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Fay Birkinshaw Weldon

Fay Birkinshaw Weldon

British novelist, dramatist, essayist, and feminist Fay Birkinshaw Weldon (born ca. 1931) was famous for her witty and satirical evocations of contemporary mores and morals as they affect the lives of women.

Whether Fay Birkinshaw Weldon was born on September 22 of 1931 or of 1933 is uncertain; what is certain, however, is that this British author of internationally acclaimed novels, short stories, screen plays, and television and radio dramas, as well as works of biography and historical criticism, descended from a line of writers. Her mother, Margaret Birkinshaw, reportedly published two novels under her maiden name and wrote serial novels under the pseudonym Pearl Bellairs. Weldon's maternal grandfather, Edgar Jepson, edited Vanity Fair and wrote popular romance-adventure stories, and his brother Selwyn authored mystery-thrillers and plays for screen, television, and radio. Understandably, Weldon saw her literary ability as, at least in part, genetic.

Weldon and her family moved to New Zealand soon after her birth in Alvechurch, Worcestershire, England. Her father, Frank Thornton Birkinshaw, was a doctor. He and his wife divorced when Weldon was five or six, and for the next eight years she lived with her mother and sister in New Zealand and went to Girls' High School in Christchurch. Her mother did domestic work to support the family. When the war ended and Weldon was about 14, the three returned to England to live with her grandmother. Here Weldon attended London's Hampstead High School, a convent school. After graduating, she entered St. Andrew's University in Scotland on scholarship. When she completed her master's degree in economics and psychology, Weldon was only 20 years old.

Weldon was married in the early 1950s to a schoolmaster who was 25 years her senior. But this union lasted only six months. When her son Nicholas was born in 1955, Weldon found herself ill-equipped to support them both. She tried unsuccessfully to write novels and worked for 18 months at the Foreign Office writing Cold War propaganda. In 1960 she married Ronald Weldon, an antiques dealer.

During the 1960s Weldon found work doing market research for the London Daily News and writing advertising copy for Ogilvy, Benson, & Mather and other firms. This work paid better and brought her some renown when she coined the popular British slogan, "Go to work on an egg." While decrying advertising as a "shameful business, " Weldon acknowledged that her years as a copywriter forced her to make every word count, an ability that is reflected in her sharply succinct prose style.

According to an interview, Weldon went through psychoanalysis in her early thirties and it was this "dreadfully painful and very interesting" experience that enabled her to try writing fiction again. In the mid-1960s she began writing television plays, which were produced by BBC and one of which, The Fat Woman's Joke, was published in the United States as the novel And the Wife Ran Away. So began her career as a prolific writer of dramas and novels. By 1990 Weldon had written more than 50 scripts for British television, including two episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs, one of which won an award from the Society of Film and Television Arts in 1971. She wrote adaptations for the screen of her own fiction, as well as that of Penelope Mortimer and Elisabeth Bowen. Her five-part dramatization of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was produced on BBC in 1980 after Weldon spent four years completing the adaptation. In 1984 she wrote Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, a nonfiction work comprised of 16 witty and informative letters to a fictional niece with literary aspirations, explaining the life and times of both Austen and Weldon. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Weldon wrote plays for television and radio and even the libretto for an operatic version of Ibsen's A Doll's House.

However impressive her other work, it is for her 18 novels that she is best known. One, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, published in 1984, was serialized on BBC and made into a popular movie in the United States. Her short and fast-paced novels are pastiches of science fiction, economic theory, surreal imagery, psychological insight, and political satire. The reader turns the pages of a Weldon novel not so much to discover what its characters will do next, but rather to learn what brilliant comic moves Weldon herself will engineer to drive the story. Most of her work is translated into many languages and distributed around the world.

Weldon's childhood experience in a largely female world as a child of divorce raised by a working mother, as well as her own later struggle as a single mother, are reflected in the characters who people her fictional worlds. However, her later life was very different. Married to Ronald Weldon for over thirty years, they raised a family of sons. Weldon's oldest son, Nicholas, was a jazz musician as well as a chef and Weldon's business manager. Daniel (1963) was a filmmaker, Thomas (1970) was described by his mother as a "practicing punk," and Samuel (1977) lived with his parents in the Somerset town of Shepton Mallet. Weldon herself commuted two days a week to a house in Kentish Town, London. In 1997 Weldon provided yet another unique profile on women in Wicked Women, a collection of short stories taking place in the 1990s.

