Fay Weldon is a major contemporary writer on women’s issues, noted for short fiction and novels as well as for plays for stage, radio, and television. She was born Franklin Birkinshaw on September 22, 1931, in Alvechurch, Worcestershire, England, to Frank Thornton Birkinshaw, a doctor, and Margaret Jepson Birkinshaw, a writer of romantic novels. Her maternal grandfather and an uncle were also writers. Weldon was reared in New Zealand. When she was five, her parents were divorced; she spent the rest of her childhood in an all-female household, consisting of her mother, her grandmother, and her sister, and then was educated at a girls’ school. After returning to England, Weldon attended Hampstead Girls’ High School, London. In 1949 she went to St. Andrews University in Fife, Scotland, and received her master’s degree in economics and psychology in 1954. In the 1950’s Weldon worked as a report writer for the British Foreign Office, spent some time as a market researcher for the London Daily Mirror, and then became an advertising copywriter. After a brief, disastrous marriage in 1958, in 1960 she married Ronald (Ron) Weldon, an antique dealer, painter, and jazz musician; their marriage lasted until 1994. Weldon subsequently married poet Nick Fox.
Although Weldon had worked on novels in the 1950’s, her career as a successful writer should be dated from the year 1966, when three of her plays were produced on British television. Her first novel, The Fat Woman’s Joke, which was published a year later, grew out of the teleplay The Fat Woman’s Tale. Witty, satirical, and conversational, it set the pattern for her later works, which have consistently dealt with women’s problems as seen through women’s eyes. In 1969 Weldon’s first play was produced in London; it was followed by six others during the next decade. Meanwhile, she continued to write novels, short stories, and numerous teleplays, including an award-winning episode of the popular series Upstairs, Downstairs. In the 1970’s she also wrote a number of radio plays; in 1973, she won the Writers’ Guild Award for one of them, Spider, and in 1978, she won the Giles Cooper Award for Polaris. In every genre she was praised for skillful plot development, witty and realistic dialogue, and an accurate delineation of the plight of all women, single or married, who are victims of their biological drives and of the men who dominate society. Although her themes remain the same, critics are impressed by Weldon’s seemingly endless powers of invention. In the early work Remember Me, for example, a dead divorced wife comes back to haunt her ex-husband; in Puffball, a pregnant woman, alone in Somerset, is beset by a witch; and in what is perhaps Weldon’s most famous later novel, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, an abandoned wife takes an elaborate revenge on her husband and on the wealthy romance writer who stole him from her.
In addition to her own fiction and plays, Weldon has written acclaimed scripts based on the works of other writers, including Aunt Tatty, based on a short story by Elizabeth Bowen, and the five-part dramatization of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, that was shown in England and in the United States in 1980. Her interest in Austen led to the publication of an unusual book, Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, which is cast as a series of letters from the novelist to a fictional niece. In addition to analyses of Austen’s novels and details about her life, the book includes Weldon’s comments on the art of fiction and on her own work. In 1985 Weldon’s book Rebecca West was structured similarly. In this case Weldon supposes herself to be writing fictitious letters to another writer, Rebecca West, after the birth in 1914 of West’s son by H. G. Wells. In keeping with her feminist posture, she praises West’s determined unconventionality but also reminds her that a satisfying life does not depend on Wells or on any other man.
Weldon’s novels and stories tend to be rational rather than vituperative, witty rather than shrill. Both men and women are targets of her satire, men because they so often insist on bolstering their own insecurities by bullying the women who love them or who are involved with them, and women because they conspire in their own subjugation, assuming that thus they will keep the men they so desperately need in order to maintain their own identities. Extreme feminists criticize Weldon because her men are not monsters; most of them are weak. Like Bobbo in The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, they collapse as soon as women cease to adore them. Such critics also complain that Weldon’s women are often as foolish as the men. Other critics disagree, pointing out that her incisive social commentary may lay the groundwork for a new maturity and respect in relationships between men and women, based on a new balance in the lives of women such as Weldon herself.
In 2001, Weldon received a great deal of criticism for her novel The Bulgari Connection when it was revealed that she had accepted an undisclosed but large sum of money from the Italian jewelers Bulgari for “product placement” within the work–essentially, for using her novel as a form of advertising for the company. The practice has been increasingly used, and increasingly deplored, in film, and Weldon’s complicity in bringing it into the world of print was felt by many to be a triumph of crass commercialism over art. The novel itself received mixed reviews, with many feeling that it was classic Weldon satire, while others felt the novelist was merely marking time and repeating a formula.