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The She-Devil tells all
By Daphne Guinness
May 6 2002

Fay Weldon: unmarried mother, adulteress, nightclub hostess. She was indecently assaulted (twice), sold herself for stockings, rigged research for a Gallup poll. Had suicidal tendencies and, before the word existed, was bulimic. Did she, like Princess Diana, upchuck? "Of course. That way I could eat what I want and lose weight. No big deal."

She says doctors will be furious she put that in her autobiography Auto Da Fay (after the Spanish Inquisition auto-da-fe which tortured confessions out of victims). "They'll say, 'obviously she is in denial and her father abused her'."

But that's life, and this is Fay Weldon, who wrote The Life and Loves of a She-Devil in Sydney's Darling Point, now on her yellow velvet Victorian brothel sofa at home in Hampstead, London. She discusses episodes of her past and wonders how the sofa was used in a brothel when only one can lie on it.

Auto, a hair-curling memoir, was written she says to put the record straight on the Internet. Was she wise to do it? "I have no idea. The Mail On Sunday serialised it with extraordinary headlines. 'I WAS A SCHEMING, HEARTLESS MONSTER' was one. I am now known as 'CBE SHM' at home. That's Commander of the British Empire with SHM tacked on." The Mail certainly went to town. "My sinful life as a suburban she-devil ... Blackmailed by a rapist ... A 'lesbian' crush, Bed with my best friend's lover and the day I nearly had a back-street abortion ... I ran off with the penniless busker ... The day my lover's wife turned up in my bedroom. Would he choose her or me?" were other screamers and they only skim the surface.

"They were disconcerting, but I don't dwell on them. I don't say, 'Oh, pity me' or 'Oh, look at me'." Auto ends at Fay Weldon, age 32 (she is 70) for fear of upsetting living rellies, especially her mother Margaret, 92, unaware of Auto's existence. There will be more? "Oh, I think so."

Meanwhile, digest the past. Her "lesbian" crush at 10 on Alison Grey at school: "She had curvy lips, a voice pure and bell-like. Within five minutes I was head over heels in love with her." At 13 she wants to commit suicide: "I still do sometimes. Don't we all?"

She loses her virginity at 20 to Ray Barnes, her best friend's boyfriend: "Oh, the dark, male saturnine-ness of it all. He rode a Harley-Davidson, wore a leather jacket, smoked Gauloises. I thought he was wonderful. He visited Ellen but when Ellen was away he visited me."

Somewhere in the scheme of things she is indecently assaulted by two doctors, separately. "It's not a statistical sample I'm offering here. I'm not saying all doctors are like this; it just happens I ran into a lot of them." But she says it, that's the point.

She meets Colyn, a penniless busker, and becomes pregnant. "For two minutes only" she considers abortion; now Nicholas is a jazz pianist with his own website and people ask if she is Nick Weldon's mother.

But in the '50s Franklin Birkinshaw (as she was born, aka Fay) becomes Davies (by deed poll) and wings it through a series of jobs menial (waitress), jobs horrible (Daily Mirror readers' advice page) to jobs amazing (writing advertising copy).

She rigs the figures of a Gallup poll about men's ties and is promoted to head office. "That's the way it goes. There's very little justice."

Then while her mother babysat, and man-crazy Fay went to pubs and parties, she meets and marries Ron Bateman, headmaster (divorced) and her memoirs spasm from first person to third. Not because Mr B was so awful but because "this was an aberration which I refuse to acknowledge" (even in Who's Who).

It's all there: a 2-year union of strange ways. Did she ever have sex with him? "No." Was he homosexual? "It didn't occur to me. People didn't think that of themselves then. It would be horrific." Anyhow, Mr B says take a lover, which was generous "Yes, it was" and with Ellen she gives visiting executives a "good time" in London's lay-bys, sometimes foursomes if the mood took them. She makes it sound so funny. "Well, it was. In those days it was unusual for nice girls to be doing this kind of thing," and she giggles girlishly.

A local stallholder chats her up and Mr B says: "Next time ask how much he pays." What extraordinary behaviour, but as Mrs Bateman points out, a gift is not a payment (that's when she gets her stockings). She goes off the idea when she sees the letch's vulgar decor, but is forced into painful, unwanted sex. "Well, what did I expect? I could scarcely cry rape since I had freely put myself into this situation." By now he knew she was the wife of the masonic lodge master. Same time, same treatment. Blackmail!

"What about nightclub hostess?" suggests Mr B, and he buys her a sexy dress and drops her off. "Exactly, he colluded in all this." That was fun, too. "It was delinquent, you see. It was fun in the way parties are fun actually, socially it was easier because there were rules."

She discovers it wasn't beauty men were after but availability. Did she go along with that? "No, but I knew I could." It's all very surreal and that's why, says Weldon, she can't (or daren't?) pigeonhole her ex as she would in fiction. "Because it's real life, you see. But, you know, he was not a bad man."

At this point her adventures in the third person end and, stealing £4 from Mr B, she runs away. As plain Fay Bateman she falls in love with Pers Neilsen, married with three children, and Mrs Neilsen bursts into their bedroom. "Never apologise when discovered in flagrante delicto," she advises in her novella The Rules of Life, and she doesn't.

"It was appalling of me," she says now. But the wife was appalling to break into their bedroom. "No, she didn't behave appallingly. I did by having her husband in my bed. I should have been at least apologetic and ashamed of myself."

At 29, Fay Bateman, now group copy head and out of love with Pers, meets Ron Weldon the artist, and that's that for 30 years. Except it's not.

She backtracks to the beginning and, with Ron, goes to analysts. In she goes crying; out she comes weeping even more. But Ron insists. "When we met, he said, 'If you're marrying me you have to go, too, or you won't understand a word I am talking about.' I said, 'Yes Ron', because I was a Good Girl." Would she do that today? "No, of course not," shrieking with laughter.

Still, Group Dynamics "kind of" helps her writing, and Ron's surname definitely does. She doesn't succeed until she adds Weldon to Fay ("because it says Well Done, get it?") On her way to hospital to deliver their first child, Daniel, she posts a TV play A Catching Complaint and wonders why Ron is with his best friend's girl, "a proper artist's moll", instead of with her. She mustn't worry, she tells herself. It is Fay he loves.

The world knows what happens to Ron Weldon: he leaves Fay for another woman and dies the day they divorce. She writes a book about it, Splitting.

But what of Nick Fox, 55, her third husband, former bookseller, now her manager. What of his reaction to her confessions? "Puzzled at first, then good. Since we got together when I was 60 he couldn't expect anything else, could he?"

