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.


A little bit of politics

So I have now been blogging for a year… When I put my first post up last St Patrick’s Day I had no idea what I was doing, to be honest. Still not sure I do. But I have discovered a lot about what is important to me during my 90 posts, some of which have been a surprise.

The main themes I’ve rambled on about have been:


Books (my book in particular…)

Popular culture


70s and 80s nostalgia

Bruce Forsyth (and hurrah, he got his knighthood along the way!)

A little bit of politics (and a lot of Tory-bashing)

God and today’s church

Canada (where I live a parallel life in another space/time log cabin)

Music (pop)


Mental health


Having just read Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman (what a blast of fresh air!), I think it appropriate to dedicate this anniversary to the suffragettes who gave their lives for the rights of their sisters. A hundred years on, what would they think? What would they say to today’s young men and women? How would they feel, knowing that women are still judged by what they look like?  Lap-dancing, stripping, plastic surgery, bum implants, pneumatic breasts, Katie Price, Nuts magazine et al, Page 3, and the fact that women in the UK are paid on average 30% less than men despite the Equal Pay Act of 1970…what would they do with this very present and worrying reality?

I have two sons and a daughter and I know I have a duty as a mother to bring all three up as feminists.  It helps that we are a liberal-Guardian-reading household and that my husband and I were students in the 80s when Margaret Thatcher had a deep and long-lasting effect on our political beliefs. We talk about stuff, the media, the telly, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding… we debate. We let them ask questions and they know we don’t have all the answers. But they know right from wrong (mostly). And they know it is right to judge people by their actions, not by their looks/clothes/or walk.

Back in the 80s was an exciting time to be a woman. I was an English major, the  first of my family to go to a university. But what opened my eyes was the Women’s Studies minor I took, and the unit in Women Writers. I thought the bad times were behind us, that the future was bright for the human race, men and women alike. I thought that things could only get better a good decade ahead of Tony Blair (and even before Professor Brian Cox was a keyboard player). But twenty-five years later, I worry that my teenagers are bombarded with images that suggest women are still second class citizens. That the boys will have better life chances than their sister (though she is a tough cookie despite the obsession with mascara).

Don’t get me wrong … I like being a woman. I like wearing dresses and looking feminine. I like shoes and bags. But this doesn’t mean men should patronise me or think they have the monopoly on a conversation. And I like men too – they are somehow less complicated. You know where you are with them on the whole, even if it’s not always somewhere you want to be…

Maybe that’s why bloggging – and writing in general – can be so therapeutic. You can do it with no one looking at you. If I’m judged, it is by what I write, and the way I write it, including my occasional bad use of adjectives. And that’s fine.

The ‘F’ Word


In 2012 you can go into any newsagents and be faced with copies of ‘lads mags’ (aka pornography) whether you are looking for it or not. Going into WH Smiths in Teignmouth, you are bombarded by so-called ‘top-shelf’ magazines such as Nuts. Which is nuts.

March 2nd 2012. Why is Imogen posing like this? Why does she feel the need to do this? Money? Esteem? Power? With a car on her shoulder and a football survey by her thigh. Not only is this insulting to women, it’s insulting to men. Are men really are only interested in sport, cars and sex…?


We are told it’s empowering for women to get their kit off. It’s equality. It’s all good. But clearly it’s not. If young men and women, boys and girls, go into these shops and tilt their heads ever so slightly, they are faced with images of women that are unrealistic, negative and degrading. It only matters what you look like. Women don’t have brains, or feelings or status. They are objects. This is how boys are programmed to grow up and see women. This is how girls grow up and see themselves. Unless they are challenged by good male and female role models. Unless they are brought up to question the way women are portrayed in the media. Young people are bombarded with images constantly, all the time, and we need to help them make sense of them, to be objective, to question.

Until women are seen by themselves and by men as equals, there will not be equality. There will be abuse, violence and rape. Go behind the scenes of the frothy make-up and nudity of the sex industry and there is a darker side that we know goes on, but that we pretend doesn’t happen in a ‘civilised’ society.

Imogen, I don’t know who you are. I don’t know anything about you but now I have seen you like this I have made judgements about you that are most probably wrong. I wish I could talk to you over a cappuccino and find out who you are because that is what matters, not your body. You might think you are in control, and maybe you are in control of your own destiny. But that doesn’t help the rest of womankind in your country and over the globe. I don’t mean to single you out, it’s just that you are the one that popped up on my Google search (ironic that Google have a feminist doodle today)… I wish you well.

There are countless issues to discuss today, every day, but I have picked on this one because I find it depressing that society hasn’t moved on. I want my own kids, all teenagers now, two boys and a girl, to grow up knowing they have the same life chances and choices, and that this won’t be affected by how they look or by their gender.