Harriet Guest

  • The Rules of Life by Fay Weldon
    Century Hutchinson, 79 pp, £7.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 09 168680 6
  • The Hearts and Lives of Men by Fay Weldon
    Heinemann, 328 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 434 85192 2

Let there not be a single stripe, a single spot, a single stray grey sock or tartan-bordered handkerchief, implores Miss Sumpter, that goes with the white wash into the tub or into the machine, or pure whiteness will be lost forever. Heavily soiled cotton and linen whites must of course be pre-washed before allowed into contact with more delicate fabrics – woollens and silks and polyesters and so forth: even so, and although quite a quantity of the heavier, tougher fabrics may be allowed to press up close in the wash with one another, be tumbled this way and that and still not lose their purity, it is preferable to wash a white blouse, or white stockings, or a white shirt, quite separately.

The ghostly narrator of Fay Weldon’s novella The Rules of Life pleads for painstaking attention to the laundry. She ventriloquises the instructions on clothes labels, on detergent packages, and in the handbook that comes with the washing-machine, lacing her lessons with passionate commitment. And her imploring advice makes sense – it is informative, functional, factually precise. It resembles the information in thrillers written primarily for men, which retain in loving detail esoteric facts about the structure and habits of the secret services, the customs and tricks of the race-course, or the construction of oil rigs. Like those facts, it has the fascinating tedium of authorised truth or collectable trivia, and it gives the pleasant illusion of useful knowledge available without any painful exertion of thought or understanding. This kind of information offers us partial instruction in mysterious rites whose unintelligible complexity seems reassuringly remote, and it thus nourishes an appetite for the bland irrelevances and disconnected observations that characterise unexplained facts. It is knowledge whose virtue is guaranteed by the almost surreal lack of interest or coherence, the weakness of explanatory power, that it parades.

This ostensible purity and explicitness marks the information about washing that the narrator, summoned from the grave by electronic hi-tec, wants to bequeath to those living in the year 2004. Her narrative is fairly evenly divided between cataloguing these ‘rules of laundry’, and recollecting her amorous adventures, from which she extracts the ‘Rules of Life’. She has been granted this articulate life after death by the priests of the Great New Fictional Religion, who tape the ‘voices’ of the dead, and interpret or construct them into the fictions which make life bearable. For the future Fay Weldon describes is a bleak world where the comforts of technological advance hardly compensate for the constraints imposed by the fear of disease, and especially of Aids. In 2004, she imagines, only fiction will gratify the desires that are otherwise fatal, and the most effective fictions are the reminiscences of the dead.

It is the ghost’s flights into the speculative regions of romance that seem directly to serve this purpose, while the rules of laundry seem merely to underwrite their extravagance with pragmatic capital. But as the ‘pulp-priest’ responsible for the ghost’s memoirs falls in love with the tape he works on, his thoughts turn increasingly to the rules of laundry rather than to the Rules, or the fictions, of Life. When he considers his own marriage, it is not so much the lack of passion that he laments, but that his wife does all the washing in one mixed load, and that the colours and textures of their clothes have therefore degenerated. He becomes entranced by the strange romance of solid facts, rather than by the more volatile visions of amorous conquest, or the Rules of Life that these demonstrate.

For the empirical truths of the rules of laundry turn out, perhaps not surprisingly, to have very little to do with practical considerations, as the novel unfolds their mysterious fascination. The pulp-priest may not be satisfied with the way his wife does the washing, but he is not inspired by the ghost’s imploring advice to take over the chore, and invest it with the meticulous pleasures of ritual observance. The truthfulness and value of the rules is not a matter of exemplary instruction, but rather of the attractive fantasy of absolute purity, ideal cleanliness and virtue, that the rules are designed to construct and protect. It is the idea of a whiteness worth defending with elaborate precautions, or redeeming through extreme sacrifices of labour and pain, that charms the priest, and that provides an almost sacramental justification for the scrupulous attention to detail that preoccupies the ghost.

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