And her fans? "Oh, I've got beyond caring. This is the past. It's social history. Twenty-one-year-olds now have so many choices; we had none. You could choose to keep out of people's beds, I suppose, but it was never a choice of mine."



Believe it or not, but it bowls along
Byron Rogers

By Fay Weldon
Flamingo, £15.99, pp.366, ISBN:00071992X

Autobiography turns on trust: it is a long tale told in a darkened room, on which you cannot question, let alone cross-examine, the teller. But should you catch him or her out once on a point of detail, that is disastrous: the daylight streams in, and you start wondering just how much of the rest you can believe. In Fay Weldon’s autobiography the daylight for me streamed in on page 104, where she writes about the writer Arthur Machen:

It was he who invented the famous Angel of Mons, the apparition which floated over Mons Cathedral one Christmas Day during a lull in the fighting in the first world war. He was battle correspondent for the Evening News at the time, his editor was harassing him for a report, there was nothing for him to say, so he invented the Angel and wired the story back. Or so he told Nona.

Nona was Fay Weldon’s grandmother, so the story comes with the imprimatur of a witness.

It is hard to know where to start with this version. There was no Angel of Mons, there were angels, at least this is how it has passed into folklore, something which mystified the writer who had not mentioned angels once. It was September 1914, not Christmas Day, when Machen’s The Bowmen appeared in the Evening News, and this was not a report, it was a short story, published as such. Nowhere does he mention Mons Cathedral, and certainly not a lull in the fighting. On the contrary, the British line is almost breaking when the ghostly archers of Agincourt (‘with a sort of shining about them’) intervene, and the grey German hordes go down before their arrows. Machen was not a battle correspondent, he was a feature writer who was never in France. But he was a friend of Fay Weldon’s family, and this is how she remembers the story. So how much else can you believe?

On page 351 she tells the tragic story of the two suicides in the life of the late Poet Laureate, whom again she knew. These, she says, came out of a refusal to peel potatoes. A young couple, David and Assia Weevil, the husband a colleague of Fay Weldon’s, were staying with the Hugheses, when Mrs Hughes, the poet Sylvia Plath, asked Assia to help with the lunch, something which caused her to bridle (‘a tendency an Israeli background always encourages’, comments Mrs Weldon). To exact revenge, Mrs Weevil went down the garden and made a pass at Ted Hughes, to which he, over the bean rows, responded. The result, according to Fay Weldon, was two dead women and a dead unborn child. Only she hasn’t done. Lacking a sense of the ridiculous, she uses what she calls ‘these seminal events’ to preach a hair- raising little feminist sermon:

That such talented women should die for what — for love? Because that’s what they died of, not depression, let alone ‘born to suicide’, as is so often said of Sylvia. How could it happen, today’s young women ask, in bewilderment? How could women see their lives only in terms of being loved or not loved by a man? The times were against them, so the times had to change. And so they did.

Eh? Say things happened as she says they did: you are either dealing with mental illness, which makes it sad, or with people so self-obsessed and absurd they are part of the blackest of all black comedies, for it is horribly funny. You are left hoping, if only for the sake of tragedy, that her version is not correct.

Reading this book is like watching a speeded-up silent film without captions. Little figures scurry around until they fall down, and in time they all fall down, or go mad, or commit suicide, or run away. You need a good head for geography to cope with all the running away, on one occasion by her father, a doctor, during an earthquake in New Zealand, when he abandoned his family for three months. Why he did so is never explained, as it never is in her novels. It is just that things happen, usually bad things, usually to women, usually because of men. This book is not a load of laughs, but it does bowl along.

On one occasion the second wife of her third husband turned up (you also need a good head for maths):

My second son Daniel was a few months old, and [she] told me I was crass, and insensitive, and had stopped Ron [the husband] painting, and took the baby from my arms and threw him across the room. Then she left. She was dark with flushed cheeks, and stunning- looking. She was wearing very shiny clompy black shoes. Dan landed on a sofa and didn’t even cry, just looked surprised.

Quite a few people go mad in the book, but this second wife later went ‘very mad’, and cut her throat. But ‘Then she left’, and all those ‘ands’ … Family life in Primrose Hill reads like that of a different species, Komodo dragons, say. She picked up my son and ate him under a jacaranda tree. Then she left. Her tail was very long. This is on page 361.

On page 360 there is an account of Mr Weldon’s war service. ‘He never got to the front line in Burma because his name began with a W…’ Eh? ‘…and was over a page which no one ever bothered to turn: everyone else went off and was killed, but he was spared.’ Had Mrs Weldon in her parallel universe been present at the battle of Hastings, which she may well have been, her account might have been something like this: King Harold loved corncrakes and, wherever he was and whatever he was doing, would stop and look up. Unfortunately…

Hers has been a remarkable life, full of ghosts and men, which as far as she is concerned may be the same thing in the end. Husbands appear and disappear, unlike socks which she hates and are always there, one of the husbands, having given up sex, inviting her to prostitute herself, which she does, for a pair of nylons, with a market trader who fails to turn up for their second appointment (‘selling herself so cheap had made him angry’). She often writes about herself in the third person. Then there is advertising (she comes up with the slogan ‘Go to Work on an Egg’), and, finally, novels.

On the cover is a portrait of her as a child, her face wide-eyed and expressionless, as though waiting for life to scribble all over it. This is now in the national art gallery of New Zealand, but the eerie thing is, though life did its best, that face in photographs never did change.


June 4, 2003

Writing Off a Past to Write Freely of a Future


By Fay Weldon
Illustrated. 366 pages. Grove Press. $25

She's a scream." Apply it to the British writer Fay Weldon, because her novels can be far-fetchedly funny and because what the comedy fetches is a far-ranging order of women's fury. Fury at men, conspicuously, and also at themselves, which is why she has been called both feminist and antifeminist.

It is fury not so much expressed as observed, wryly but without judgment or resignation. "Life's like that," read the sign on a cart in Spain in the harshest early days of Franco. Justifiably (from a dictator's point of view), the carter was arrested. Ms. Weldon's fictional voices do not submit; neither do they hesitate to arrest themselves. Neither does her autobiographical voice.

You hesitate to label "Auto da Fay" — a virtuoso triple pun on inquisitorial self-punishment — as her first venture at memoir because so much of its material shows up as roots for her novels. So do the wit, the shrewdly disconcerting marksmanship, the refusal to engage herself even with herself.

