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.

Of course, being able to leave out what you want to leave out must be one of the main advantages (or pleasures) of writing your own biography. But sometimes it seems as if Weldon were drawing our attention to the fact that information is missing. As it turns out, this is an illusion, but it is sustained for a long time because, after the first few chapters, the book reads less like a living person’s autobiography and more like the musings of a fictional character. Before long, you begin to think you’re reading a novel: the omissions start to seem strategic, a means of building up suspense; and when there are repetitions you think that maybe they’re a way of casually emphasising something that will be important to the plot at a later stage. The characters – the solid, robust Fay, whose role from an early age is to keep the family cheerful; the artistic, serene, but ultimately impractical mother; the glamorous grandmother; the ‘interesting and exciting’ but also rather fragile Jane – start to feel winningly exaggerated. Despite the photographs and the smattering of famous names – encounters with Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Assia Wevill, George Barker and Elizabeth Smart are described, sometimes with an almost embarrassing degree of openness – it takes an effort of will to remember that what is described actually happened.

This odd effect makes more sense if you see it as an attempt on Weldon’s part to establish patterns, to understand the interconnections and coincidences that have influenced her life. Writing an autobiography is, she says, as close to a summing up, ‘a day of judgment’ when ‘the meaning of events is made clear,’ as she expects to come. In effect what she is doing, as she acknowledges, is trying to treat her own life in the way that she has treated fictional lives: to find a structure for it that will make everything fall neatly into place. She is fictionalising her own life – or, as she sees it, laying bare the workings of ‘fate’.

The book begins in 1931, with a description of Weldon’s pregnant mother, Margaret, then aged 23, running through Napier, New Zealand, carrying her first daughter in her arms, as an earthquake destroys the town around her. She reaches safety but cannot find her husband, a doctor: perhaps he was buried among the rubble while tending the injured. She hears nothing for three months. Then he reappears, blithely explaining that because his practice has been destroyed he has had to spend time looking for work.

By this time, she has arranged to return to England and her second child is born in Worcestershire and registered as Franklin Birkinshaw – a name which, Margaret has worked out through numerology, ‘comes out the same’ as William Shakespeare. The fact that the child is a girl is an inconvenience, but it is decided that the name is nevertheless the right one: after all, ‘was not “lin” the female diminutive, and was not Frank my father?’ When the baby’s absent father objects, however, the family compromises by nicknaming her ‘Fay’.

The narrative moves through Weldon’s childhood in a more or less chronological sequence, digressing from time to time to draw out the parallels between past and future events. In a tone of detached amusement, she describes her own life in New Zealand after her mother returns to her father, who has by this time not only found a job but decided to start a radio station, to stand for election as the region’s socialist candidate and to write a detective serial for a local newspaper. Her parents subsequently divorce and many changes of address and school ensue.

Weldon’s wider family history is woven into all this; affairs, scandals, eccentricities and recurrences of insanity are discussed with enthusiasm. An uncle seduces a niece; a daughter is sent to an asylum and never visited; a mistress is installed across the road from a wife, who is later expected to help her through a miscarriage; mothers uproot homes before their daughters are grown up, precipitating disastrous early marriages. Many of these events are mirrored in Weldon’s own novels; her fiction, the book reveals, is much more directly influenced by her family history than might have been thought credible.

Weldon’s early life is unwieldy. As a small child, she is abandoned first by her father, and then by her mother, who returns only when Weldon gets polio and dramatic telegrams are sent halfway across the world. She and her sister are shuttled between their mother and their father’s second family. Her maternal grandmother, Nona, arriving from America when Fay is 12, regales the girls with tales of her prewar meetings in London with figures such as Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound (who apparently had a habit of playing her piano with his nose when drunk), H.G. Wells and E. Nesbit, who, Weldon’s grandmother tells her, ‘was very excitable and . . . ran round the corridors at night screaming’.

Meanwhile, Weldon attends a Scottish-influenced girls’ high school, reads Tolkien and Raymond Chandler and, on being told that it is customary to have a crush on a member of the sixth form, looks around in a bemused way for someone to choose, eventually settling on a particular girl because she has unusual shoes. She wins a scholarship she finds she can’t take up because she isn’t a farmer’s daughter, babysits for the poet Allen Curnow’s son, and spends hot afternoons with her sister, comparing her proportions to those of the women in Esquire. Then, when she is 15, her mother inherits £900 and decides to take her daughters back to England. Their father argues but is overruled. He is in tears when he comes to the dockside to wave them off, but they never see (and barely hear from) him again.

