100 Women Novelists of the 20th Century: Fay Weldon 

Blog Post 1: The life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983)

Mary Fisher lives in a High Tower, on the edge of the sea: she writes a great deal about the nature of love. She tells lies.

For my first novel I have chosen Fay Weldon’s ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil’ because this is the book I first read when I realised I wanted to be a writer. A few years earlier, I had seen the fantastic television drama with Julie T. Wallace in the title role and was spellbound. But it wasn’t until about 2001 that I first read the novel. (And then every novel of Fay Weldon’s after that.)

It’s hard to categorise this extraordinary story. A cautionary tale of married life? A satire of romantic fiction? A feminist fairy tale? Just let me say it is sharply brilliant. Witty, shocking, thought-provoking, disturbing, contradictary, and more.

What I love about Fay Weldon’s writing is the simplicity that disguises the depths she trawls. Her language is accessible but her subject matter dark and problematic. ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil’ is a fine example of how she does this.

The central premise is how far a woman scorned will go for revenge. The blurb on the back of my copy says: ‘What can a woman do when her husband accuses her of being a ‘she-devil’ and leaves her for another woman? Especially if that woman is six foot two, has a jutting jaw, a hooked nose and moles on her chin. And her rival is petite, ultra-feminine and a successful novelist…’

What does Ruth do? She becomes a she-devil. This enables her to steadfastly deconstruct her husband’s life and that of his lover, Mary Fisher. On the way she takes on the church, the law, and the establishment which allows the poverty trap that women must so often live in.

The book was published in 1983. Who can forget that year? Thatcher. A nation torn apart by riots, recession, war. A nation being systematically dismantled: schools, hospitals, railways, factories, mines. A decade where money usurped compassion. ‘She-Devil’ is deeply political as well as being morally and ethically challenging.

Ruth, surburban wife and mother with a narcissist of a husband must transform herself into a she-devil to wreak her revenge. And in doing so, terrible decisions must be made. She must burn down her home, abandon her children and endure the most painful cosmetic surgery. But on this quest to take out Bobbo and Mary Fisher, she will help the downtrodden. She will give the powerless a voice, a career, a reason to live.

But ultimately Ruth will sacrifice her children and her health. And for what? For all my re-readings of this phenomenal book, I still don’t have the answer.


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