"Mind you, they'll say anything": Fay Weldon and the cultural history of feminism, 1967--2002

Date of Completion

January 2006


Women's Studies|Literature, English




This dissertation is the history of the critical reception of the novels of British author Fay Weldon. Because of her attention to contemporary culture, Weldon's fiction offers a valuable lens through which to examine the social, historical, political, and literary climate of Britain and the United States from 1967-present. Combining Weldon's personal history, fiction, and nonfiction with historical, sociological, and literary documents, I build a cultural framework in which to understand Weldon's fiction and to show how the larger literary public---readers, reviewers, and publishers---received a feminist writer. In the 1960s and 1970s as the women's movement was emerging, feminists wanted equal rights and equal opportunities. Weldon's early novels were closely aligned with a feminist ideology that focused on women's voice and women's equality. Her attention to domestic life challenged the traditionally grand subject matter of the novel and her analysis of women's discontent prompted critics and publishers to position Weldon as a feminist writer and her texts as feminist fiction. When the definition of feminism shifted in the late 1970s and early 1980s and Weldon's books did not depict a separatist feminist agenda, Weldon's allegiance to feminism was questioned. Weldon's complex portrayal of Ruth in Life and Loves of a She-Devil emphasizes Weldon's refusal to take any ideology, including feminism, too seriously. Ruth is a deliberately provocative portrayal of a woman who, on the one hand, rejects the suburban dream and becomes self-reliant, and on the other, undergoes extensive plastic surgery in order to look exactly like her husband's mistress, the pretty and petite romance writer Mary Fisher. By presenting moral issues but never offering a clear moral framework, Weldon denies her readers easy answers. While reviewers found this slipperiness to be problematic, in the 1990s, scholars embraced Weldon's contradictory, inconsistent, continually shifting philosophical positions, labeling Weldon a feminist postmodernist writer and revaluing her fiction for a scholarly audience. These shifts in critical reception reveal the major changes feminism has undergone over the past 35 years as well as the ways in which Weldon's fiction both enacts and complicates a history of feminism. ^