Further Reading

Weldon's writing is reviewed in American newspapers and periodicals such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New Yorker, The Washington Post, and Village Voice. For interviews see Marjorie Williams in The Washington Post (April 24, 1988) and Eden Ross Lipson in Lear's (January 1990). Brigitte Salzmann-Brunner in Amanuenses to the Present: Protagonists in the Fiction of Penelope Mortimer, Margaret Drabble, and Fay Weldon (1988) looks at Weldon's work in the context of that of her peers. See also Carolyn Nizzi Warmbold, "Books: Reviews and Opinion: In Brief: 'Wicked Women' by Fay Weldon, "The Atlantic Journal and Constitution (June 22, 1997). □

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Weldon, Fay


Nationality: British. Born: Fay Birkinshaw in Alvechurch, Worcestershire, 22 September 1931; grew up in New Zealand. Education: Girls' High School, Christchurch; Hampstead Girls' High School, London; University of St. Andrews, Fife, 1949-52, M.A. in economics and psychology 1952. D. Litt, University of Bath, 1988, University of St. Andrews, 1992. Family: Married Ron Weldon in 1960 (marriage ended), married Nicholas Fox in 1994; four sons. Career: writer for the Foreign Office and Daily Mirror, both London, late 1950s; later worked in advertising. Awards: Writers Guild award, for radio play, 1973; Giles Cooper award, for radio play, 1978; Society of Authors traveling scholarship, 1981; Los Angeles Times award, for fiction, 1989. D. Litt: University of St. Andrews, 1990. Lives in London. Agent: Ed Victor, 6 Bayley St., London WC1B 3HB; Casarotto Company, National House, 62-66 Wardour Street, London W1V 3HP, England.



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

Down among the Women. London, Heinemann, 1971; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1972.

Female Friends. London, Heinemann, and New York, St. Martin'sPress, 1975.

Remember Me. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Random House, 1976.

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

Praxis. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Summit, 1978.

Puffball. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and New York, Summit, 1980.

The President's Child. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1982; NewYork, Doubleday, 1983.

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

The Shrapnel Academy. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1986; NewYork, Viking, 1987.

The Heart of the Country. London, Hutchinson, 1987; New York,>Viking, 1988.

The Hearts and Lives of Men. London, Heinemann, 1987; New York, Viking, 1988.

Leader of the Band. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1988; NewYork, Viking, 1989.

The Cloning of Joanna May. London, Collins, 1989; New York, Viking, 1990.

Darcy's Utopia. London, Collins, 1990; New York, Viking, 1991.

Life Force. London, Collins, and New York, Viking, 1992.

Affliction. London, Collins, 1994; as Trouble, New York, Viking, 1994.

Splitting: A Novel. New York, Grove Atlantic, 1994.

Worst Fears. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996.

Big Girls Don't Cry. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997.

Rhode Island Blues. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000.

Short Stories

Watching Me, Watching You. London, Hodder and Stoughton, andNew York, Summit, 1981.

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

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

Moon over Minneapolis. London, Harper Collins, 1991.

Wicked Women: A Collection of Short Stories. London, Flamingo, 1995; New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997.

Angel, All Innocence, and Other Stories. London, Bloomsbury, 1995.

A Hard Time to Be a Father. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Ind Aff; or, Out of Love in Sarajevo," in Best Short Stories 1989, edited by Giles Gordon and David Hughes. London, Heinemann, 1989; as The Best English Short Stories 1989, New York, Norton, 1989.


Permanence, in We Who Are about to , later called Mixed Doubles (produced London, 1969). London, Methuen, 1970.

Time Hurries On, in Scene Scripts, edited by Michael Marland. London, Longman, 1972.

Words of Advice (produced London, 1974). London, French, 1974.

Friends (produced Richmond, Surrey, 1975).

Moving House (produced Farnham, Surrey, 1976).

Mr. Director (produced Richmond, Surrey, 1978).

Polaris (broadcast 1978). Published in Best Radio Plays of 1978, London, Eyre Methuen, 1979.

Action Replay (produced Birmingham, 1978; as Love Among the Women, produced Vancouver, 1982). London, French, 1980.

I Love My Love (broadcast 1981; produced Richmond, Surrey, 1982).London, French, 1984.

