Academic journal article Hecate

Auto-Da-Fay: Fay Weldon's Cosmopolitan Feminism in Her Autobiographical Writings

Academic journal article Hecate

Auto-Da-Fay: Fay Weldon's Cosmopolitan Feminism in Her Autobiographical Writings

Article excerpt

In the American edition of Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (which differs substantially from the original British edition), Ruth Patchett, the woebegone eponymous protagonist, finds herself abandoned by her husband, who has left her penniless in his pursuit of a woman who is more attractive and very wealthy. As the reality of her situation sinks in, she contemplates her dilemma:

    'What about me?' asked Ruth, and the words sped out into
   universe, to join myriad other 'what about me's' [sic]
   by myriad other women, abandoned that very day by their
   husbands. Women in Korea and Buenos Aires and Stockholm
   and Detroit and Dubai and Tashkent ... Sound waves do not
   die out. They travel forever and forever. All our sentences are
   immortal. Our useless bleatings circle the universe for all
   eternity. (She-Devil
 [US] 46) (1) 

In her more than thirty-five novels written between 1967 and the present, Weldon has continually expounded a cosmopolitan feminist philosophy that maintains a global view of the hardships and injustices that are the lot of women in their respective patriarchal cultures. Such conditions tend to pit women against each other in competition for the safeguards that traditional heterosexual marriage purportedly offers; but, as one of Weldon's characters in The Life and Loves of a She-Devil later tells Ruth, "Women like us"--that is, women that male-dominated culture ignores or abandons--"must learn to stick together" (She-Devil [US] 119).

Weldon's 2002 autobiography, the sardonically titled Auto da Fay, reveals the life behind the stories and how that life influenced the author's perspectives, not only on the status of women in society but also her disdain for all forms of separatism, whether national, political, or sexual, which as critics such as Martha Nussbaum and Kok-Chor Tan have argued, is the antithesis of cosmopolitanism. The narrative of Weldon's childhood and adolescence was shaped by accidents of natural and manmade disaster and the manner in which her family, eventually an all-female one, managed to navigate these travails. Her parents had emigrated from England soon after their marriage. For her father, a young medical doctor from a working-class background, New Zealand represented a promise of a better future. His subsequent success, however, was at the expense of his wife and two daughters. A womaniser and a spendthrift, he stifled his wife's literary ambitions then divorced her, leaving her to fend for herself and her daughters.

Her mother, the novelist Margaret Jepson, was of more sophisticated, indeed bohemian, origins. (2) The daughter of Edgar Jepson, a once popular if now obscure writer of the early twentieth-century, she was a member of the cohort surrounding Evelyn Waugh in the 1920s, prior to her marriage. Like many of the female writers and musicians in her family tree, Margaret Jepson subordinated her art for the sake of love and crossed the globe in the steps of--or fleeing from--the man in her life. Weldon observes that her nonconforming mother did not fit in with the more staid and colonised New Zealanders:

    I remember my mother turning cartwheels on the lawn, white
   legs flashing, short skirt whirling.... None of my friends'
   mothers turned cartwheels. They wore pinnies and made
   apple pies. We were different. I became aware that we were
   homies. We came from a far-off place called England, and
   didn't really belong here. This made you both better and
   worse, before you even began. Sometimes people didn't even
   understand what you said. Then you felt stupid. You wanted
   to speak like your friends, but your mother wanted you to
   speak as she did and was quite cross when you didn't. You
   wanted to say "yiss" but she wanted you to say
"yes." So you
   learned to speak two different languages, one for home, and
   the other for your friends. (Auto da Fay

The dichotomies between the colonised and the colonisers, between the cosmopolitan and those separate from the larger world thus became evident to Weldon long before she could understand the politics and social norms that created such divisions. …

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