Extending "pathography," the term coined by Joyce Carol Oates for reductive biographies, this is autopathography — by no means the same as confession. It is more austere and bracing, though too many passages sag: if the author won't engage herself, why would the reader? What jolts the attention back is eruptions of incandescence, something other than warmth.

It is a memoir written not to evoke the past but to get rid of it. The book ends when, in her early 30's, Ms. Weldon drops the manuscript of what will be her first success, a television play, in a Regents Park mailbox. (Only secondarily is she on her way to the hospital, giving birth three hours later.) The thump of the package is cousin to Nora's slammed-door exit in Ibsen's "Doll House." The author's final sentence: "What I do from now on, all that early stuff digested and out of the way, is write, and let living take a minor role."

Immediately follows a glowing photograph of herself holding that baby, now 5 or 6. It casts an odd light on her declaration. What is to be squelched is not living but, in a writer's cosmography, living's ability to undermine. Think of a soldier abandoning mortgage and plumbing to go to war. (Ms. Weldon's novels are war by other means, though a sort of peace is eventually rumored.) As for "all that early stuff," she writes it as the dark clay from which her glazed pots were fashioned.

Ms. Weldon's parents moved to New Zealand before her birth in 1933; she and her older sister, Jane, were raised there until she was 12, amid domestic storming. Her father, a doctor, had charm, good looks and a large spirit eager to accommodate many women. Her mother, a writer, fancied in her storybook way that if she were unfaithful just once, her husband would repent. He walked out instead, divorced her and married someone else.

He was the child's early example of the male double standard; also of male attractiveness. (Anger and susceptibility go together in her novels: only a seeming contradiction, and a key to their wicked liveliness.) Also of the brute force of male obliviousness; also of the unease that shelters inside it.

Her father would terrify the girls by stopping the car in a dry river bed and talking of flash floods. The moral, a silk thread with a dreadful hook at the end:

"My experience of men in cars has always been that if you don't want them to do something, they will. It is when they are behind a wheel that they most fear the control of women and children."

The male theme dominates a lively portrait of her mother's family: two generations of arts and indulgence in London's bohemian circles. Edgar, her grandfather, was a successful author of popular novels who lodged his mistress across the street. He dispatched Frieda, his wife, to help out when she went into labor.

Frieda, a gifted pianist, did all the housework (before decamping to live with her own mother). "Bacon and eggs came to my breakfast, beef or mutton to my dinner, with quiet punctuality," Edgar wrote, presumably suggesting a motorized helpmate.

He believed in free love and the Life Force (i.e., sex). So did a brother-in-law who seduced one of Edgar's daughters "to the destruction of her life but with no apparent difference to his." The girl went mad, Ms. Weldon writes, her iron displacing her irony.

Life in New Zealand was a struggle for Ms. Weldon's abandoned mother, though things improved when she sold a series of romance novels. Nevertheless, on the dubious strength of a small inheritance, she moved back to London shortly after the war.

An unwelcome poor relation, she had little help from her family. She worked as a housekeeper, living with her daughters in the servant quarters. (Ms. Weldon was to write several episodes of "Upstairs Downstairs.") Still later she became a subway guard, partly for the warm overcoat provided.

"Dickensian" comes to mind. Additionally, the thought that Dickens not only rendered the melodramatic harshness of his day, but also seems to have molded British consciousness (always literarily suggestible) so as to present a model, over decades to come, for harsh melodrama.

Ms. Weldon has chilly memories of school, though she did well enough to win a scholarship to St. Andrews University in Scotland. Her account is patchy and numb; so is her treatment of postcollege struggles and a brief, loathsome marriage: he wouldn't have sex but encouraged her to go elsewhere and tell him about it.

From this low point she got a job writing ads, flourished and gained entry to a literary world that included such fellow copywriters-turned-writers as William Trevor and Gavin Ewart. She married Ron Weldon, an artist with painter's block, who painted houses instead. They got along, sometimes stormily, for 31 years, before parting.

She is affectionate but terse about the marriage (a tooth throbs coldly). She was only a few years into it when she taxied to the mailbox and then to the hospital. Upon which this writing of a life ends, and a life of writing began.

Jonathan Yardley

By Jonathan Yardley

Sunday, June 8, 2003; Page BW02


By Fay Weldon

Norton. 366 pp. $25

Beginning with its deliciously witty title and ending with its staunch final paragraph, Fay Weldon's autobiography is from first to last a wonder. Incredible though it may seem, the forever-youthful British novelist is now in her early seventies, from which vantage point she looks back upon her early years with fondness and regret, with the occasional brief glint of malice or flicker of astonishment, with protests against fate's cruel surprises yet a stoic acceptance of their inevitability. Recalling with sorrow the death from cancer of a woman who was her friend for four decades, she writes:

"The writing of this memoir causes pain as well as pleasure. It is not in the least therapeutic, on the contrary, but then I have never been a believer in the theory beloved by psychotherapists that recollection cures, or 'closes.' But then I daresay you get what you expect. To me, who believes that all re-living does is scrape off a scar tissue mercifully left by the passage of time, to reveal still bleeding wounds, this is all that happens. To those who have faith no doubt recollection does indeed serve a healing function, or helps them understand better what they are, or how to change. But I have always felt like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, who, when it was suggested to him that he might have to change, expressed surprise and could see no virtue in it. Or like the husband in the James Thurber cartoon, who says to the great troubled lump in his bed, 'But what do you want to understand yourself for, Martha?' "

In her early years Weldon accumulated scar tissue aplenty, a process she describes with humor and occasional bursts of anger, but wholly without bitterness. She was born in September 1931 in England, the daughter of Dr. Frank Birkinshaw and his wife, Margaret. The former was away when the great event occurred, and the latter "had been studying numerology, a way of divining the future through the relationship of names to numbers." She assumed the baby would be a boy and chose to name him Franklin Birkinshaw because the name, "she discovered, 'came out the same,' as William Shakespeare." When a girl inconveniently appeared, she was registered as Franklin and remains that to this day, though "they took in time to calling me Fay, I hope not after Fay Wray, the screaming heroine of so many horror films, but you never know."

Almost immediately the family -- which also included an older sister, Jane -- moved to New Zealand, where her father's medical career took an eccentric course from which little income was produced. Her mother, who came from a literary background, wrote a well-received novel called Via Panama and then began writing romantic novels, under pen names, to help out with the family finances. It wasn't enough. "Frank's infidelities and his embarrassing failure to keep out of debt" led in time to a scandalous divorce; mother and daughters became "a survival unit of three," eking out a marginal existence on Frank's erratic support payments and Margaret's erratic earnings.

