WELDON, FAY

British Writer

Most widely known in Britain and abroad as an irreverent novelist usually concerned with women's issues, Fay Weldon has pursued a wide variety of projects for television, radio, and the stage. The daughter of a novelist, granddaughter of a Vanity Fair editor, and a niece to novelist/screenwriter/radio and television dramatist Selvyn Jepson, Weldon's first published novel in 1967 simply expanded upon her own 1966 teleplay for The Fat Woman's Joke. That teleplay had been written while Weldon was working as a highly successful copywriter for English print and television advertising; her previous work included the still remembered "Get to work on an egg" campaign. Following The Fat Woman's Joke, Weldon remained in advertising until the 1970s, yet she still produced the teleplays for productions such as A Catching Complaint (1966) and Poor Cherry (1967).

While Weldon's real progress as a writer has often been traced back to the mid-1960s, it was in the early 1970s that she began fully to establish both her name and public voice. Where Weldon fit in British culture was another matter. The Fat Woman's Joke had told a decidedly proto-feminist tale of a housewife's anger toward her philandering husband, yet Weldon's public espousal of domestic joys and the use of "Mrs." seemed to mark her as an opponent to the growing British women's rights movement. But as David Frost learned in 1971, Weldon's relation to feminism is not always what it might seem: invited onto Frost's television program to rebut feminist activists, she instead surprised everyone by publicly embracing their complaints. That same year Weldon won the best series' script award from the Writers' Guild of Great Britain for "On Trial," the first episode of Upstairs, Downstairs. She wrote only one other episode, and in many ways the series' sober, understated visual style was quite different from the satiric, reflexive, often fantastic surfaces of much of Weldon's other work, including her sedate, but still barbed television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1980).

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the imagined recipient of Weldon's Letters to Alice--on First Reading Jane Austen, 1984, is a punk-haired but literary niece; that juxtaposition of texts and attitudes, together with Weldon's own later televised comments on the (mis)teaching of Austen, lead some critics to accuse Weldon of unjustly attacking Austen's work.

Yet the melodramatic pleasures of both Upstairs, Downstairs and Pride and Prejudice run through nearly all of Weldon's work and inform her understanding of gender. She not only won a prestigious Booker Prize nomination for Praxis (1978) but chaired the prize's 1983 panel. Yet Weldon has never divorced her "serious" literary work from her own enjoyment of what she calls "that whole women's magazine area, the communality of women's interests, and the sharing of the latest eye-shadow." With such an attitude Weldon penned the polemical prison docudrama Life for Christine (1980), polished the script for Joan Collins' Sin miniseries (1985), and turned a critical eye toward pastoral life in Heart of the Country (1987).

Despite her willingness to adapt the work of others, Weldon has been protective of the rights to her work. Nevertheless, Weldon has possibly been most notably represented on television in Britain and abroad not through her own scripts, but through two popular multi-part adaptations from her novels: The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1984, televised 1986), which sharply satirized conventions of both heterosexual romance and the romance novel, and The Cloning of Joanna May (1989, televised 1992), a slightly more genteel version of She-Devil's antics, this time as practiced by a devlish husband. The same creative team (including writer Ted Whitehead, director Philip Saville, and star Patricia Hodge) helmed both adaptations, but it is the highly praised The Life and Loves of a She-Devil which remains the strongest evocation of Weldon's own ethos, even despite the intervening memory of Susan Seidelman's limp Americanized film adaptation (She Devil, 1990).

Oddly enough, Seidelman's film omitted Weldon's most visually rich and outrageous portion, the fantastic surgical reconstruction of the She-Devil into her nemesis, the physical form of female romantic perfection. This excision removed what is most remarkable throughout much of Weldon's work, her Mary Shelley-like coupling of deliberately excessive Gothic fantasy with sharp feminist perception.

Weldon has not been alone in the use of such fantastic elements. Indeed, as Thomas Elsaesser (1988) has suggested, Weldon and "New Gothic" companion Angela Carter (The Magic Toyshop, 1986) may present a female-centered television parallel to the male-centered, and often fantastic films of Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman and other directors prominent in the 1980s "New British Cinema." If these filmmakers were "learning to dream" again (to quote the familiar title of James Park's study), then Weldon has been one of British television's more prominent instructors in the same task.

