The image of an English woman writer of the first rank, for well over a hundred years, has been of a sensitive, well-bred, well-read person who is nevertheless somewhat nervous and unhappy, prone to mental and physical ailments and in extreme cases to self-destruction. Though she feels deeply, this woman’s erotic life is limited or shadowed in some way; she is seldom happily married, and probably has no children.
Yet the first famous portrayal of a great woman storyteller in English literature is almost exactly the opposite of this stereotype. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is a cheerful, strong-willed, eminently sane matron who has had five husbands as well as what Chaucer discreetly calls “other company in youth.” In a patriarchal world, she has managed to share power with men and make them and herself happy.
In real life, the nearest thing in contemporary Britain to the Wife of Bath as a storyteller is Fay Weldon. She shares with her predecessor a strong personal voice—practical, funny, wise—and not only physical appearance but multiple marriages. Many of the stories she tells have the moral of the Wife of Bath’s Tale: that what women want is their own way. If they get it, they will make men happy; if not, not.
Fay Weldon’s early novels were hailed as brilliant feminist fiction. From The Fat Woman’s Joke (1967) to Praxis (1978), they were (among many other things) stories about the difficulties and prejudices women had faced over the years. The characters in these novels are treated as second-class citizens, exploited and ill-paid by their employers, scorned and ill-used by the men they love, and defamed by the general public. Down Among the Women (1971) for instance, shows, as Finuala Dowling in her excellent early critical study puts it, how “women acquire power through association with one another, and lose it through association with men.”* In Praxis the heroine was deliberately conceived as in a literal sense everything misogynists have accused women of being, and yet in the end clearly admirable:
I went through all the bad words women are called and made her these: whore, adulteress, murderess, incestuous, thief, lecher.
Weldon also did all she could to make sure that this novel was not seen as just an entertainment:
In Praxis I tried to remove my remarks from the narrative. Though it’s part of my pleasure to direct myself to the reader…. I also cut out most of the funny lines, so it was taken more seriously.
Fay Weldon knew about the names women can be called and the troubles they can face from personal experience. When she was a child in New Zealand her father more or less deserted her mother, who had to scramble and beg from relatives to support herself and her two daughters. Later, though Weldon had graduated from St. Andrews University, she could not find…
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