The novelist Fay Weldon, who has died aged 91, was to an unusual extent the creation of her own extravagant imagination. A polemicist whose opinions shaped themselves around the plot of her latest book, a pragmatist who giggled her way through every sentence, she was mischievous and evasive, yet wilfully and wittily life-affirming. “I long for a day of judgment when the plot lines of our lives will be neatly tied, and all puzzles explained, and the meaning of events made clear,” she wrote in her rackety 2002 autobiography, Auto da Fay. “We take to fiction, I suppose, because no such thing is going to happen, and at least on the printed page we can observe beginnings, middles and ends and can find where morality resides.”
With these lines, Weldon gave a big wink to her future obituarists: catch me if you can, she appears to be saying – there is nothing you can write about me that I have not written about myself, and it is the storyteller who is in command of the meaning of events, insofar as there is one.
It is perhaps not going too far to say that, like Ruth, the “heroine” of one of her best-known novels, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983), Weldon moulded herself into a succession of identities designed to sandbag her against the misfortune of having been raised – literally and metaphorically – in an earthquake zone.
In literal terms, that zone was New Zealand, where her childhood, as the younger of two sisters born during the short marriage of her English mother, Margaret (nee Jepson), and emigrant father, Frank Birkinshaw, a doctor, was periodically rocked by earth tremors. The first struck while Fay was still in the womb, forcing her young mother to flee the city of Napier and take refuge on a sheep farm, where she remained for three months without knowing whether her philandering husband was alive or dead. “Dr Birkinshaw, my father,” wrote Weldon, with that familiar tang of salt in her phrasing, “was too busy with the injured to take care of his young wife.”
Metaphorically speaking, though, the seismic activity echoed back way before her birth. In Auto da Fay, she traced it back to her maternal grandmother’s inability to come to terms with the madness of a daughter (Margaret’s sister, Faith), who tipped into violent psychosis at the age of 17 after being discovered in bed with her own uncle. “It was the shock waves from this tragedy which echoed through the generations to disastrous effect,” she wrote.
Rather than censuring the abusive uncle, Weldon laid the blame squarely with her grandmother, Frieda. “It is only now, as I write this, that I see the pattern. As you’re done by, so you do. All the mothers betrayed the daughters, looking after their own skin first.”
Frieda came from boisterous bohemian stock. She had modelled as a child for the pre-Raphaelite artist Holman Hunt and studied the piano under Clara Schumann before abandoning her career to marry Edgar Jepson, a friend of Aleister Crowley who wrote 73 popular novels with titles such as Lady Noggs Assists and The Reluctant Footman. One of the family’s many faithless husbands, Edgar committed his final betrayal when, at the age of 69, he impregnated his mistress and decided he had to marry her. It was against the backdrop of this family disintegration that Margaret decided to marry Frank, the young medical student from Birmingham, and emigrate with him to New Zealand.
Traumatised by the earthquake and by her husband’s abandonment, Margaret returned to the UK, to Frank’s family in Barnt Green, Worcestershire, and gave birth to her second daughter, whom she named Franklin because she had been expecting a boy, but who was soon known as Fay. “Thus I started out in a state of ambivalence,” wrote Weldon. “I took out library books as Franklin and read them as Fay.”
After one last try to make a go of the marriage in New Zealand, Margaret left for lodgings in a hotel in Christchurch, and began to earn her own living, writing romantic novels under the pen name Pearl Bellairs, borrowed from Aldous Huxley’s novel Crome Yellow. She sent her daughters off to a nearby convent school, where Fay had pashes on girls and became fascinated by the mutilation of saints. “They were beautiful and good, and pain was their reward: I was fascinated and horrified: I knew there was something wrong in my response but not quite what.”
In 1946, Fay, her mother and her sister, Jane, returned to Europe and settled in London, and she won a scholarship to South Hampstead high school for girls. They lived in the basement of a house where her mother worked as a live-in housekeeper. She went on to study psychology at St Andrews University – which she blamed for her argumentative streak – and, after stints as a waitress and a hospital orderly, landed a job on the Polish desk of the Foreign Office propaganda unit, the Information Research Department. There she began her writing career, penning pamphlets that were designed to be air-dropped on Poland as part of the cold war effort.
The Foreign Office was too buttoned-up to accommodate her for long, and she left after becoming pregnant by a singer and nightclub doorman, and deciding that she wanted the baby, but not the father. When a stint running a tea shop (which she claimed was haunted) in Saffron Walden, Essex, with her mother and sister became too much, she launched a letter-writing campaign to potential London employees and landed a job as an agony aunt at the Daily Mirror.
But readers’ problems were not as exciting as the opportunities offered by the new commercial television and before long she was embarking on the heady life of an advertising copywriter. It was a career that was to produce one of the most famous slogans of the 1950s, “Go to work on an egg” (Weldon has said she did not actually write it, but was running the campaign that produced it). Not all her ideas were as successful. “Vodka gets you drunker quicker” was way ahead of its time, while an attempt to get the nation’s housewives to add an extra egg to their Christmas puddings backfired disastrously when she forgot to add sugar to the recipe.
