Clare Hall talks to Fay Weldon about a half century spent writing novels
Fay Weldon is in holiday mode when we meet, the ink having dried on the last page of her latest novel just two days before. Perhaps this explains why she has forgotten about our appointment and I arrive at midday to find her and poet husband Nick Fox about to embark on a leisurely cooked breakfast. No matter; she is unfazed, charming and still revelling in the two day high that follows the completion of a novel.
She describes the new creation as a kind of warts and all Upstairs Downstairs, the famous television series she helped create in 1971.
“It’s set in 1899 and in a way it is the true story of Upstairs Downstairs. I got fired from Upstairs Downstairs very early on because they wanted the characters to be nice and to be loved and I couldn’t write nice, lovable characters so probably with this book I’ve got my revenge!’ Back then those nice men at the BBC couldn’t handle Weldon’s version of Mrs Bridges, as a mean-spirited bully who drove the kitchen maid to suicide. But Weldon, who drew from her experience of living in the rat-inhabited basement of a grand North London house where her mother worked as housekeeper, was reluctant to shroud the class divide in the cuddly, gloss coating that was required. She says: ‘Cooks were like that. They had hard lives, with a great deal of responsibility and terrible conditions and so they tended to take to drink…..it was like working in a really bad office with a lot of sexual harassment and bullying going on.’ ‘My mother only worked there for six months but it was enough. You see, I did know what it was like to be that person and back then most writers only knew what it was like to be upstairs, not downstairs.’ Writing is in Weldon’s blood; both her maternal grandfather and her mother were published authors, the latter penning romantic fiction to keep the family afloat. She knew she had inherited the writing gene, but began her career in advertising, responsible for the famous slogan 'Go to work on an egg’ and the not-so-famous ‘Vodka gets you drunker quicker’ (her bosses consigned that one to the wastepaper basket). She was prompted to write novels, she says, by the injustice of the sexes, a battle which continues to absorb her today, albeit with a volte-face focus. ‘I didn’t start writing until I became so indignant about the state of women’s lives and the pressure built up until I had to speak out and the way to do it was through fiction.’ That first novel, The Fat Woman’s Joke, ricocheted into the public consciousness in 1967; on the surface a satirical tale of an overweight married woman’s rebellion against the conformities of image, in actuality Weldon had blown the whistle on the pointless drudgery of many women’s lives. Other more caustic works followed and Weldon became synonymous with the feminist movement of the seventies. Thirty years on and Weldon feels sorry for men. Women won the battle, but, she believes at the cost of their own happiness. ‘I see women as entirely dominant. I see society as feminised and I’m not saying that is to its detriment, it’s better female dominated than male dominated, especially for the women. But it’s not much fun for the men.’ The picture Weldon paints of modern family life is pretty bleak. Hers is a vista where women love the children more than their husbands and children prefer their virtual ‘families’ on Facebook. ‘Nowadays the woman tends to fall in love with the baby and the whole sensuous thing happens in the mother child relationship….men tend to feel ignored and the marriage breaks up. It used to be that you were looking after your husband’s welfare but nowadays women are trained to look after their own welfare and disparage the husbands as far as I can see.’ It is comments such as these which have got her into hot water with today’s brand of feminists. Her truths are often uncomfortable, yet you cannot help but feel that as someone who has been observing and writing about the human condition for fifty years, she has a point. Weldon has spent much of her life in the West Country, first near Glastonbury, Somerset with her husband of thirty years Ron Weldon and for the past fifteen years in North Dorset with Fox. She says the beauty of the area and to a certain extent the spirituality connected with the ancient West Country, has continued to inspire her writing. “Landscape and view is extraordinarily important to how you write, what you write and why you write.’ With Weldon, though she is mother to four sons and clearly devoted to her husband Fox. you feel her life is almost wholly about writing, that there is no reprieve even if she wanted one. She has the writer’s interior knowledge, the constant soundtrack in her head and admits she is often ‘able to tell what is going on in other people’s heads and it can get quite disconcerting.’ She teaches creative writing at Brunel University and says she sometimes wakes up in the night thinking about her students’ fiction., no doubt solving their plot problems or killing off characters. When I ask Weldon if she differs from her writing persona she says this: ‘I don’t think there’s much of ‘me’ left. I am always mystified when people try to improve themselves or think there is something to understand about themselves. There’s never really been time actually, not once I’d started writing. Writing is probably just a great escape anyway.’
Kehua by Fay Weldon is available at Amazon.