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Fay Weldon, Novelist, RIP
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It may have been a dream, a fairy tale, or a novel she had written, but the first time I met Fay Weldon she had lost her voice and was conversing with me by writing short notes. We were in a crowded room in a country house picture gallery full of visitors, so it was probably for the best. Very writerly.

For the next 14 years I spent two hours chatting to her most Saturdays.

Fay and I talked about everything except her writing. I assumed she was bored with talking about it; and probably also about doing it. I explained that my wife and I had formed the Novelism Prevention Society, and that when we saw a house where we thought a novel was being perpetrated, we would barge in to see if we could thwart it. Hence we always arrived at 10.30 am on Saturday with a packet of coffee, and then messed up the writer’s calm with a long interlude of chatter.

Even when in voice, Fay was very quietly spoken. Barely audible. Her laugh, on the other hand, was loud and her smile louder. She was an expert maker of coffee, putting an absurd amount in a cafetiere on her Aga, and then when her profligacy was unbearable to behold, peering into it, and adding more. Only when the hot water had been poured in could I intervene and carry the potent concoction to the table.

Fay was bright and inquisitive. She wanted intellectual entertainment, and loved irreverent takes on life. My wife and I and Fay had psychology in common (which she had studied at the University of Edinburgh), and scepticism in plenty. Something in the news would start us off, and then we would bounce into science, politics, religion, country life, publishers, and very occasionally the business matters of writing and trying to get paid for it. Science was a big topic for her, particularly genetics. She valued intelligence, originality, and truth.

Fay wrote in her upstairs room, looking out of the window to the church across the road. It was a very fine stone house, with a curving driveway, and a big garden, all in the heart of Saxon Shaftesbury, just yards away from the old Abbey.

She was famous in literary circles, and a very popular authoress, and had met everyone, though one did not know it unless a particular author came up in conversation. She wrote because it became her imagination, and was her salvation as an independent woman. She never boasted, usually revealing things about her past as curiosities. At our Christmas parties she gathered admirers simply because friends wanted to meet her, not because she courted attention.

She once said that rape was not the worst thing that could happen to a woman. This caused a torrent of criticism (perhaps in reality just an amplified trickle) because it was twisted into meaning that rape was no big deal. Cooler heads understood that the death of a child was more of a life event.

She was seen as a feminist, but that was a partial description. She was in favour of independence and not being restricted by the fact of being a woman. However, she did not follow any cannon of shibboleths, and was critical of many aspects of what feminism had become. Mostly, it was barely a topic in her conversation, whereas a twisted untruth about biological sex would raise her contempt and serve as a starting point for a debate.

Fay had done the first program of Upstairs, Downstairs, which was the prototype of the much later Downton Abbey series. She had grown tired of the tyranny of TV commissioner requirements. She would write a script as she wished it to be, and would then have to re-shape the characters into the race, sex and class required by her pay masters. She did this without enthusiasm or complaint.

She talked about her own life with amusement. She had a lovely photo of herself and her mother, which I admired every time I came into her salon, the kitchen where we spent so many hours, the tall window casting winter sunshine on the wooden table with its assorted mugs, ornaments, cards from friends, and books everywhere. The corridor to the kitchen was also lined with books, and there was an official library room full of books which we never ever spent any time in. Photographers always snapped her in that room.

She wryly recognised she had not chosen her men well, but circumstances had made her dependent, so she got on as best she could. She certainly still believed in the institution of marriage, whatever problems she had encountered within it.

She described with amusement her early scheme to set up a tea shop, brought to nothing by the realities of cooking small-scale for a small circle of customers.

She told her students at Bath University that novels were only read by young women, so if authors wanted to be successful they must cater for that demographic.

She knew that I did not read novels, but I once said I had enjoyed Treasure Island. She replied “Falls apart after about page 80”. She was right, of course, but the early pages were still magical.

Fay kept writing and her last book was a sequel to the She Devil. The book launch was at the Ivy in 2017 and she drew an admiring crowd, but her writing days were over.

Fay’s last years were not easy. We visited her in hospital and discussed her options. She separated from her husband and was lovingly cared for by her son and wife. Towards the end her voice totally gave out, but in her 91st year she continued the writerly tradition by mastering texting.

Her last text to me was in November:

“I hear they’ve decided that birds have intelligence. Whatever next? X”

Fay Weldon: novelist and lovely person.

