Fay Weldon, British Novelist Who Challenged Feminist Orthodoxy, Dies at 91
LONDON — Fay Weldon, a British novelist and dramatist who explored the rifts and rivalries between men and women and whose embrace by feminists loosened over time as critics accused her of retreating from the cause and even betraying it, died on Wednesday, her agent said. She was 91.
Her agent, Georgina Capel, did not say where Ms. Weldon died but said she “died peacefully.”
By turns elusive and confessional, Ms. Weldon liked to say she divided her life into two segments. The first, which she termed “mildly scandalous” and “delinquent,” lasted until her early 30s and was covered in her autobiography, “Auto da Fay” (2002).
The second period, spanning five decades, was more earnest, taken up primarily with delineating the fragile bonds between callous men and wounded women and the bitter contests between women. All became the grist for her dark satire, laced with wry, aphoristic asides on the human condition.
“The sad truth is, my theory goes, that no one is much interested in what happens to women after they turn 35,” Ms. Weldon proclaimed on her website. “Which is the age at which I stopped ‘Auto da Fay’: the age I stopped living and started writing instead, as a serious person.” (The final chapter of her autobiography suggests that she reached that watershed at 32, in 1963.)
The two eras, however, were linked. So much of her early personal history, the critic Richard Eder wrote in The New York Times in 2003, “shows up as roots for her novels.”
In public, her persona seemed always open to revision, defined by afterthoughts, contradictions and qualifications. Asked how much of what she told journalists about herself was true, she replied, “About 60 percent.” (It was not clear whether that statement lay in the remaining 40 percent.)
“I lie,” she told an interviewer in 2009, “for the sake of entertainment, or to pass the time.”
Kate Kellaway, a reviewer for The Observer, concluded that “the delight of Fay Weldon is that one can seldom be absolutely sure if she is serious.”
In portraying herself to others, Ms. Weldon sometimes slipped between the first and third person, as she did in her autobiography, and in this loosely articulated summary of her writings on her website in 2015:
“You need to know: that she has been writing fiction assiduously for five decades. That she has written 34 novels, numerous TV dramas, several radio plays, five full-length stage plays, quite a few short ones, five collections of short stories, had four children, looked after four step children, been married three times, innumerable articles, demonstrated essential respectability by being given a CBE, is big in Denmark and at the time of writing works as a professor teaching creative writing at Bath Spa University. I turn up on TV and radio quite a lot, even at her advanced age, presenting herself as a pleasant, practical, well-informed person — not the delinquent she once was.”
Her website précis did scant justice to a canon of writing perhaps best known for “The Life and Loves of a She-Devil” (1983), a tangled parable of a woman wronged and the vengeance she exacts. It was adapted as a BBC television mini-series in 1986 and as a movie in 1989 starring Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr.
The book tells the story of Ruth Patchett, a tall, clumsy woman whose husband, Bobbo, embarks on an affair with Mary Fisher, a wealthy, successful novelist who lives in “in a high tower, on the edge of the sea,” as the opening lines put it.
Ruth narrates: “I am fixed here and now, trapped in my body, pinned to one particular spot, hating Mary Fisher. It is all I can do. Hate obsesses and transforms me: It is my singular attribution.”
“Better to hate than to grieve,” she continues. “I sing in praise of hate, and all its attendant energy. I sing a hymn to the death of love.”
As Ruth exacts her vengeance on her errant husband and his lover, Mary is transformed. “She looks in the mirror and sees that her hair is thin and her complexion dull,” Ms. Weldon writes. “When she goes down to the village she is just another scurrying, aging woman, holding on to what is left of her life. Eyes slip past her.”
Productive over the decades despite occasional dips in her popularity, Ms. Weldon, as she entered her 80s, published a historical trilogy, “Habits of the House,” set in the early 20th century, and an e-book novella, “The Ted Dreams.”
In 2017, as she approached her 86th birthday, she published a sequel to the original “She-Devil,” titled “Death of a She Devil.” The cast of characters is similar to that of the original, although Mary Fisher has died and become a ghostly spirit, but the theme has moved on to more recent issues of gender identity and transition.
As with earlier works, the novel drew conflicting responses, with The Times of London calling it a “waspish sequel,” while a review in The Guardian questioned its feminist credentials and called the book “boring.”
Ms. Weldon’s early writing reflected an era that saw the rise of feminism in Britain, which provided the backdrop to much of her fiction. But while she acquired a reputation as a “feminist of the old school,” as Emma Brockes put it in The Guardian, she came to challenge some of the tenets of feminist orthodoxy.
