SHE may be 84, but Fay Weldon’s work as a novelist, playwright, TV dramatist and scriptwriter still sparks debates in many a book club and beyond.
Weldon, whose work includes the hit series The Life And Loves Of A She-Devil and The Cloning Of Joanna May, has lived long enough to be confident in her views on contemporary life, and today talks airily in detached tones about what ‘one’ does and what ‘one’ thinks.
Her outspoken opinions on feminism have often courted controversy, but after a lifetime spent people-watching, three marriages, four children, four stepchildren and a clutch of grandchildren, she’s come to the conclusion that men are now under the cosh.
Both men and women may have suffered as feminism has evolved, she reflects.
“Feminism has made us all go out to work and made us earn a living, and the male wage is no longer, because of feminism, able to support a family, so women have to work, which is very tiring.
“Because we stuck up for freedom, freedom had its disadvantages. Because we won the revolution, the revolution has a fall-out and we suffer from that, but on the whole, I think what was earned was a good thing.
“Feminism has certainly undermined men,” she continues, “if only because women now want to have girl babies, not boy babies, because their lot in life is better.”
But women can’t have it all, she adds.
“I think you can have two out of three — [the three being] a family, a career and a love life — but very seldom three.
“Career women may have a family but aren’t likely to have a love life because they are too busy.”
Weldon, also a professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University, has been writing for five decades and is famed for her contemporary fiction seen from the woman’s perspective.
Only now has she decided to make a man the hero in her latest book, Before The War, a novel about love, death and aristocracy in interwar London.
Starting in 1922, it focuses initially on Vivien, a 24-year-old plain but intelligent singleton who, at nearly 6ft tall, is known unkindly by her family as ‘the giantess’.
Vivien is rich, so she travels to London to bribe charismatic editor Sherwyn Sexton, who works for her publisher father, to marry her, as no one else will. Sherwyn desperately wants his own book published — and sees marriage to the boss’ daughter as his chance — so he agrees, unaware that she is pregnant with another man’s child.
Like so many of Weldon’s female characters, Vivien is a big square peg in a small round hole within her society.
“I’ve always written about characters like that, because they make up the mass of the female population and tend to be overlooked by media cameras,” Weldon observes.
“The plain girl gets put in the back office, the pretty girl gets to reception; the plain girl isn’t noticed in the street, the pretty girl is captured by the cameras. Pretty girls earn more than plain girls, although that has changed now as women value themselves for more than their looks.”
She also has a definite empathy for how the world has changed for men.
“As society changes and men increasingly seem to be getting a hard deal, you begin to see things from their point of view.”
Weldon, who has said that women must try harder to stop judging and start liking men, has been married three times. Her first marriage to a headmaster lasted two years, the next to artist Ron Weldon ended when he ran off with their therapist in 1994. He died the day the divorce was finalised.
Her third husband, poet Nick Fox, is also her manager. They live on a hilltop in Dorset.
“Nick does all the cooking and all the editing. It’s teamwork, without which one wouldn’t do anything.”
Why is marriage important to her?
“Because I was brought up at a certain time in a certain age and marriage was what girls did. A girl’s ambition was to get married and that’s all I ever wanted to do.
“A long-term relationship is something that defines you as a person, like the shoreline and the sea — one delineates the other.”
She believes it’s much more difficult being a mother now.
“Being a mother is now all time and emotion-consuming. In the old days, it was simply not. You fed your children on evaporated milk, put them down the end of the garden without a cat net over the pram, and got on with your life. And we all survived and we were happy.
“There’s always been pressure on mothers, but now the pressure is phenomenal to do the right thing.
“Pressure used to come from doctors and the male establishment, but now it comes from other mothers,” she continues.
“Feminism probably suited one woman in three. And one woman in three would rather stay home, look after the children and had no ambition. Healthy, educated middle-class women persuaded everyone else that they should be feminists. It happened because it suited new technology — women could do all that. Muscle power, which was what men had, was no longer needed.”
Muscle power or not, it looks like her husband will be permanently employed, because his forthright wife has no intention of retiring.
“I wouldn’t know what to do. What would I do?” she ponders. “And I don’t worry about dying. So long as I’m writing, I believe that I won’t. I believe I will live to finish the book.”
Describing herself as a ‘write-aholic’, Weldon has already begun a sequel to her latest release, called After The War, featuring the same characters. She’s active on Twitter, is up to speed with computers and other technology and even reads celebrity gossip online: “I think the language is very funny. I look at it down the side of the Daily Mail online because one can’t help it. ‘Wardrobe malfunction — side-boobs showing’.
“Once we used to have saints, now we have celebrities and they perform the same function. Human nature remains what it is but takes different forms.”