 
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  1. ruralguy says:

    The descent through old age is rapid, but often quite fascinating, because people like Fay are molded by nearly a century of learned experiences. It’s a bit humbling, but intriguing, to converse someone who has lived experiences far beyond what you’ve lived. Their learned experiences and behaviors, reflect your comparatively poorer image, just like a mirror.

    I’ve seen the sweep of history in my own family which has abnormally long spans of time between generations. My grandfather who died in the 1920s was born just after the American Civil War, more than 150 years ago. Many of their personalities were shaped by the rough living on the frontier from Kentucky/Ohio through the Dakota territories. Experiences play some role in shaping who we are. Unlike the generations that preceded me, I see people around me as better educated, but the experiences that shape them are more like the struggles of a lap dog, who finds drama in a misplaced blanket.

    We lose much, with the loss of people like Fay.

  2. Sorry for your loss, but I enjoyed your very nice memoir about Fay. I‘ve only read one of her novels but I enjoyed it too.

  3. “novelist and lovely person.”

    [a much less elegant translation: “accomplished something solid and necessary in the world, yet did it while staying true to a high ideal”]

    Anybody would (or at least should) be proud to have that much on their tombstone. Cheers to you for a splendid memory of your splendid friend. You were very lucky to have known such a critter.

  4. Cater “to.”

    If you cater “for,” that means you work “for” a catering company.

    • Agree: Liza
  5. Kim says:

    White woman. No children.

    Sad not least bcs as she herself said, as a young woman

    All I wanted was to get married and have babies.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fay_Weldon

    Instead she grew up to become a standard bearer for the ideology that attacks women who do.

    Sour grapes. What they cannot have, they hate and spoil for others.

  6. dearieme says:
    @ruralguy

    the struggles of a lap dog, who finds drama in a misplaced blanket.

    Finely written in a comment thread about a fine writer.

    • Thanks: ruralguy
  7. dearieme says:

    She told her students at Bath University that novels were only read by young women, so if authors wanted to be successful they must cater for that demographic.

    Does this apply at younger ages? Was Harry Potter a particular hit with girls rather than boys?

    Otherwise I simply echo #2, paleo retiree.

  8. @Kim

    “White woman. No children .. Sour grapes. What they cannot have, they hate and spoil for others.”

    Did you not read the text? Or you were you unable to understand it?

    “She separated from her husband and was lovingly cared for by her son and wife”.

    For the record, she had 4 children, and 12 grandchildren.

  9. @ruralguy

    “but the experiences that shape them are more like the struggles of a lap dog, who finds drama in a misplaced blanket.”

    This describes the protected and spoiled millennial to a tee, with their safe spaces and inability to cope with life.

  10. pyrrhus says:

    Thanks for this remembrance….

  11. @ruralguy

    ‘I see people around me as better educated, but the experiences that shape them are more like the struggles of a lap dog, who finds drama in a misplaced blanket.’

    Generally, there’s an inverse relationship between the actual trauma of an experience and how willing people are to talk about it. Barack Obama was very open about how he had once been a victim of racism; a security guard followed him around a store.

    Very bad things still happen to people — but those people generally don’t bring their experiences up in casual conversation. In fact, if someone tells you about something, there’s a good chance that they are doing so because it didn’t bother them all that much.

    • Agree: true.enough
  12. FKA Max says: • Website

    I explained that my wife and I had formed the Novelism Prevention Society, and that when we saw a house where we thought a novel was being perpetrated, we would barge in to see if we could thwart it. Hence we always arrived at 10.30 am on Saturday with a packet of coffee, and then messed up the writer’s calm with a long interlude of chatter.

    Reminded me of this… 😉

    21:27 Lesson 7: The Minnesota Long Goodbye

  13. Anon[206] • Disclaimer says:

    Fay Weldon? Wasn’t she O.J.’s friend?

  14. @dearieme

    Yes, she released forces that did not help women, or men, and regretted it. She became more and more realistic.

  15. dearieme says:

    Did you ever, doc, get the chance to discuss with her the novels of Hillary Mantel? I’ve read only two so far (the first two of the Wolf Hall trilogy) and I’ve found them superb.

  16. I think we did discuss that, and from memory Fay was positive about her. I think she mentioned being on a literary judging panel with her.

    • Thanks: dearieme
  17. dearieme says:

    While contemplating your Anti-Novel League I thought I might recommend another book by what used to be called “a lady novelist”:

    ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman

    I recommend it to you because it seems to me to deal with psychological “types” who are a bit unusual without being remotely mad. Also it made me laugh a lot.

    • Replies: @James Thompson
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