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Fay Weldon, acerbic British novelist and screenwriter, dies at 91


Fay Weldon, a mischievous and prolific British author who explored women’s lives and relationships in novels such as ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil’, challenging assumptions about gender, love and domestic life while gaining a reputation as both a feminist and an anti-feminist, died on January 4 in a nursing home in Northampton, England. She was 91 years old.

His son Dan confirmed the death. Ms Weldon “had a number of attacks”, he said in an email, but was still working until her death, “writing poems in her head and dictating slowly”.

A very public author with an easy laugh and a distinctive blond bob, Ms. Weldon has written more than 30 novels as well as short story collections, children’s books and plays for television, radio and the stage. Her work was filled with acerbic humor, sexual satire and wacky storylines, distinguished by an understated literary style which she described as “utterly practical and always precise”.

Much of it was also semi-autobiographical – inspired, she said, by her “slightly outrageous” youth, which included a nomadic upbringing in New Zealand and England, single motherhood at 22 and marriage to a high school principal who, according to Ms. Weldon, pimped her to friends and advised her to get a job as an escort.

At 35, she “stopped living and started writing instead, like a serious person”, as she said in her 2002 autobiography, “Auto Da Fay”. While she sat on the stairs so she could keep an eye on her young children (she had four sons in all, her last at 47), she wrote scripts for shows such as “Upstairs, Downstairs”, a acclaimed period drama about English servants. and their masters, winning an award from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain for writing the 1971 pilot.

She also began publishing tongue-in-cheek novels and family dramas, defying literary convention by populating her books with protagonists who were female rather than male, plump rather than petite. She later recalled that male writers were furious that she dared to write about issues like dieting and marriage, telling the Daily Mail: “Men would come out of rooms when I walked in because they were so angry and upset that women were no longer willing to iron men’s shirts.

Soon his books were climbing the best-seller lists in Britain and receiving accolades on both sides of the Atlantic.

Her novel “Praxis” (1978), about the changing mindset of a woman with a shaky childhood, two failed marriages, a career as a prostitute and an incestuous relationship, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the literary prize Britain’s most prestigious. Ms Weldon achieved greater fame with her novel ‘The Life and Loves of a Devil’ (1983), about a lantern-jawed woman named Ruth who, driven by envy and the desire for revenge, suffers plastic surgery to look like her husband’s lover.

“It offers a scintillating, mind-blowing, vicarious thrill to any reader who has ever dreamed of getting revenge for one wrong or another,” wrote New York Times reviewer Rosalyn Drexler. The book was adapted into an award-winning BBC miniseries and a much-maligned Hollywood film, “She-Devil” (1989), starring Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr. Decades later, Guardian journalist Claire Armistead said the novel “empowered a generation of second-wave feminists to own their inner demon”.

“It seemed to me when I wrote [the novel] that women were so used to being good,” Ms Weldon told the Guardian, “it wouldn’t hurt anyone if they learned to be a little bit mean – that is, burning down their houses, to give away their children, put their husband in prison, steal his money and become their husband’s mistress.

Yet Ms Weldon also came to believe that the feminist movement had gone astray, with women too often claiming the role of victim. Much to the horror of many longtime allies, she told a radio interviewer in 1998 that rape “isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a woman”, arguing that society “glorifies” the sexual assault as particularly horrific. She later questioned the size of the gender pay gap, said men had become victims of the gender war and seemed skeptical of transgender rights, saying that because that “women have it better than men”, some men were “fighting back by becoming women themselves.

Yet she continued to champion women’s liberation, and it was often hard to tell when she was expressing her true beliefs or simply trying to provoke and entertain. Laughing through interviews, she admitted to fabricating stories and details about her life to liven up the conversation, and estimated that “about 60%” of what she told reporters was true. In some cases, it appeared that Mrs. Weldon herself was unsure of what really happened; at the very least, she had trouble making sense of it.

“I long for a day of reckoning when the plots of our lives will be neatly linked, and all the riddles explained, and the meaning of events clarified,” she wrote at the start of her autobiography. “We turn to fiction, I guess, because nothing like that is going to happen, and at least on the printed page we can observe beginnings, middles, and endings, and find out where the morality lies.”

The youngest of two daughters, she was born Franklin Birkinshaw in Alvechurch, Worcestershire on September 22, 1931. Her father, Frank, was a doctor who had worked as a driver for British Army officer TE Lawrence in the Middle East. His mother, the former Margaret Jepson, was herself a novelist and the daughter of another author, Edgar Jepson, whose literary acquaintances included TS Eliot and Ezra Pound.

Ms Weldon’s parents had moved to New Zealand shortly before she was born, and she was raised there with her older sister, Jane, as their parents’ marriage fell apart. Her mother continued to raise the children alone, supporting the family by writing serial romance and adventure novels. After the Second World War they returned to Britain, where Ms Weldon won a scholarship to a London girls’ school and studied at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

After stints as a waitress and orderly in a hospital, she joined the British Foreign Office, where she wrote propaganda leaflets that were dropped on Poland during the Cold War. In her early 20s she had a son, Nick, from a relationship with Colyn Davies, a musician and nightclub doorman whom she left for a brief marriage to Ronald Bateman, a manager who was 25. his eldest and, according to Mrs. Weldon, simply wanted a child and a wife for his resume.

She later wrote about marriage in the third person, distancing herself from the relationship in her autobiography.

“What’s so strange is that until you write about the experience, you haven’t really seen it,” she told the Guardian, referring to herself at the time. second person. “The extraordinary of it eluded you because it always does when you experience something. It’s only afterwards, when you look at small parts of your life, that you realize that it was completely crazy.

In the late 1950s, Mrs. Weldon was working as a copywriter for an advertising agency, helping to create the egg industry slogan “Go to work on an egg”, which lasted for years, and suggesting the phrase “The vodka gets you drunker faster”. for a booze campaign, which his bosses rejected.

Her experience in writing concise, catchy advertising copy came in handy when she launched her literary career in the early 1960s, shortly after marrying her second husband, Ron Weldon, a musician-turned-antique dealer. She adapted one of her television scripts into her first novel, ‘The Fat Woman’s Joke’ (1967), and later worked on screen projects including an adaptation of the BBC miniseries of ‘Pride and Prejudice” (1980).

After three decades of marriage, Mrs Weldon’s husband left her for his “astrotherapist”. He died in 1994, the day his divorce from Ms Weldon was finalized. In less than a year, she married Nick Fox, a poet and bookseller who became her manager. They settled in a 19th century stone house in Dorset, where Ms Weldon continued to write, publishing books including ‘Chalcot Crescent’ (2009), a dystopian novel about the future of capitalism, and ‘Death of a She Devil” (2017), the sequel to his previous hit.

In 2020, she announced that she was going to divorce.

Survivors include his son Nick; two sons from his second marriage, Dan and Sam; one stepdaughter, Karen; 12 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Another son from his second marriage, Tom, died in 2019.

Ms Weldon was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2001 for her services to literature, shortly after achieving notoriety in the literary world for her novel ‘The Bulgari Connection’. The book was sponsored by jewelry company Bulgari, which paid Ms Weldon to reference its products. She had feared the link would sully her literary reputation, she told The Times, but ultimately decided it wouldn’t make a difference: “They never give me the Booker Prize anyway.”

“My sentences are too short, and if you want to win awards and be taken seriously as a literary writer, you have to cut out all the jokes,” she later told the Guardian. “I’ve judged enough awards in my time to know the most boring book wins. And this isn’t the book you want to write.

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