Though the childhood years, which she writes about unrestrainedly, take up a good proportion of the book, Weldon’s main interest is in her movement through the various identities and names which follow, from Fay Birkinshaw to Fay Davies, to Fay Bateman, to the point at which she becomes Fay Weldon. The book ends when she is 32 or 33, about to give birth to her second son and to begin writing.

In the meantime, there is university to deal with (she decides to go to St Andrews), the ever-increasing problem of getting a proper boyfriend (as opposed to brief flings, which are much easier), as well as finding work and somewhere to live. Her mother is keen for her to settle in England, New Zealand being represented as an underdeveloped place to which it would be senseless to look back. When, at 17, she hears that her father has died, she is not expected to grieve. She wears a black armband for a few hours but then takes it off: ‘It just seemed a stupid kind of ostentation,’ she says briefly, ‘relating to an age so long ago and far away it didn’t matter.’

Returning to London after St Andrews, she works as a hospital orderly and as a waitress, then becomes an assistant clerk at the Foreign Office, monitoring the movements of spies in Poland from a converted mansion where it is possible to take clandestine baths at lunchtime, in the rooms where ‘the top-secret documents’ are kept. Occasionally her reports come back to her annotated with comments in Churchill’s handwriting, though she is warned that his judgment may no longer be reliable. She lives on a boat on the Thames and constantly worries that she might inadvertently sink it. All this is related with a degree of amusement but one of the funniest sections in the book begins when, at the age of 22, an unplanned pregnancy leads to her giving up work.

Again all sorts of complications ensue: in the interests of maintaining a semblance of respectability, she pretends to her employers that she is leaving to get married, and is hugely embarrassed when they buy her a wedding present. Disinclined to marry her busker boyfriend, who promises her a happy housewife’s life in Luton, where, he has heard, he could have a free house if he became a gas-fitter, she settles for changing her name to his by deed poll (that way, her mother tells her, she can be both respectable and free) and goes to live in Saffron Walden with her mother, her sister and a friend, both of whom are also pregnant and single. ‘The neighbours were polite but distant,’ Weldon says. ‘I think they scarcely knew what to make of us. Other than that perhaps we were some sort of charitable institution.’ There, she flirts with the idea of opening a cake shop (she sells a total of four cakes), gets her first job in advertising and is harassed by the weeping ghost.

Interestingly, the course of her working life is not at all smooth: she loses her first job in advertising and goes through periods of waitressing, of being a housewife and working as a nightclub hostess before she begins the job where she ends up in charge of the egg account and coins the slogan ‘Go to Work on an Egg.’ That success comes after she has tried to sell eggs by publishing a Christmas cake recipe that includes extra eggs but no sugar (ten million cakes go mouldy before Christmas Day) and has failed to sell the slogan ‘Vodka makes you drunker quicker’ to Smirnoff, despite, as she points out, its accuracy and simplicity.

The tone throughout tends to the nonchalant; and it is clear that certain episodes in Weldon’s life seem, in retrospect, to be so unrelated to her present existence they could belong to someone else. This is especially true of her time as ‘Mrs Bateman’, which, she says, now seems so alien to her that she can only write about it in the third person. A period of unemployment, followed by acute anxiety about childcare and money, had made her feel desperate enough to agree to what she thought of as a marriage of convenience. Her husband is a relatively rich man, a headmaster keen to move on to a larger school, whose ex-wife phones Weldon to tell her that he has married her simply to make his application forms – on which he has stated that he has a wife and a son – consistent despite his divorce. The marriage is sexless and devoid of emotion: the headmaster encourages her to sleep with other men, even offering his own friends for the purpose, and finds her a job as a night-club hostess, for which he buys her a low-cut dress and makes her promise to tell him all the details of her encounters. Weldon eventually leaves him, after a fortune-teller remarks that her diary is the ‘unhappiest object he had ever touched’.

There is real energy in the account, however loosely structured and episodic. One or two bafflingly minor matters are brought up simply so that Weldon’s side of the story can be set out in detail, and it is true that her first husband (sometimes called Richard, sometimes Ronald Bateman) doesn’t come out of the story well, but generally, there is little sense of grievance. Instead, anecdote smoothly gives way to anecdote, keeping the reader firmly at arm’s length.

Weldon’s mother, it is explained early on, wrote novels as a young woman but stopped after the Second World War, when novels ‘ceased to be discursive’ and became ‘a confessional, and readers demanded that the writer speak the truth as he or she knew it and my mother’s truths were difficult enough to live through, she said, let alone writing about them as well.’ Weldon, by contrast, made friends with the girls at school by ‘learning to turn her family life into playground narrative, the better to entertain them’. As a ‘playground narrative’, Auto da Fay is enthralling. It’s no wonder that, looking back over her life, Weldon often sounds so amused: as with the best anecdotes, much of the book is so funny you’d swear it was made up.