They made it. Margaret, "a remarkably good person," soldiered valiantly on, and Frank, newly appointed "medical superintendent of the whole Coromandel Peninsula," initiated what became a six-year ritual in which the girls spent every summer with him. They were happy in that beautiful place and came to love the woman whom he eventually married. Fay did well enough in school, though she was happiest when reading the novels of Georgette Heyer, "superior bodice rippers, set in Georgian times, about virtuous virgins, seduction, kidnappings, and lustful rich and powerful men subdued by true love." By the time she reached her mid-teens, she had developed what she happily calls "low tastes," i.e., "blockbusters out of Hollywood, thrillers, gold taps, country music, Chinese takeaways, kidney dressing-tables and Coca-Cola."

Don't be deceived. She was also studying Latin, loving "the sound, meter and wit of this language which no one spoke any more but existed on paper only, which paid such vigorous tribute to the exact order of event, the exact placing of words for maximum effect, maximum irony." She already had discovered the Authorized, or King James, Version of the Bible, which she read against the urgings of the nuns at the Catholic school she briefly attended, who "thought it should be mediated through a priest." She writes: "It has always been my impulse to read what I am not meant to read and not to read what I am encouraged to. I fell in love with language, in what I can now see was in itself a kind of sub-erotic experience. I wrestled with the notion of the hills lifting themselves up and the valleys being exalted, and like Daniel wrestling with the lion, I won." She was also, like so many others of her time, learning how to write from that dead language and that ancient book.

It was while she was a teenager in New Zealand that the first turning point of her young life, the first at least since her parents' divorce, occurred. She wrote but never mailed a "swoony" letter to a fellow schoolgirl. Instead her mother read it and exploded in fury. She accused Fay, who had never heard the word and hadn't a single inclination in that direction, of being a lesbian. "There seemed a line drawn in my life," she writes: "a time before this had happened and a time after." Eventually she recovered, but she had learned "a lesson that was going to repeat itself at intervals through life," that "you could be going along calmly and cheerfully, and suddenly the ground beneath you would erupt and a whole spew of nastiness and corruption would toss itself out like lava from a volcano, the horrid truth about how people saw you and thought about you, and like lava would solidify and be there forever."

The second turning point came many years later. By then Margaret had taken the girls back to England; Fay had gone to St. Andrews University; she had worked in advertising copy writing for a while and shown a considerable gift for it; she had gotten pregnant by a friend whom she liked but had no desire to marry, and had had the baby anyway, a boy whom she named Nicolas; she had "felt the first stirrings in my heart of what became known later as 'feminism' "; and she had endured a bizarre marriage to a man named Bateman, a marriage so devoid of happiness, love or anything to cherish that she can write about it only in the third person.

Then, at the age of 29, she went reluctantly to a party in Hampstead, "and there met Ron Weldon; and that was that for 30 years." He was "educated, well-read, artistic, bohemian, owned his own house, and was not currently married." She could see that there were pluses and minuses to each of them, and she shrugged them off, as did he:

"But who cares, I said of him, and who cares, he said of me, it was love at first sight and there was no time for second thoughts. He assumed of me, as I assumed of him, that now we had met the person we had waited for all our lives, it was all we would either of us ever need. We were made for each other, we thought, and our lives would flourish so long as we were together. And so they did, for longer than we deserved, and for longer than is granted to most, and for that I must be grateful."

They were married for three decades, during which they had three children, all boys, fought fiercely and reunited passionately, then "we divorced and he died, and I thought the world would end." But "it's amazing how it doesn't: or how much of him is part of me, if only by osmosis, and how we continue together." In 1963, two years after their marriage, she wrote a play for television called "A Catching Complaint" and thus began the writing career that to this point encompasses three dozen books and that surely is the lasting evidence of what her marriage gave her.

"What I do from now on," she writes at the end, "all that early stuff digested and out of the way, is write, and let living take a minor role." It is exactly the proper note upon which to close this wise and haunting book. •

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.






Adept novelist-memoirist knows how to handle fire


Daniel Dyer
Special to The Plain Dealer

It's a good thing men and women don't get along better. If they did, novelist Fay Weldon would have to feed her fictional fires with other fuel.

But she is an agile writer, comfortable writing novels, screenplays, biographies and children's books.

Her latest, "Auto da Fay," is a memoir that blazes at times, like some of her fiction.

Weldon's playfulness begins with her title, a pun on auto-da-fe, the term used for the execution of heretics during the Inquisition.

In her memoir, Weldon tries, condemns and burns herself, as well as a number of family, friends and lovers.

But she manages to yank everyone from the fire before anything too deleterious occurs. She seems interested in scorching, not torching.

As memoirs go (is there a hotter genre?), Weldon's is fairly traditional in art and scope. She begins at the beginning and ends on the eve of her first important success, a TV play.

Born in 1931 to a philandering physician father and a writing mother, she traversed childhood with that most cumbersome valise - an awkward name: Franklin Birkinshaw.

Franklin/Fay, who grew up in New Zealand, learned to read at age 3, emerged unscathed from a bout with polio and some harsh Catholic schooling and had a number of epiphanies, including one that would fire her fiction for years: "Men had too much power, I thought for the first, and not for the last time, to make women suffer."

Her father left to marry someone else, so she moved to England with her older sister and mother.

There, her sister, Jane, would marry much older men, go mad and die too soon.

Weldon earned a master of arts in 1952, held low-paying jobs, found herself pregnant and began her first marriage, to Colyn Davies, a doorman and folk singer.

Next on the husband list was Ronald Bateman (1957), a dour divorced schoolmaster.

Weldon employs a clever device in her account of this failed relationship. She abandons the first person, as if to say, "It could not have been I who did these things." A typical sentence (about her wedding): "She was very fat and wore a tight-fitting uncomfortable blue silk suit which he had paid for."

By 1961, she had met and married artist Ron Weldon and had left behind both Bateman and the unwanted bulk.

The first person returns as her career begins to blaze.

Though not so impressively pyrotechnic as her fiction, Weldon's memoir nonetheless keeps a steady, warming flame - with flares that singe and occasionally cauterize.

Dyer is a critic in Hudson.



'Auto da Fay' - head under the pillow

By Dorothea Straus
Special To The Sun
Originally published June 9, 2003

Auto da Fay by Fay Weldon. Grove Press, 366 pages. $25.

Where are the feminists of yesteryear - those fighters of the '40s, '50s,'60s and '70s? Their voices have dwindled despite the gains won under their banners. But, just like other revolutions, this one has been followed by an aftermath of disenchantment and retrogression.

