An outspoken author who has written feminist explorations

Fay Weldon at the 2011 Oxford Literary Festival (Shutterstock)

Fay Weldon at the 2011 Oxford Literary Festival (Shutterstock)

“If I’m a prolific writer,” Fay Weldon once said, “and with an obscene rush I switch my hand from novels to stage scripts and radio plays, it’s because there’s so much to say. few of us will say it, and time is running out.”

Weldon’s statements have often been met with mixed reactions in a writing career that spanned 50 years. Some liked her mix of frivolity and serious intentions; others found her views capricious and inconsistent. However, she saw “no real virtue in consequence. People are contradictory.” At the end of one opinion-forming interview, she also pointed out: “These are not considered views; only today’s views.

The author was born Franklin Birkinshaw in Barnt Green, Birmingham on 22 September 1931. Her name came about because her mother Margaret, a romance writer, was convinced she would have a son. (She already had a daughter, Jane, a year older.)

Weldon was 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 when Weldon’s father abandoned the 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 bring him back to his senses, he divorced her.

Her mother struggled to support them. She took menial jobs, but also wrote romance novels to pay the bills. (She has already written a serious novel, Through Panama). Writing was in the family. Weldon’s maternal grandfather was detective novelist Edgar Jepson; her uncle also became a mystery writer.

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. She never saw her father again: he died of a stroke in 1947.

Weldon went to South Hampstead High School and then to St Andrews University in Scotland on a scholarship to study psychology and economics. Her sister married the artist and became pregnant, but left her husband after eight weeks. After moving to London, Weldon worked as a hospital orderly, waitress, then a Polish desk at the Foreign Office, where Winston Churchill rated her notes “VG”.

At night, she and her best friend would go on double dates with visiting businessmen, which sometimes turned into foursomes in a box. She later said that such an “intimate congress with another human being is very reassuring. It makes you feel alive and worthy of their attention. Humiliation is part of it.”

Author circa 1985 (Getty)

Author circa 1985 (Getty)

She became pregnant with her son Nicholas when she was 22. Her father, a busker and porter, had offered to marry her and earn his living as a plumber in Luton. She declined, but took his name by ballot.

When her son Weldon was born, her mother, pregnant sister and another pregnant woman moved to Saffron Walden to open a tea shop. They abandoned the project when Weldon couldn’t deal with the sobbing spirits she claimed inhabited the building.

In 1957, she married school principal Ronald Bateman, 25 years her senior. She said in her autobiography Auto da Fay (2002) that he needs a wife for his resume but does not want sex with her. He encouraged her to take lovers and, according to her, wanted to be her pimp.

He also encouraged her to work as a hostess in the Soho clip. Weldon said she really enjoyed being a hostess: “You see, it was a crime. It was fun in the way parties are fun, socially it was easier because there were rules.

She wrote about this period in the third person to distance herself from it. Still, she also noted, “Poor Ronald Bateman. [I] he was a soulless, practical monster.”

She treated marriage as a trade: “Either you supported your child or they took him away and placed him in an orphanage. So it was customary to marry someone for a roof over their head and provide services of a domestic and sexual nature. It wasn’t that surprising or scary.”

She left Bateman after two years and got a job as a journalist before embarking on a successful career in advertising copywriting. She didn’t come up with the catchphrase “Go to work on an egg” or “Unwrap a banana”, but she was the head of the department that did. She could have given a vodka password that was too direct: “Vodka gets drunk faster.”

Although successful at work, she described herself in her twenties as a “lost girl” going through a series of unsatisfying love affairs. In 1960, at the age of 29, she met the artist and antiques dealer Ron Weldon. They married and had their first son, Daniel, in 1963. While she was pregnant, she wrote her first TV play, A gripping complaint, placing him on his 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 sons. The couple also attended regular therapy sessions. She said: “We went to our analysts twice a week, so there was really no need to talk to each other.”

“See me as Sisyphus but having fun” (Times Newspapers/Shutterstock)

Her sister Jane had mental health problems in the 1960s, and Weldon also often cared for her children. Jane died of cancer in 1969 at the age of 39. Weldon said, “I felt completely helpless in the face of it.”

She was in high demand for the next 20 years as a television writer. She won the pilot award for Upstairs downstairs (1971), adapted Pride and Prejudice for the BBC (1980) and wrote the screenplay that same year Life for Christina, the true story of a 15-year-old boy sentenced to life imprisonment. She also adapted Olivia Manning The Balkan Trilogy in an eight-part BBC series.

She published her first novel, Fat Woman’s Jokein 1967. More books included Down among women (1971) Friends (1975) and Practice (1978), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In these early novels, she was critical of competing women who focused on their selfish needs rather than solidarity with other women.

Her style was direct, but that’s because “you say what you want to say in the shortest amount of time so everyone can go home.”

In the 1980s, she explored how science and the physical changes it enabled could affect women’s lives in novels such as dandelion (1980) The life and love of the devil (1983) and Cloning 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.

Bad women (1995) won the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award. In 2001, she was criticized for making a deal with a Bulgari jeweler to include the company’s name in a novel.

Over time, her statements about men and women caused consternation or anger among feminists to the point where she said, “I still call myself a feminist, but I’m not sure they would still have me.”

Perhaps because she said women shouldn’t expect to orgasm and should fake one if they don’t have one; that they should not make men pick up socks or clean the toilet; that “rape is not the worst thing that can happen to a woman if you are safe, alive and unmarked after the incident.”

She later confessed, “Sometimes I take extreme positions because I want to argue with someone.”

In 2000, she found religion and was confirmed at St. Paul. She became a CBE in 2001. She moved to Dorset with Nick Fox in 2002.

Da Fay’s car it was published the same year. “The writing wasn’t therapeutic in the slightest,” she said. “All that can be redone is to scrape off the scars to reveal the still-bleeding wounds.”

She has written over 30 novels and five collections of short stories. Her latest novel, House habits (2012), was the first in a planned historical trilogy entitled Love and Legacy. Some saw it as cashing in on popularity Downton Abbey.

The survivors include her son Nick; two sons from a second marriage; stepdaughter; 12 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren

Weldon joked that she sees herself as “someone who drops tiny bits of food in the form of comments and conversations into the black, huge maw of world discontent. I will never fill it or close it; but it seems to me that it is my duty, not to mention my pleasure, to try to do it, however clumsily. See me as Sisyphus, but having fun.”

Fay Weldon, writer, b. September 22, 1931, d. January 4, 2023

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