In 1998, she told the BBC that rape was not the worst thing that could happen to a woman. In “What Makes Women Happy,” a book of nonfiction in 2006, she championed faked female orgasms as beneficial to both participants in heterosexual relationships. She suggested in an interview with The Guardian in 2009 that the feminist push for women’s careers had backfired.
“The whole relationship between men, women and children has tilted to the disadvantage of women,” she said.
For all her enduring stature as one of Britain’s best-known, well-paid and most widely read authors, her relationship with the literary establishment was ambiguous.
In 2001, she struck an unusual brand-placement deal with the jeweler Bulgari, reportedly worth £18,000 (about $23,000), to mention the company’s name and products in a book. The ensuing novel, “The Bulgari Connection,” raised eyebrows among purists, but she brushed the criticism aside.
At first, she said, she thought: “‘Oh, no, dear me, I am a literary author. You can’t do this kind of thing; my name will be mud forever. But then after a while I thought, ‘I don’t care. Let it be mud. They never give me the Booker Prize anyway.’”
The reference to Britain’s most prestigious literary award evoked a longstanding disappointment that she had been excluded from its laureates. One novel, “Praxis” (1978), was shortlisted in 1979 but did not win. In 1983, Ms. Weldon chaired the prize’s five-member judging panel when it deadlocked between Salman Rushdie’s novel “Shame” and “The Life and Times of Michael K” by J.M. Coetzee. With her casting vote, Ms. Weldon first chose Mr. Rushdie’s book, then had second thoughts.
Martyn Goff, the administrator of the prize at the time, recalled in an interview with The Guardian in 2003 that he was about to announce Mr. Rushdie as the winner when he heard Ms. Weldon say: “‘Martyn, stop! I’ve changed my mind.’”
“I put down the phone,” Mr. Goff said. “She again asked the judges if they had changed their views. ‘Then I vote for Coetzee,’ she said. I made number two dash to the phone. I heard a new ‘Hold it a minute,’ but ignored it.” Mr. Coetzee won the prize.
Ms. Weldon was born Franklin Birkinshaw in Alvechurch, Worcestershire, on Sept. 22, 1931, the second child of Frank Birkinshaw, a medical doctor, and the former Margaret Jepson, who went on to write novels herself as Margaret Birkinshaw. (Her mother’s father, Edgar Jepson, had been a prolific writer of popular fiction.)
Her parents had been living in New Zealand not long before she was born when an earthquake separated them. Her mother, pregnant with her at the time, returned to her native England for the birth, taking along her eldest daughter, Jane, then 2.
Ms. Birkinshaw soon re-established contact with her husband and returned to New Zealand. But the couple divorced several years later, and she returned to England with her daughters, working as a housekeeper and a subway janitor before writing novels.
After a high school education in North London, Ms. Weldon went to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and graduated with a degree in economics and psychology.
Her early adult years described a remarkable trajectory. As what she termed a “lost girl” in the big city of London, she did a spell writing Cold War propaganda at the British Foreign Office, and also worked for a while as a reader’s advice columnist at The Daily Mirror.
In her early 20s, she had a son, Nicolas, by Colyn Davies, described variously as a folk singer, busker and nightclub doorman. She refused to wed him, only to endure a bizarre, brief and unhappy marriage to a man 25 years her senior, Ronald Bateman, a high school headmaster. He needed a son for his résumé, she wrote, but preferred her to have sex with others and urged her to work as a nightclub hostess and escort.
As an advertising copywriter, also in her 20s and early 30s, Ms. Weldon was associated with several enduring slogans: “Unzip a banana” and “Go to work on an egg.” Another offering — “Vodka makes you drunker quicker” — was rejected by her bosses.
It was only in her early 30s, after her second marriage, in 1961, to Ron Weldon, an antiques dealer and painter, that she turned to literary pursuits. She mailed her first television script, “A Catching Complaint,” on July 18, 1963, shortly before giving birth to a son, Daniel. She went on to find success as a television writer with the top-rated series “Upstairs, Downstairs,” about relationships between the ruling classes and their underlings — a recurring feature of British popular culture.
Ms. Weldon published her first novel, “The Fat Woman’s Joke,” a story of marital collapse, weight loss and binge-eating, in 1967.
Her marriage to Mr. Weldon lasted three decades, and the couple had three sons — Daniel, Thomas and Samuel.
She and Mr. Weldon divorced, according to Ms. Weldon, when an astrological therapist told her husband that he and his wife were incompatible. Mr. Weldon died in 1994, on the very day the divorce became final.
That same year, Ms. Weldon married for a third time, to Nick Fox, a poet and former bookseller 15 years her junior who was also her manager.
In 2020, Ms. Weldon broke a protracted public silence following a stroke and an injury to her back to announce on her website that she planned to divorce her husband.
Jenny Gross contributed reporting.