The tone of Fay Weldon's current memoir is vigorous and tough, but she does not appear to be a joiner; her strivings have been robust, based on personal experience, free from abstractions drawn from the blueprints of women's plight throughout history.

In a period when memoirs proliferate, this work is a good example of the genre, untouched by fiction, propaganda, self-pity or any nuance of the imagination. The technique for handling past, present, and future in the life of the author is expressed in her own words: "By and large, I am going for the myself-in-the-future talking to myself-in-the-past theory of voices heard but not responded to because one's head is determinedly under the pillow."

Weldon was born Sept. 22, 1931, in Worcestershire, England, where Margaret, her mother, pregnant with her and accompanied by her two-years-older sister, Jane, had fled from an earthquake in Napier, New Zealand. The author's father, a World War I veteran, had set up a medical practice there. The Birkinshaws were of British yeoman stock, while Margaret's forebears were fringe intellectuals in London - her grandfather and father novelists, her grandmother a musician of sorts - and Margaret "kept company" with Alec Waugh and his "gang of friends."

After Fay's birth, Margaret returned with her two daughters to New Zealand. But soon Dr. Birkinshaw left Napier for Coromandel across the country, abandoning his family in Napier. Fay and Jane visited him in summer, and the lush south countryside after severe, barren Napier seemed like a garden of Eden, and the feckless parent, Frank Birkinshaw, like a charismatic Adam. This childhood picture remained intact for Fay, even after the pain of her father's remarriage, the birth of two half-siblings, and almost complete estrangement. Weldon never practiced the ready-made hostility to men inscribed in the feminist credo.

Now there was a household of women in Napier, with the addition of an Edwardian grandmother, remembered at the piano playing Chopin sonatas, while Margaret supported the family through various menial jobs. A small inheritance enabled the remove back to London and the struggle against poverty was repeated.

After graduation from St. Andrew's in Scotland, Fay, like her mother before her, took on a succession of employments: working as hospital slop girl, waitress and strip-club hostess and rising to advertising. Between other occupations, free love included, Fay managed to write novels, plays, nonfiction and film scripts for television. Her family grew. She gave birth to a son out of wedlock and three more sons conceived and born in love during her marriage to Weldon, and acquired stepchildren and Jane's temporarily adopted offspring (Weldon's sister having become an incurable psychotic). And Fay, first Birkinshaw, became Davies, Bateman, Weldon and, on "my doorbell now, Fox," although this latest husband makes no appearance on the pages of Auto da Fay. Weldon states, "The more we understand each other, the harder it seems to cleave to one another for any length of time." Her vitality and her resilience in the face of real difficulties magnetizes the reader.

"And I am now thoroughly Weldon [her chosen nom de plume], locked in motherhood, steam rollered. What I do from now on, all the early stuff digested and out of the way, is write and let living take a minor role."

We can expect many more books to follow this peppery, irreverent memoir.

Dorothea Straus has written seven books, and her work has been published in Yale Review, Raritan, Partisan Review, Fiction, Commentary, Confrontation, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and The Baltimore Sun. She lives in New York City.


June 29, 2003

'Auto da Fay': Portrait of the Author as a Young Woman


By Fay Weldon.
Illustrated. 366 pp. New York: Grove Press. $25.

Franklin Birkinshaw -- the name she was saddled with at birth -- was only ''three months in the womb'' in 1931 when an earthquake razed the buildings in Napier, New Zealand, sucked the water from the harbor and sent her mother and sister fleeing into a tent city in the hills above the town. Her father was nowhere to be found. That is how the author we know as Fay Weldon came to be born in England, and perhaps that is how she came to weather with aplomb so many vicissitudes, venues, identities, men, marriages, professions and volumes of prose.

Franklin Fay Birkinshaw Davies Bateman Weldon Fox -- for such are the sequential selves she acknowledges -- says of herself, ''I do what is under my nose to be done, without too much lamentation,'' and her autobiography, ''Auto da Fay,'' bears her out. She is inclined simply to get on with things and also to make pronouncements in a no-nonsense mode: ''Very few people are interested in the truth''; ''The prophets of doom . . . are generally ignored and usually right.'' She's also fond of generalizing from a perspective at times pious (''Many good things come out of sacrifice''), feminist (''There is a certain kind of professor, often in the sciences, who seems to keep a wife only to insult her'') and self-deprecating (''There is always someone else round the corner doing it better, charging less and cornering the market'').

In paradoxical parallel to this pragmatic streak runs a family interest in the occult, which no doubt also feeds the fictional wellspring. Weldon's mother had a ''gift for prophecy''; her maternal grandfather was a member, along with W. B. Yeats, of the secret cabalistic Order of the Golden Dawn; and she herself assumes ''telepathy between members of a family,'' periodically protesting disbelief in ghosts even as she contemplates another poltergeist or a sobbing presence on the far side of the door.

Weldon is both a blithe and a troubled spirit, as befits her ancestry. Her great-grandfather, a violinist named Henry Holmes, fled to California after offending the Archbishop of Canterbury with a pamphlet on Free Love and the Life Force. Her grandfather the occultist was the author of 73 novels. Having persuaded a young concert pianist, Frieda Holmes, to give up her career and marry him, he later installed his mistress in a house right across the street -- until Frieda finally fled. An aunt, incestuously seduced as a teenager, went mad, was institutionalized and was never again mentioned by Weldon's grandmother. One or the other of Weldon's parents periodically retreated, licking wounds, home to England. In New Zealand, her father chased the ladies until her mother decided to retaliate with an affair of her own, at which point he divorced her for infidelity.

Weldon notices that the so-called Life Force ''runs through families for generations, and causes terrible havoc,'' ruefully observing that ''men are great theorists . . . in full pursuit of ends which to them seem noble but are simply not.'' Not surprisingly, she tells us that she's become ''expert at receiving bad news.''

In addition to its troublesome sexuality, Weldon's family went in for letters. Her grandfather, mother, father, uncle and half brother turned out novels, short stories, detective serials, memoirs and film scripts. But Weldon herself came to writing quite late and, apart from the occasional authorial insight, this is not a book about the making of a novelist. It is, rather, about the passage of an intrepid woman through the middle decades of the 20th century. Weldon had experiences typical of her generation: it's just that she seems to have had a lot more of them than most people.

