“If I am a prolific writer,” Fay Weldon once said, “and I change my hand, with what seems indecent haste, from novels to screenplays, plays and radio plays, it is because there is so much to say, so few of us to say it, and time is running out.”
Weldon’s pronouncements often generated mixed reactions in a writing career that spanned 50 years. Some enjoyed his mix of frivolity and seriousness; others found his views capricious and inconsistent with him. However, she saw “no real virtue in consistency. People are contradictory.” She also noted at the end of an interview with opinions: “These are not considered views; just today’s views.”
The author was born as Franklin Birkinshaw in Barnt Green, Birmingham on September 22, 1931, her first name arose because her mother Margaret, a romance novelist, was convinced that she was going to have a son. (She already had a daughter, Jane, a year older.)
Weldon had been conceived in Napier, New Zealand, where her father, Frank Birkinshaw, had emigrated to practice as a doctor. The family was separated during the Great Napier earthquake of 1931, in which Weldon’s father abandoned her family for three months and her mother returned to England.
Margaret and her daughters returned to New Zealand but the marriage did not last long. According to Weldon, her father was a womanizer, but when Margaret was unfaithful once to make him see reason, he divorced her.
Their mother struggled to support them. She took menial jobs but also wrote romance novels to pay the bills. (He had already written a serious novel, Via Panama). Writing was in the family. Weldon’s maternal grandfather was the detective novelist Edgar Jepson; her uncle also became a perpetrator of crimes.
In 1945 Weldon’s mother received a small inheritance and brought the family back to England. They arrived in England on Weldon’s 15th birthday. He never saw his father again: he died of a stroke in 1947.
Weldon went to South Hampstead High School, then St Andrews University, Scotland, on a scholarship to study psychology and economics. Her sister married an artist and became pregnant, but she left her husband after eight weeks. Moving to London after receiving his degree from her, Weldon worked as a hospital attendant, a waiter, and then at the Polish desk at the Foreign Office, where Winston Churchill would rate his memorandum as “VG.”
At night, she and her best friend went with visiting business executives on double dates that sometimes turned into foursomes at laybys. She later said that such an “intimate meeting with another human being is very reassuring. It makes you feel alive and worthy of his attention. Debasement is part of it.”
She became pregnant with their son, Nicholas, when she was 22 years old. Her father, a busker and her porter, offered to marry her and earn a living from her as a plumber in Luton. She refused, but took her name by public deed.
When their son Weldon was born, his mother, newly pregnant sister and another pregnant woman moved to Saffron Walden to open a tea house. They abandoned the project when Weldon was unable to deal with the sobbing ghosts she claimed inhabited the building.
In 1957, she married director Ronald Bateman, 25 years her senior. She said in her autobiography. Fay’s car (2002) that he needed a wife for his resume but did not want to have sex with her. He encouraged her to take lovers from her and, according to her, wanted to be her pimp.
He also encouraged her to work as a hostess at a Soho clip club. Weldon said that she really enjoyed hosting: “I was delinquent, you see. It was fun in the way parties are fun actually, socially it was easier because there were rules.”
He wrote about this period in the third person to distance himself from it. Even so, she also noted: “Poor Ronald Bateman. [I] he was a heartless, practical monster.”
She viewed the marriage as a business exchange: “Either you kept your son, or he was taken from you and put in an orphanage. So the usual thing was to marry someone for a roof over your head and you provided services of a domestic and sexual nature. It wasn’t such an amazing or terrible thing to do.”
He left Bateman after two years and got a job as a journalist before moving on to a successful career in copywriting. She didn’t coin the catchphrase “Go to work on an egg” or “unzip a banana,” but she was the department head that did. She may have provided a catchphrase for the vodka that was too direct: “Vodka gets you drunk faster.”
Although she was successful at work, she referred to herself in her twenties as a “lost child” moving through a series of unsatisfying adventures. In 1960, at the age of 29, she met artist and antique dealer Ron Weldon. They married and had their first child, Daniel, in 1963. While she was pregnant, she wrote her first television play, A gripping complaint, placing him on the way to the hospital to give birth. She wrote it by hand because her husband didn’t like the sound of writing.
The Weldons had two more children. The couple also attended regular therapy sessions. She said: “We went to see our analysts twice a week, so there was really no need to talk to each other.”
His sister Jane had mental health problems during the 1960s, and Weldon often looked after their children as well. Jane died of cancer in 1969 at the age of 39. Weldon said: “I felt utter helplessness over it.”
He was in high demand for the next 20 years as a television writer. She won an award for the pilot of Bottom up (1971), adapted pride and prejudice for the BBC (1980) and, in the same year, scripted life for cristina, a true story about a 15-year-old boy sent to prison for life. He also adapted the play by Olivia Manning the balkan trilogy in an eight-part BBC series.
He published his first novel, The joke of the fat womanin 1967. Books that followed included down among the women (1971), female friends (1975), and Practice (1978), which was a finalist for the Booker Prize. In these early novels, she criticized rival women who focused on her selfish needs rather than solidarity with other women.
His style was direct but that was because “you say what you want to say in the shortest time available so everyone can go home.”
In the 1980s, she explored how science and the physical changes it enabled could affect the lives of women in novels like Puffball (1980), The life and loves of a devil (1983) and The cloning of Joanna May (1989).
Her marriage to Ron Weldon ended in 1994. He died of a heart attack the day the divorce was finalized. She later married the poet Nick Fox, who became her manager.
wicked women (1995) won the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award. In 2001, she came under fire for making a deal with jeweler Bulgari to place the company’s name on a novel.
As time went on, her pronouncements about men and women caused bewilderment or anger among feminists to such a degree that she said, “I still call myself a feminist, but I’m not sure I’m still accepted.”
Possibly that was because he said women shouldn’t expect orgasms and should fake them if they don’t; that they shouldn’t try to get men to pick up their socks or clean the bathroom; that “rape is not the worst thing that can happen to a woman if you are safe, alive and unmarked after the event.”
He later stated: “Sometimes I take extreme positions because I want to be discussed.”
In 2000 she found the religion and was confirmed in the Cathedral of Saint Paul. She was appointed a CBE in 2001. She moved to Dorset with Nick Fox in 2002.
Auto Dafay it was published the same year. “The writing wasn’t the least bit therapeutic,” he said. “All revival does is scrape away the scar tissue to reveal wounds that are still bleeding.”
He wrote more than 30 novels and five collections of short stories. His latest novel House Habits (2012), was the first in a projected historical trilogy called Love and Inheritance. Some saw it as cashing in on the popularity of downton abbey.
Survivors include his son Nick; two children from his second marriage; a stepdaughter; 12 grandchildren; and five great grandchildren
Weldon joked that she saw herself “as someone who drops little crumbs of nourishment, in the form of comments and conversations, into the huge black maw of the world’s discontent. I will never fill it or close it; but it seems my duty, not to mention my pleasure, to attempt to do so, however ineptly. Look at me like Sisyphus, but having a good time.
Fay Weldon, author, born September 22, 1931, died January 4, 2023