-Robert Dickinson


Fay Weldon
Photo courtesy of Fay Weldon/ Isolde Ohlbaum

FAY WELDON. Born Fay Birkinshaw in Worcester, Worcestershire, England, 22 September 1931. Grew up in New Zealand. Attended University of St. Andrew's, M.A. in economics and psychology 1954. Married: 1) Ron Weldon, 1962 (died 1994); 2) Nick Fox, 1995; four sons. Writer for Foreigh Office and Daily Mirror, London, late 1950s; worked in advertising; author of television and radio plays, dramatizations and series, and novels and stage plays. Chair, Booker McConnell Prize judges' panel, 1983. Recipient: Writers Guild Award, 1973; Giles Cooper Award, 1978; Society of Authors traveling scholarship, 1981; Los Angeles Times Award, 1989. Address: Giles Gordon, Anthony Sheil Associates, 43 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LF, England.

TELEVISION SERIES

1980 Pride and Prejudice
1986 The Life and Loves of a She-Devil
1987 Heart of the Country

TELEVISION PLAYS (selection)

1966 The Fat Woman's Tale
1966 A Catching Complaint
1967 Poor Cherry.
1972 Splinter of Ice
1980 Life for Christine
1991 The Cloning of Joanna May
1991 Growing Rich

FILM

She-Devil, 1990.

STAGE

A Small Green Space, 1989 (libretto).

PUBLICATIONS

The Fat Woman's Joke (novel). London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1967; as .and the Wife Ran Away. New York: McKay, 1968.

Down Among the Women (novel). London: Heinemann, 1971; New York: St. Martin's, 1972.

Female Friends (novel). London: Heinemann, and New York: St. Martin's, 1975.

Remember Me (novel). London: Hodder & Stoughton, and New York: Random House, 1976.

Words of Advice. New York: Random House, 1977; as Little Sisters, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1978.

Praxis (novel). London: Hodder & Stoughton, and New York: Summit, 1978.

Puffball (novel). London: Hodder & Stoughton, and New York: Summit, 1980.

Watching Me, Watching You (short stories). London: Hodder & Stoughton, and New York, Summit, 1981.

The President's Child (novel). London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1982; New York: Doubleday, 1983.

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (novel). London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1983; New York: Pantheon, 1984.

Letters to Alice--On First Reading Jane Austen. London: Joseph, 1984; New York: Taplinger, 1985.

Polaris and Other Stories. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1985; New York: Penguin, 1989.

Rebecca West. London and New York: Viking, 1985.

The Shrapnel Academy (novel). London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986; New York: Viking, 1987.

The Heart of the Country (novel). London: Hutchinson, 1987; New York: Viking, 1988.

The Hearts and Lives of Men (novel). New York: Viking, 1987; New York: Viking, 1988.

The Rules of Life (novella). London: Hutchinson, and New York: Harper, 1987.

Leader of the Band (novel). London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988; New York: Viking, 1989.

The Cloning of Joanna May (novel). London: Collins, 1989; New York: Viking, 1990.

Darcy's Utopia (novel). London: Collins, and New York: Viking, 1990.

Growing Rich (novel). London: Harper Collins, 1992.

Life Force (novel). London: Harper Collins, 1992.

Natural Love (novel). London: Harper Collins, 1993.

Affliction (novel). London: Harper Collins, 1994.

Splitting (novel). London: Flamingo, 1995.

Wicked Women (short stories). London: Flamingo, 1995.

FURTHER READING

Brandt, George W. British Television in the 1980s. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Elsaesser, Thomas. "Games of Love and Death, or an Englishman's Guide to the Galaxy." Monthly Film Bulletin (London), 1988.

Pearlman, Mickey, editor. Listen to Their Voices: Twenty Interviews with Women Who Write. New York: Norton, 1993.

 

See also British Programming