In New Zealand, her father grew rich and reputable while her disgraced mother was increasingly impoverished. After Weldon's great-grandmother died in San Francisco, Weldon's grandmother, who'd been her companion, arrived in Christchurch, supposedly to help out, but she had very little money and so became just another mouth to feed. Constantly moving her brood from one rental to another, Weldon's mother eked out a living by writing romances and, once the war cut them off from London publishers, embarked on stopgap handicraft projects like painting face-powder boxes.

Fay and her older sister, Jane, came to look forward to comfortable sojourns with their father -- until the summer when they found, ensconced in his bed, a brusque lady doctor who eventually became their stepmother. Educated at a wide array of institutions (a convent, a girls' institute, a lavish private school, a tatty one in a rural village), shamed or befriended according to the family's current level of respectability or scandal, Weldon became resilient and resourceful while her sister had ''a sadness and coldness growing inside her'' that led to eventual tragedy.

Like many American children of the same era, Weldon found the remote war peculiar, ''rather like a lot of playground games except people got killed,'' but at the end of it, the family had a Dickensian change of fortune. A scarcely known uncle of Weldon's mother left her $:900, enabling her to transfer her family of females to a London she remembered as cultured and elegant, but that had, in her absence, become pocked with bomb sites. After a seasick six-week passage in a stripped-down troopship, the four women arrived back in England on Fay's 15th birthday -- and began a further round of camping out in rented flats, depending on hardscrabble attempts to earn a living.

Jane married, but left her husband within eight weeks. (She had discovered that she didn't like sex.) Fay got a university scholarship to St. Andrews in Scotland, secured an M.A. in economics and psychology and set about losing her virginity, which was not that easy. ''Men were more gentlemanly,'' she recalls, ''than you might ever have supposed.''

She returned to a London not friendly to female scholars. Her degree got her work as a hospital orderly, then a waitress, before she moved up to the $:6-a-week plum position of temporary assistant clerk on the Polish desk at the Foreign Office. Her real quest, as with others of her generation on both sides of the Atlantic, was for Mr. Right and, failing that (for it tended to fail), the warmth of nights not spent alone.

''A woman's body works as if it knew something she didn't,'' Weldon explains, ''and does not have her best interests at heart.'' Pregnant by one man, in love with another, she gave up her job at the Foreign Office and moved to the rural village of Saffron Walden with her mother, her sister (now also pregnant in a second, on-again-off-again, marriage) and, for good measure, a pregnant friend. It comes as no surprise that they were joined by a weeping ghost. Next Weldon tried marriage (to a schoolmaster who wanted, she tells us, to pimp for her), then advertising (she tried to sell Smirnoff on the slogan ''Vodka makes you drunker quicker''). She was into the fourth of her surnames before, with ''all that early stuff digested and out of the way,'' she settled down to write.

Three dozen books later -- two dozen of them novels, including ''Female Friends,'' ''The Life and Loves of a She-Devil,'' ''Life Force,'' ''Big Girls Don't Cry'' and ''The Bulgari Connection'' (infamous among the literati as an exercise in product placement) -- Weldon is the empress of breezy, blowsy prose.

Her female characters breeze through menstruation, incest, rape and other methods of deflowering. And they blowse through life, spending themselves into bankruptcy, running their Rolls-Royces over their husbands' mistresses and otherwise going to hell in a handbasket. The villains in her fiction can be safely hissed; you can see the comeuppances coming from a far distance; and the strands of her plots are tied up at the end in colorful birthday bows. Consequently, Weldon is a writer whose skills benefit from the ballast of real life.

Though she announces at the beginning of ''Auto da Fay'' that she's looking for the patterns of her own experience (and finds them), she's a woman so ''rooted in the carnal and instinctive world'' that she can hardly bend her life-so-far to a single narrative arc. Her portrait of London in the 1950's and 60's is intricately evocative. Her treatment of her adulterous father, who might have been given short shrift as a character, is generous: he's roundly forgiven and clearly beloved. Herself-as-heroine is multifaceted, nuanced and self-judging. Although, like many memoirists, Weldon ends her book just at the point when her career is about to take hold, her story of a lost girl on her way to finding herself winds up having heft as well as lift.

Janet Burroway's most recent books are a collection of essays, ''Embalming Mom,'' and ''Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft.''


Unvarnished truth about biographers

By Katherine A. Powers, 6/29/2003

I lived for many years in a little town in Ireland whose major industry was - as it is in most little towns in that country, and elsewhere, for all I know - the generation of sanctimony. Goodness, how people did go at it, hammer and tongs, night and day, with slow shakings of heads and raisings of eyes and vertiginous lookings down noses in censure. I could not wait to get out of there, to escape to Dublin and then to London, and then to get here, to Boston, or Cambridge, to be exact, and then, eventually, arrive where I had always hoped to end up, in a modest - very modest, as it transpires - place in the world of letters. And what have I found here among the scribblers? Sanctimony of such shamelessness that it makes the good citizens of that little seaside town in County Wicklow look like so many Ambrose Bierces.

A couple of years ago a mighty eructation of literary high-mindedness was expelled over Fay Weldon's having written a novel, ''The Bulgari Connection,'' as a private commission for the jewelry company named in its title. Few denouncers of this act of simony bothered to, or seemed to want to, get the facts straight or notice what they implied, but, instead, went to town on a straw man of a singularly sleazy appearance. In any case, the story broke toward the beginning of September 2001, and other events intervened to wipe it off the page and to horrify us all with something genuinely evil.

Weldon does not mention the Bulgari affair in ''Auto da Fay''(Grove, $25), her memoir, but it is certainly in keeping with the rest of her strange life. She is a genuine iconoclast and connoisseur of hypocrisy, of the righteously perpetrated dirty deed and the arrangement by which the hard-done-by are meant to feel grateful for the attention. How could she not be? Hers was a family in which a woman was expected to step across the road and nurse her husband's mistress through a miscarriage. Hers, too, was a marriage - one of them - so ghastly that she can write about it only in the third person. The incidents of bad behavior, some of it Weldon's, I might add, are rendered with wonderful brio in this book. Indeed, few writers maintain such a festive air in describing bounderly behavior as Weldon. And few writers see each step in a life, including her own, with such acuity and with such an appreciation of its fatefulness. In the end, Weldon's view of life is more benign than her reputation for literary wickedness would have you expect. It might be summed up generally as ''like calls to like and most of us are given second chances, and ... virtue is more often rewarded than we think.''

