Death of a She Devil by Fay Weldon review – a reactionary sequel

Three decades on, Weldon’s most brilliantly monstrous creation returns as a grandee of women’s liberation

There are two parts to Fay Weldon’s reputation: first that she is a feminist writer, and second that she is a very funny one. The “funny” is earned, the “feminist” less so, and Death of a She Devil is a credit to neither. When Weldon introduced Ruth Patchett in The Life and Loves of a She Devil, 34 years ago, she created one of literature’s greatest monsters. Deserted by callous husband Bobbo for the simpering romance novelist Mary Fisher, ugly doormat Ruth remakes herself as the She Devil and has her revenge on the adulterers. Her punisher’s progress takes her through every circle of society, from underclass to judiciary, from family to clergy, until finally she is surgically transformed into “an impossible male fantasy made flesh” – even losing six inches of leg to become desirably petite. At the close of the book, with Bobbo broken and Mary dead, Ruth’s triumph is complete.

Now Ruth is 84, and the lighthouse home from which the siren Fisher once lured husbands instead houses the Institute for Gender Parity, a feminist organisation of which Ruth is president. Grandee of women’s liberation seems a strange endpoint for Ruth, who in Life and Loves is interested in sisterhood only so far as it serves her malicious project. And her object, ultimately, is a man: Ruth’s hatred of Bobbo and Mary is savagely comic and thrillingly total, but however changed she is externally, she has merely reoriented herself from the housewife who does everything to make her man happy, to the fury who does everything to make him miserable.

In Death of a She Devil, Bobbo is in effect Ruth’s prisoner, ancient and confined to bed, from where he rants his misogyny and sexually assaults his nurse. Meanwhile, Mary haunts the lighthouse, indulging in some light poltergeist activities and narrating the political machinations within the institute. An ambitious young woman named Valerie Valeria has plans to replace the She Devil, and Ruth’s freakishly beautiful grandson Tyler seems like the perfect vehicle for her schemes.

Where Life and Loves was a venomous picaresque, Death of a She Devil aims for poison gothic – think of it as Gorgonghast, with Ruth as the old earl, while Valerie and Tyler vie for the Titus and Steerpike roles. But there are problems: nothing happens, no atmosphere is generated, and the jokes fail to land. When Ruth complains of feeling her age, it’s hard not to wish that she had been left in retirement. So why bring her back a whole generation later? Is this bare (if belated) cynicism, or does Weldon think the battle of the sexes has moved on enough that Ruth has something new to say?

Death of a She Devil presents a world that Ruth has rearranged in her own image, with “women triumphant, men submissive”. And if Ruth regrets the demise of “lusty men” or her betrayal of the maternal instinct, those are nothing compared with the indignities her grandson suffers because of feminism. Poor Tyler is passed over for jobs in favour of women, and only avoids being aborted because his mother mistakenly thinks she’s carrying a girl. In these androphobic times, there’s just one way to win: Tyler goes trans. “If you can’t beat us, join us,” Ruth tells him, which should be the opportunity for some delicious Weldon wickedness.

But the novel is two thirds done before transitioning even comes up. Even then, Tyler is so passive as to be almost inert, which is a weakness for devilry. Weldon offers two lines of offence – trans women are really men infiltrating feminism, or they are the ultimate victims of misandry – but commits to neither, leaving Tyler dangling uselessly between. For scathing commentary on physical reinvention, Death trails a distant second to Life and Loves, in which Ruth tells her surgeon: “I have tried many ways of fitting myself to my original body, and the world into which I was born, and have failed. I am no revolutionary. Since I cannot change them, I will change my body.” Nothing Tyler says is nearly so close to the (sawn-down shin) bone.

Weldon’s satiric touch is off. She sounds less like an accomplished novelist than a foghorn columnist turning to fiction. There are sloppy mistakes (“sexties” instead of sexts, “transiting” instead of transitioning), none of which is as jarring as the central premise, which is that women rule the world. Backlash, defined by Susan Faludi, first exaggerates feminism’s victories, and then blames all women’s unhappiness on this pretended success. Death of a She Devil is a backlash novel. But then, so was Life and Loves: Ruth gets what she wants in the end, but realises that even in death Mary Fisher has won, for she remains “a woman” while Ruth is an unfeminine She Devil. Reactionary politics are nothing new for Weldon. Being boring, however, is.

Death of a She Devil is published by Head of Zeus. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Sarah Ditum

The GuardianTramp

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