So Amused

Sarah Rigby

  • Auto da Fay by Fay Weldon
    Flamingo, 366 pp, £15.99, May 2002, ISBN 0 00 710992 X

There is an unusual emphasis on ghosts in Fay Weldon’s autobiography. Early on, angels appear to her mother in the local park; a woman in white sits on the six-year-old Weldon’s bed; and ghosts unaccountably darken the rooms at her New Zealand high school (a sort of advance haunting, she now thinks, by the woman who was to be killed nearby in the murder dramatised in the film Heavenly Creatures). Later, there is the drowned pastor she sees on the pier at St Andrews; the poltergeist in Somerset that throws books at unsuspecting children; and, most disturbingly, the weeping ghost in the Saffron Walden house she shares with her mother and sister in early adulthood. This ghost’s presence is powerful: the cat seems to stare and hiss at it and when Weldon is alone with her baby one night, it so terrifies her that she is unable to leave the bedroom to get the child’s dummy, the only thing that will quieten him. Instead, she stays awake, holding the screaming baby and listening to the ghost crying through the door. When Weldon talks to her mother about this the next day, it becomes clear that she, too, feels the house is haunted. They pack and leave within hours and Weldon sells the house from a distance, without ever returning.

In retrospect, this experience seems to trouble her more than her other brushes with the otherworldly, and she analyses it at some length, half insisting, in tones of brisk bravado, that she doesn’t believe in ghosts and that it must simply have been a neurotic imagining, but also half seeking alternative explanations for what happened. It could be, she suggests, that ghosts are ‘like repeating dreams, just yourself trying to tell yourself something you’d rather not know’. Later in the book, she wonders whether the Saffron Walden ghost might have been the spirit of her sister, who was to die young, after a series of breakdowns: ‘Perhaps it was Jane we heard weeping . . . and ourselves for her.’

Discussions of this kind appear throughout the book, with an engaging lack of self-consciousness. Weldon also has an interest in recurring dreams, in premonitions, fate, tarot cards and the power of coincidence – themes that will be familiar to readers of her novels but which they might not have expected to figure so prominently in her autobiography. In fact, the book tells us more about Weldon’s views on the supernatural than it does about some of the most important events of her early life – about her father’s effective disappearance from it or the slow unravelling of her sister’s mental health.

These things are alluded to, but they are not explained in any detail. Weldon’s upbeat, conversational style allows many stories to begin as digressions, as if in passing, and then get left behind as another thought intrudes. Almost all, however, are elaborated later and it is only the obviously painful subjects that are neglected, though occasional comments about them include just enough background information to make it seem as though more has been said: as though, pages back, there must have been some vital paragraph that explained what appears to be missing.

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