For over 50 years, George Orwell's widow, nee Sonia Brownell, has been characterized as a usurper and spendthrift, and for arbitrariness, vanity, and accused of dereliction of duty. One of her greatest defenders against all this presumptuous blather and innuendo has been Hilary Spurling, a woman who was her friend and who is also an accomplished biographer. ''The Girl From the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell''(Counterpoint, $24) is a nuanced, which is to say ''warts and all,'' depiction of a woman whose life would have been disheveled enough without the complication of being Orwell's widow. There are, in fact, incidents in it that would have been right at home in a novel by Weldon - as when, for instance, her unhappy affair with the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty finally ended and he told her that ''his one regret was that he had never had a chance to fill her in on Gestalt theory, always one of his great strengths as a philosopher.''

Be that as it may, Sonia did marry Orwell, who pressed her to do so. Her greatest sin, then, was that he made her his literary executor, a role that, as countless men could see plainly, was one that a beautiful woman would be incapable of filling. Orwell also left her with the charge that no biography should be written of him, an impossible stipulation that put her in the cross hairs of those most ruthless of literary operatives, professional biographers. What a crew: necessary, of course, admirable in their assiduousness and, if they are any good, admirable, too, in revealing the unvarnished truth. But they are only human, if not, in some cases, more so, and a jealous lot when it comes to gaining access to material. They are also prey to resentment. The fact that Sonia - whose legal name became Mrs. Eric Blair when she married Orwell - called herself Mrs. George Orwell sticks in their craws especially.

I call it revealing, and wonder if they think the title (which involved, as it turned out, no conjugal sex) better suited to themselves. One of Sonia's most irritating detractors is Jeffrey Meyers, author of ''George Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation,'' who was once, to his extreme annoyance, refused access to Orwell's papers. On the other hand, his penetration is such that it is a little surprising he felt the need of archives at all when there are published novels at hand. ''1984,'' for instance, provides, for him, a good picture of Orwell's distrust of his second wife: ''Orwell's comment,'' notes Meyers, ''that Julia obviously had a practical cunning which Winston lacked suggests that he was skeptical about Sonia's motives for marrying him.''

That brass-nosed remark is typical. I feel Meyers's resentment in every word I have read of his about Sonia. His description of the defining tragedy of her life, the death by drowning of a boy who could not swim and who was pulling her down with him, is truly warped and pitiless. Lest it be thought, though, that my judgments are entirely disinterested, I must report that I have had a taste of Meyers's characteristic begrudgery myself, elicited by my own control of my father's papers and my rejection of a Meyers project. Writing to me, and postulating that I wanted to be ''the most-beloved'' (!), he also revealed, with a gallantry all his own, that what had really upset my father in his last years ''was the way his children had turned out.'' A few more letters like that, I thought, wistfully, at the time, and I might have the makings of a novel myself, an epic saga of spiteful biographers and sanctimonious word mongers.

Katherine A. Powers, a writer and critic, lives in Cambridge. Her column appears on alternate Sundays. She can be reached by e-mail at  pow@world.std.com .

This story ran on page D9 of the Boston Globe on 6/29/2003.







Fay Weldon is the author of twenty-four novels, five short story collections, two children's books, four works of nonfiction, several plays, and now AUTO DA FAY, a memoir. This delightful autobiography is imbued with the same audaciousness and perspicacity as is her other works. As a woman of deep insights she highlights the key, transcendent events of her life. On page one, titled "Pre-name", she writes, "I long for a day of judgment when the plot lines of our lives will be neatly tied, and all puzzles explained, and the meaning of events made clear. We take to fiction ... because no such thing is going to happen, and at least on the printed page we can observe beginnings, middles and ends, and can find out where morality resides." She declares that, while life moves into entropy, each individual does the best with the hand s/he is dealt.

Weldon was born in 1931 and raised in a rural New Zealand town called Napier. She was the daughter of a troubled but creative mother who, along with Fay and her sister Jane, was abandoned by Fay's father, a selfish, philandering doctor named Frank Birkinshaw. The girls attended a private parochial school and, early on, Fay displayed her dislike for authority and disdain for pomposity. "Mother Teresa was nice and motherly, and would hug you and give you sticky treats: all the others ... ruled by sarcasm and violence. I liked their names, but that was about all."

When the sisters wanted to baptize the girls, Fay's mother wouldn't allow it. She describes her parents as "... freethinkers, rationalists - humanists" and, while Jane had been christened as a Protestant, Fay had not even had that benediction to her name. This state of her soul meant that Fay was excluded from much at school and learned to enjoy her own company. She also had to learn to take care of herself and approach life's challenges with a sense of humor. She says she was the 'good' girl, always wanting to please.

Affable or not, Fay grew up in a strange milieu that was often as perplexing as it was pleasing. She attended school, made friends, and her relationship with her troubled mother was as exasperating as any normal girl finds her mother to be, even under the best of circumstances --- and these women certainly didn't have it easy. In 1946, at the end of World War II, upon the death of a relative, Fay's mother received an inheritance of ... "nine hundred pounds." This gift changed all of their lives because it allowed them to go to England. There, the schools Fay attended and the people she met offered the opportunity for her to nurture her genius for writing.

Weldon's life, at times, unfolds like the lives her heroines lead: she became pregnant and gave birth to a son; she married a man whom she thought would take care of her, but didn't want to have sex with her and insisted he be her pimp; she went to work for an ad agency and did so well that she wrote herself out of a job; and twists of fate kept her on a journey into an interesting life that keeps going on and on. Her words are but amulets of power, both here and in her other writing. She uses well her flawless sense of timing to limn her own story effectively and inspirationally. Weldon's fans will delight in visiting the places, sharing the experiences, and looking within themselves, as she does, and asking some of the same questions about life, love, work, parenting, survival and family. But Fay Weldon will deny this. She says of herself that she does not enjoy the journey inward. She does not enjoy examining 'who she is'.

But fortunately for us, she does raise 'those' deep questions; the ones we all struggle with and, fundamentally, Fay Weldon is as unconventional in her writing as she is in her life. Her honest approach to her writing reflects her observations as they regard the 'war between the sexes' and the roles people play in their relationships. This memoir ends when she is getting on with her first novel, THE FAT WOMAN'S JOKE, and the rest is, as they say, history. Enjoy!

--- Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum







Fay Weldon on Fay, wittily

By Fay Weldon
Grove, $25, 367 pages, illus.