Employment was never going to be straightforward for such a wayward spirit, and when she had had enough of the demands of reconciling single-motherhood with making a living, in 1956 she married a schoolmaster 25 years her senior. Ronald Bateman didn’t want sex himself but was happy for her to see other men, in a two-year union so mind-bogglingly disreputable that, in her autobiography, she resorts to referring to herself in the third person. She only returns to herself after meeting the jazz musician and antiques dealer Ron Weldon, who in 1962 was to become her second husband.
Fay Weldon wrote her first television play while impatiently awaiting the arrival of the first of their three sons. A Catching Complaint was screened in 1966 as an ITV play of the week, with a cast including Derek Godfrey, Hylda Baker and Tessa Wyatt. The following year, she published her first novel, The Fat Woman’s Joke (1967).
From then on she wrote at an industrial rate, turning out more than 30 novels at the same time as continuing a screenwriting career that included the pilot of the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs, and a five-part adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which appeared faithful to the original while slyly rearranging the marital politics of Mr and Mrs Bennet to make him meaner and her more sympathetic.
Pride and Prejudice was screened in 1980, the same year that Puffball – her novel of pregnancy as a fungal condition – was published and serialised in Company magazine, and the year after she was shortlisted for the Booker prize for Praxis (1978), one of a succession of tales of women transforming themselves to take control of their own destinies in a discriminatory world. The Life and Loves of a She-Devil was televised with Patricia Hodge, Julie T Wallace and Dennis Waterman in 1986, and made into a film starring Roseanne Barr in 1989.
This was the peak of second-wave feminism, and Weldon’s populist and rather witchy novels were making her one of its high priestesses, while her ability to write topically and at speed suited the burgeoning market in women’s magazines. Her 1987 novel The Hearts and Lives of Men was first published in weekly instalments in Woman’s Own.
She was also becoming part of the literary establishment, albeit a grandee who judged prizes more often than she won them. She ascribed this fate to the brevity of her sentences, “which makes the books appear to lack gravitas” – though perhaps equally significant was her acknowledgment that “even editors don’t seem to understand the make-it-up-as-you-go-along school of writing which I inhabit”.
Her make-it-up-as-you-go-along philosophy played an increasingly important part in her public persona as well as her work. In 2001 she scandalised the literary world by accepting £18,000 from a jeweller for a novel, The Bulgari Connection. Far from being sheepish about the deal, she flamboyantly overdelivered, sprinkling more than 30 namechecks into the text, when she had been contracted to mention the firm 12 times.
Always ready to turn out newspaper opinion pieces for a suitable fee, she could be relied on to say the unsayable, defending facelifts, rounding on feminists, on rape victims, on men and – after Ron left her for his psychotherapist after 30 years of marriage – on the confessional industry. “The more we understand each other, the harder it seems to us to cleave to one another for any length of time,” she wrote.
Ron died in 1994 as their divorce became final. Fay remarried within a year and continued writing and making headlines from the home in Dorset that she shared with her third husband, Nick Fox, a poet and one-time bookseller, who became her manager. He was a quiet presence in the background of many a media profile, serving up plates of pasta, and stepping in to temper her wilder assertions, while Weldon gleefully decried the domestic incompetence of husbands. They separated in 2020.
The provocations continued into her old age. Having been baptised into the Church of England at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2000, she was rewarded with two glimpses of the pearly gates while under anaesthetic, and reported that they were double-glazed and in garish colours, which was not very encouraging. In 2006 she published a book of dos and don’ts for the older woman, What Makes Women Happy, which suggested that porn was not so bad. “Porn is sex in theory, not in practice. It just helps a man get through the day. And many a woman, too, come to that.”
In 2017, she threw herself into the increasingly bad-tempered debate between feminists and trans activists over the rights of transgender women, with Death of a She-Devil, a sequel to her earlier bestseller, which saw an octogenarian she-devil trying to sort out her legacy in the tower once owned by her love rival. In order to inherit the family fortune her estranged grandson must change gender – a transformation for which neither he, nor Weldon herself, appeared to have much enthusiasm. True to form, the villain of the piece was not a man at all but the “fourth-wave” feminist who forced him to make the change – a lesbian so convinced of the superiority of women that she did not associate with men at all.
It would be wrong to dismiss Weldon as a publicity-seeking controversialist. Though she could be infuriatingly contradictory, she saw the pain of the human condition out of the corner of mischievous eyes. A member of the Royal Society of Literature, who was made a CBE in 2001, she was generous to other writers. In her knack at identifying and hitching herself to the zeitgeist and her skill at keeping herself in the public eye, she created a template for a writer’s life that seems prophetic. Hers was a prototype “dandelion career” – releasing clouds of creativity and seeing where each spore landed – long before the term was invented by writers two generations younger than her.
She appeared to cruise through old age with an unstoppable momentum, travelling by taxi to publicity events within a 100-mile radius of her home and throwing herself with gusto into her second professorship of creative writing, at Bath Spa University, in 2012, at the age of 81.
She concluded Auto da Fay by asserting that nothing interesting happened to her after she was 30, and that she simply spent the next 40 years scribbling. On her website, she took a more pragmatic tack: “I buried the rest of the autobiography in three more novels, Mantrapped, She May Not Leave, and Kehua!, bringing the story up to this very year. If you are interested, they await deciphering and scholastic enquiry.”
Her son Tom died in 2019. She is survived by her sons, Nick, Dan and Sam, and her stepdaughter, Karen.
• Fay (Franklin) Weldon, writer, born 22 September 1931; died 4 January 2023