After the Prize (produced New York, 1981; as Word Worm, producedNewbury, Berkshire, 1984).

Jane Eyre, adaptation of the novel by Charlotte Brontë (producedBirmingham, 1986).

The Hole in the Top of the World (produced Richmond, Surrey, 1987).

Someone Like You, music by Petula Clark and Dee Shipman (produced London, 1990).

Radio Plays:

Spider, 1973; Housebreaker, 1973; Mr. Fox and Mr. First, 1974; The Doctor's Wife, 1975; Polaris, 1978; Weekend, 1979; All the Bells of Paradise, 1979; I Love My Love, 1981; The Hole in the Top of the World, 1993.

Television Plays:

Wife in a Blonde Wig, 1966; A Catching Complaint, 1966; The Fat Woman's Tale, 1966; What About Me, 1967; Dr. De Waldon's Therapy, 1967; Goodnight Mrs. Dill, 1967; The 45th Unmarried Mother, 1967; Fall of the Goat, 1967; Ruined Houses, 1968; Venus Rising, 1968; The Three Wives of Felix Hull, 1968; Hippy Hippy Who Cares, 1968; £13083, 1968; The Loophole, 1969; Smokescreen, 1969; Poor Mother, 1970; Office Party, 1970; On Trial (Upstairs, Downstairs, series), 1971; Old Man's Hat, 1972; A Splinter of Ice, 1972; Hands, 1972; The Lament of an Unmarried Father, 1972; A Nice Rest, 1972; Comfortable Words, 1973; Desirous of Change, 1973; In Memoriam, 1974; Poor Baby, 1975; The Terrible Tale of Timothy Bagshott, 1975; Aunt Tatty, from the story by Elizabeth Bowen, 1975; Act of Rape, 1977; Married Love (Six Women series), 1977; Act of Hypocrisy (Jubilee series), 1977; Chickabiddy (Send in the Girls series), 1978; Pride and Prejudice, from the novel by Jane Austen, 1980; Honey Ann, 1980; Life for Christine, 1980; Watching Me, Watching You (Leap in the Dark series), 1980; Little Mrs. Perkins, from a story by Penelope Mortimer, 1982; Redundant! or, The Wife's Revenge, 1983; Out of the Undertow, 1984; Bright Smiles (Time for Murder series), 1985; Zoe's Fever (Ladies in Charge series), 1986; A Dangerous Kind of Love (Mountain Men series), 1986; Heart of the Country serial, 1987.


Simple Steps to Public Life, with Pamela Anderson and Mary Stott. London, Virago Press, 1980.

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

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

Wolf the Mechanical Dog (for children). London, Collins, 1988.

Sacred Cows. London, Chatto and Windus, 1989.

Party Puddle (for children). London, Collins, 1989.

Godless in Eden: A Book of Essays. London, Flamingo, 1999.

Editor, with Elaine Feinstein, New Stories 4. London, Hutchinson, 1979.


Critical Studies:

Fay Weldon by Lana Faulks, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1998.

* * *

Fay Weldon's concern began as personal relationships in contemporary society, focusing on women, especially as mothers, and thus widening to take in relationships between the generations: "By our children, you shall know us." She amusingly traces long chains of cause and effect, inexorable as Greek tragedy, stemming from both conscious and unconscious motivation, and from chance circumstances. She looks at society with devastating clearsightedness, showing how good may spring from selfishness, evil from altruism.

Weldon's unique narrative style highlights the contradiction between free will which her characters, like us, assume and the conditioning which we know we undergo. Her characters are continually referred to by their names, where English style would normally use a pronoun, and addressed directly in the second person by the author and assessed by her"Lucky Lily" the author appraises a leading character in Remember Me, where she also "translates" passages of the characters' dialogue into what they mean, rather than say. In The Hearts and Lives of Men the author continually buttonholes "Reader." Weldon's apparently disingenuous surface, with her own paragraphing lay-out, is underpinned by a whole battery of ironic devices, indicating the limitations on her characters'and ourautonomy from cradle to grave. In Puffball this process is pushed back before the cradle, with sections "Inside Liffey" about the growth of the fetus and its conditioning via the circumstances of the mother's life.

The Fat Woman's Joke, Weldon's first novel, follows a greedy couple on a diet: this novel originated as a television play, and Weldon hadn't fully developed her unique style. Her characteristic plangent note, that the worst can happen and does, is accompanied by a muted optimism, especially in her novels' endings: gradual progress occurs, at least for the majority if not for the unfortunate individual. Down among the Women concludes "We are the last of the women"that is, the half of the population defined earlier as living "at floor level, washing and wiping."

Weldon's feminism colors all her work, and is powerful when she doesn't shrink from detailing the faults of individual women, or the way women exploit what advantages the system yields them. Men are the exploiting sex because the system favors them, and they take for granted the status quo. In Female Friends, focusing on three women friends and their mothers, Grace is shown as worthless, until perhaps the end, while Oliver and Patrick take what the system offersand more.

The machinery of plot in Remember Me is ostensibly supernatural, as a dead divorced wife haunts her ex-husband's second ménage. Weldon's apparent reliance on the supernatural may seem unsatisfactory both here and in Puffball, where pregnant Liffey is "over-looked" by the local witch. But in both novels the psychology suggests something of Marjorie's realization about her "haunted" home in Female Friends: "it was me haunting myself, sending myself messages."

In Little Sisters (Words of Advice in the U.S.) Weldon turned to the very rich. This black comedy centers melodramatically on the wheelchair-bound Gemma, narrator of the story within a story. Weldon also uses this device in The Fat Woman's Joke, Praxis, The President's Child, and Darcy's Utopia. The story-within-a-story device enables her to run different time-sequences simultaneously, emphasizing the interlocking of cause and effect between the generations, and also to highlight our imperfect understanding and information, through each individual's partial perception.

Praxis charts the life of a woman who served a prison sentence for killing "a poor little half-witted" baby, as we learn from one of the first-person chapters alternating at the start of the novel with the third-person chapters that subsequently take over. Puffball, about Liffey's pregnancy in Somerset while her husband remains working in London, is as strongly feminist, incorporating much information about female physiology and pregnancy. In The President's Child Isabel, the mother of an American presidential candidate's illegitimate child, is ruthlessly hunted in a parody of a thriller. The Life and Loves of a She-Devil describes Ruth's remorseless revenge on the bestseller writer who "stole" her husband.

Two of Weldon's collections of short stories, Watching Me, Watching You and Polaris and Other Stories, are mainly concerned with men exploiting women in different domestic settings: an exception, the title story of the latter, is the best. Its antiwar theme is continued in The Shrapnel Academy: over the snowbound weekend of the Academy's prestigious Wellington Lecture, the contemporary "servant problem" with a largely Third World staff escalates into a "local" nuclear explosion. Chapters of military history, describing warfare's "development," break up the story.

The Hearts and Lives of Men, set against the 1960s swinging London art market, more frothily charts the marriagesmainly to each otherof a trendy pair and the fraught childhood of their kidnapped daughter. In The Heart of the Country Sonia, now in a psychiatric hospital, explains her attempts to help Natalie, suddenly abandoned by her husband. Weldon parades the countryside's problems, from pesticides to the withdrawal of buses.

As one of the dead able to "re-wind" their life-stories, Gabriella reviews her lovers in the novella The Rules of Life set in 2004. In Leader of the Band "Starlady Sandra," incidentally the result of a genetic experiment, abandons astronomy, TV program, and husband to accompany "mad Jack the trumpet-player" and his jazz band on tour in France.

The Cloning of Joanne May, set in the present day, shows Joanna secretly cloned by her husband, so that she has four sisters, young enough to be her daughtersall brought together by the plot. Darcy's Utopia is structured by the device of two journalists interviewing the notorious Mrs. Darcy, wife of an imprisoned government economic adviser; the journalists also have an affair. Despite much space, Darcy's ideas for a money-less and permissive society remain arbitrary and contradictory.

Although Weldon has widened her range, and has always used techniques of "alienation" to encourage the reader to think as well as feel, she has also increasingly relied on her unique narrative techniques, with her often deliberately intrusive authorial voice, to sustain each novel. In Big Girls Don't Cry, Weldon's twentieth novel, she pokes fun at the feminist movementor as it was called in 1971, the setting of the book, "women's lib." The stories in A Hard Time to Be a Father are also characteristically impish, giving notice to Weldon fans that they will not be disappointed.

Val Warner,

updated by Judson Knight

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"Weldon, Fay." Contemporary Novelists. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

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