Fay Weldon has written two dozen novels, many of them highly diverting, but all too often madly — and maddeningly — over the top. Yet in her public life as an author, for example her staunch support for the hapless Salman Rushdie battling the murderous fatwa, she is a model of judiciousness and forthright common sense. And I have to say that on the two occasions in the late 1980s when I was able to spend some hours talking with her, she was not only charming but eminently sensible and markedly intelligent. So how to explain this puzzling dichotomy?
Among the many virtues of her delightful memoir, "Auto Da Fay," (and the title itself tells you something of her mischievous pleasure in the apt bending of words), is the appearance of at least some answer to this conundrum. For this memoir leaves us in no doubt that if Mrs. Weldon is a clever and educated woman (she has a degree in Economics from St. Andrews University in Scotland), she has led a disorderly life which has contained more than her fair share of — not to mince words — foolishness.
But it has provided her with a great deal of rather sensational grist for her fictional mill and, as she says in the last sentence of the book, which concludes with her becoming Fay Weldon upon her second marriage at age 32: "What I do from now on, all that early stuff digested and out of the way, is write, and let living take a minor role."
And what a life she has lived. Parents who split up when she was quite young. A much-admired older sister who sank into suicidal insanity. A penurious childhood in New Zealand followed by an equally parlous existence from age 15 in the austerity of postwar London. Generations of family who exemplify advanced ideas and leave in their wake the chaos that such ways produce in an overwhelmingly conventional world.
Her own single motherhood, followed by a mariage blanc to a creepy headmaster two decades her senior, who at times seems to act as a combination of pimp and voyeur to his attractive but foolish young wife. (At this point in her story, Mrs. Weldon is so appalled at the tawdry life led by her younger self that she is forced to lapse into the third person.) Employment as a waitress is followed by being a cake-shop proprietor, a factory worker, a nightclub hostess in London's seedy Soho district, and finally, a highly successful advertising copywriter.
Those of us who lived in London in the early 1960s will remember such celebrated Weldonisms as "Unzip a Banana" and "Go to Work on an Egg," but not one that (unsurprisingly) never saw the light of day, "Vodka Makes You Drunker Quicker!" London may have been gearing itself up to swing through the Sixties, but it wasn't ready for that one. And Mrs. Weldon's inability to see that it was far too outrageous to make it into the public domain gives the reader a foretaste of that lack of critical judgement regarding her own fiction which would finally prevent her from making a serious contribution to the postwar English novel.
But "Auto Da Fay" itself is consistently a pleasure to read. Witty, tart-tongued, even aphoristic at times, Mrs. Weldon can at her best sound almost like Rebecca West (of whom she wrote a most insightful short biography in the 1980s). When it comes to her cutting-edge forebears and their cavalier attitudes towards custom, she can be wise as well as funny:
"Free Love, the creed by which the redheaded uncles also lived, is fine in principle but can be tragic in its consequences. The 'Life Force', invented as a concept by Shaw, taken up by Wells and all the other freethinkers of the day, the better to justify their often-ignoble sexual adventures, was a force indeed."
Or on the difference between herself and her literary mother:
"But I was rooted in the carnal and instinctive world: my mother in the ascetic. If we had been male priests I would have been one of the fat jovial kind who drink too much communion wine and sleep with their housekeepers: she would have been of the lean, celibate, refined tendency. Both get to heaven, in the end, I dare say."
Or, again, as an acute observer of social tragicomedy:
"There is a certain kind of professor, often in the sciences, who seems to keep a wife only to insult her. It's a notch up from the artist, whose ambition it is to destroy the spouse. . . . The phenomenon has little to do with gender, more with the scientific view of the universe, which must be so rigidly preserved in the face of what is seen as creative whimsy: I daresay a female Professor of Physics, married to a poet, would be equally dismissive. How would have Ted Hughes have survived, married to Marie Curie?"
And Mrs. Weldon is someone who can make use of her education as an economist and apply it to her avocation as a writer:
"There is always someone else around the corner doing it better, charging less, and cornering the market. (One would like to think this law would not apply to writing too, but I'm afraid it does.)"
Another of this book's virtues is its eminently sensible attitude towards matters political. Neither dedicatedly left wing nor right wing, Mrs. Weldon has an eagle eye for spotting the flaws — and the merits — of each side. She can be trenchantly critical of such liberal panaceas as progressive education: "They [the pupils] were perfectly amiable, but had torn up most of the books in the library, and when I locked myself in a classroom with a Latin grammar they broke down the door to take it away. They did it, they said, for my sake. Learning by rote was bad for you and led to repression and war. Their teachers, who were a sensitive and idle lot, by and large agreed with this view. If the children managed to get themselves to a classroom on time the teacher seldom did."
Her experience in a workshop folding cards, however, convinced her of the value of organized labor: "Some of the cards were much easier than others, and were quickly done, but then the rate [of pay] would be changed, so management always won. Management usually does, changing the goalposts the minute the workers begin to score. Workers need unions: it was borne in on me in the course of that job."
But Mrs. Weldon can on occasion be terribly credulous. Of two Jewish friends from London's East End, she writes:
"They had been brutally evacuated when the war began: their mother had turned up as usual to collect them from the school gate and had found the school empty and closed. The caretaker refused to tell the mothers where the children had been taken, in case Hitler found out, and though the mothers stormed the Town Hall, the authorities did the same.
"Some said this was rather less to do with fear of Hitler's bombs and the expected German invasion, than part of a social experiment — if you took the children out of the slums, separated them from their parents, and put them in the healthy English countryside they would pick up honest rural virtues and values. . . .It didn't work, of course. The parents could not find out where their children were, but the children knew where their parents were. . . .Those who couldn't, or didn't, escape, for the most part had a hard time of it."
One can well believe that her friends told her the story. What is entirely lacking is any indication that, then or now, Mrs. Weldon entertained even the possibility that it might not be completely true. And when she says that she put their experiences into her third novel, "Female Friends," one begins to understand why so much of her fiction strains credulity.
But on the whole, "Auto Da Fay" contains more gold than dross. It is enormous fun to read: a smart book about a woman who was often foolish, but is decidedly no fool.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.



New & Noteworthy Paperbacks


Published: June 27, 2004

AUTO DA FAY, by Fay Weldon. (Grove, $14.) Unlike many of the female characters in her dozens of breezy novels, Weldon comes off as a no-nonsense, pragmatic, resilient heroine in her own life story. Born in England and raised in New Zealand, she was thrust into a troubled, troubling family, whose pursuits included the occult and sexual shenanigans of varying stripes; not only that, but everyone, including her father, mother, uncle and grandfather, churned out novels, stories, memoirs and film scripts. ''Her portrait of London in the 1950's and 60's is intricately evocative,'' Janet Burroway wrote here in 2003. Although she ''ends her book just at the point when her career is about to take hold, her story of a lost girl on her way to finding herself winds up having heft as well as lift.''