imperious in Upstairs, Downstairs, the 1970s TV drama about the goings-on in a large Edwardian home, for which she wrote. And she was so funny. An email from 2019 begins:
I do miss you! I came out of a near-death experience saying ‘Oh I see. Just more of the same. Two steps forward, one step back.’ It wasn’t at all like Paradise the other side of the pearly gates — which were all bright fluorescent Indian Temple colours anyway, not decent genteel pearl — just a rather foggy mist but oddly comforting though not the Wolseley. On we go!
Susie Boyt is the author of ‘Loved and Missed’ (Virago)
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