I read Doris Lessing obsessively when I was young, but I came of age giggling over Fay Weldon’s radical comic novels about crabby, sexy women skirmishing with men and fighting against the patriarchy. Think Sophocles’s Antigone mixed with Aristophanes’s Lysistrata.
Weldon’s women character are irritable and unpredictable, witty and politically savvy. Her novels are imbued with Rabelaisian humor, radical feminism, and the rage of the exploited. In the 20th century, she articulated in her fiction the the problems confronted by feminists.
Weldon, a brilliant, prolific novelist who died in January at age 91, was also a successful TV writer. She wrote the first episode of Upstairs, Downstairs, and a 1980 five-part Pride and Prejudice series. And her hilarious novel The life and Loves of a She-Devil was adapted as a successful movie starring Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep.
Weldon’s style as a novelist is saucy and experimental. It’s as if she’s daring male readers to respond, though there probably were few male readers. Her characters’ strange, witty observations resonate with women because they anticipate or articulate our own rebellious, whimsical thoughts .
I recently found Weldon’s dystopian novel, Chalcot Crescent, published in 2009, sitting unread on my shelf. Set in 2013 after the collapse of capitalism, it is intelligent, funny, a bit scary, and not improbable.
Yet Weldon also reinvents her family within the framework of the dystopian novel. The narrator is her younger sister Frances, who in reality died at birth. Weldon imagines Frances as an 80-year-old novelist who, after a wild life as a rich, successful writer, keeps a low profile in her house at Chalcot Crescent. Capitalism is dead, England is ruled by NUG (the National Unity Government), and old women are considered redundant. The bailiff is literally at the door..
In Weldon’s imagined future, capitalism did not survive the financial crash of 2008. Travel is restricted. The European countries have become increasingly isolated (Brexit?), with little to import or export. The UK is under constant surveillance; there are food shortages and rolling power outages. People are encouraged to stay home as much as possible. Few have cars, and the buses are erratic. Everyone eats government meat loaf, which tastes good but no one wants to think what it is made of. Frances at one points says to her grandson, Well, you’re not thinking Soylent Green, are you? And yet we readers suspect that it might be something like that.
Yet this is not a gloomy novel. Like Carolyn See’s apocalyptic Golden Days, there is joy in survival. And the novel moves back and forth between the present and Frances’s past. Her memories of her life as a young woman are tumultuous but happy. .She climbed the social ladder and became a rich, famous novelist, with lots of money, great clothes, husbands, and children.
But Frances regrets her envy and nastiness to Fay. She stole Fay’s boyfriend and later stole and married Karl, the love of Fay’s life. After Karl and Frances divorced, she realized that Fay and Karl could have been happy together. But she doesn’t dwell on it. Now that she’s 80, she has no lovers, though the government encourages old people to have sex because it’s “good” for them.
Looking back over her life, she thinks,
I was a different person then. I look at that time from afar with a sense of awe and marvel. I am no longer me: my skin has changed too often, five times and more if you allow ten years for a complete change.
One never knows when there will be a government crack-down. One afternoon Frances’s thirtyish grandson Amos sits beside her on the stairs for hours while they wait for the bailiffs to stop banging on the door. But then he organizes a revolutionary meeting at her house, and she is astonished that the core revolutionaries are her grandchildren, led by dangerous Henry, a nasty by-blow of her ex-husband Karl. Henry is the leader, a Puritanical revolutionary who reminds her of Oliver Cromwell. Frances is old, but she is smart: can she outwit Henry?
This is far from Weldon’s best novel, but it great fun and has a satisfying, surprisingly upbeat ending. I wonder how much Weldon knew about the financial system. Did we ever recover from the crash of 2008? One wonders. In the “post=Covid” era people stay home more, and the towering office buildings in the city are empty. So Weldon got some of it right, didn’t she?
I love Weldon’s writing, so let me share this comic but despairing quote about the end of good times.
And Polly [her daughter] certainly cannot conceive that we are really living in the end of times, that it’s good=bye to all that, all the goodies we had in the past. The easy days will not come again: they were a one-off, an abortive mutation in the evolution of civilization, as the peacock’s tail is over the top when it comes to attracting the dowdy pea-hen, merely an over-response. IF evolution were to start all over,… you’d have to wait forever for the froth and bubble of the hedge funds, or Paris Hilton to step from a plane in a white fur coat…. Face it, the good times are gone. They will not return.