Fay Weldon has been writing novels about subjugated women for more than 50 years. Her debut book, The Fat Woman’s Joke, revolved around the expectations imposed on married women. The Life and Loves of a She-Devil was about the fury of a jilted wife. Praxis—nominated for the Booker Prize—charted a woman’s entire existence by the mistreatment she suffered at the hands of men.
And now, at the age of 89, she has finally transcended the form. If the news of the last few days is anything to go by, Fay Weldon no longer simply writes Fay Weldon books. She lives them.
A letter on Weldon’s Web site recently appeared without warning, informing readers of her travails. “I have been hospitalised for much of the last year, first with a broken bone in my back and then with a stroke, therefore my silence,” she wrote. And then, almost as an afterthought, “In the meanwhile, I have left my husband and am divorcing him, complaining of coercive control and financial mismanagement.” And it’s this part that sent shock waves across the bookisphere.
Because, at least to outsiders, it seemed like Fay Weldon was perfectly happy. She married Nick Fox 26 years ago. He became her manager. Last year, she spoke glowingly of their relationship in an article which she later claimed had been written by Fox under her name. Shortly after the article appeared, she attempted suicide.
“Nick controlled my life,” Weldon told the Daily Mail last week. “He wanted to run everything. My friends came less and less because he did all the talking and they wanted to see me.... He decided who I could be friends with. He tried to stop me seeing my sons. He never struck me, but he’d break plates and hurl things and, occasionally, they’d hit me. I was frightened of him.” He banned her from having a television, she said, adding that his lavish spending had left them destitute.
The most shocking aspect of this split is that it had happened to her at all. Fay Weldon made a career from being alert to the subtleties of bad relationships, and yet here she was, a victim to one of the worst of them. True, she had known bad luck before—her second marriage ended when her husband left her for his astrological therapist, only to die of a heart attack eight hours before their divorce was finalized—but nevertheless this seems like a brand-new level of anguish.
Weldon’s husband banned her from having a television, she said, adding that his lavish spending had left them destitute.
The sense of spectacle is only compounded by the fact that Fox has the same urge to wash his laundry in public and happens to speak exactly like a Fay Weldon character. “It’s a calumny of the vilest kind,” he told the Daily Mail a day after Weldon’s interview. “This is a character assassination by the person I loved and believed in more than anyone else in the world. I can’t defend myself against it because when you marry someone, when you love someone like I love Fay, you don’t put up any barriers against them.”
Being married to Weldon, he said, was “like being married to Jane Austen in the body of Marilyn Monroe.” However, he now claims that she is deep in the grip of undiagnosed senility brought about by guilt stemming from her maternal neglect. “Creative artists are not like other mothers,” he said. “Fay found fulfilment and inspiration in her work and now she is trying to appease that by sacrificing herself, by hitting her self-destruct button. And she’s trying to take me with her.”
Being married to Weldon, he said, was “like being married to Jane Austen in the body of Marilyn Monroe.”
You sense that this is only the start. Now that both parties have developed a taste for kicking each other in public, the story could run and run. In The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, the main character goes to enormous lengths to ruin the man who wronged her, framing him for fraud and sleeping with the judge in order to elongate his prison sentence before taking his home and vowing to destroy him. But this is real life, and Weldon’s revenge simply consists of a frail old woman bad-mouthing her husband in a newspaper. For a writer who made her name in comedy, it’s a tragic end.
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL