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Gina Barreca

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A Literary Icon Reaches 80 and Starts a Trilogy and a New Teaching Position

Posted: 09/21/2012 3:10 pm

If you're a writer, you can meet your heroes. If you're a woman, you can sometime meet your fairy godmothers.

Novelist, journalist, screenwriter, and playwright Fay Weldon, whose 80th birthday is being celebrated on September 22nd, is every woman writer's fairy godmother: she's an inspiration, a formidable figure in the world of arts and letters, and a powerful model for both good and bad behavior on the page as well as off. Ever since Weldon wrote the opening episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs thereby creating not only what would become the classic Masterpiece Theatre legacy of British dramas being exported to the US along with cheap tea and expensive woolens, her works have been admired and criticized as insurgent, seductive "plain air" works of art.

Author of Life and Loves of She-Devil, Female Friends, The Hearts and Lives of Men, She May Not Leave, and more than thirty other works, Weldon has just left one academic position--in the creative writing program at Brunel University-- to become Professor of the creative program at Bath Spa University. She has just published the second book of a trilogy and is receiving wildly enthusiastic reviews for the first in the series. She writes about politics, skin creams, Judge Judy, theatre, sex, religion, Ibsen, plastic surgery, Milton, utopias, money, and love.

With her books translated into most languages and with her works appearing on reading and exam lists in many colleges and universities around, Weldon is a Commander of the British Empire, having been awarded a CBEor her contributions to arts and letters, and she's received several honorary doctorates.

One of them is from the University of Connecticut, where I've been teaching since 1987.

But that's not where I met Fay Weldon.

I was student at Cambridge University and I'd come across her novels because they were simply unavoidable: everybody was reading Weldon. "Probably a low-brow popular writer," I thought. But I then I bought Remember Me in a cheap mass-market edition at bookstall in King's Cross and didn't look up once during my train journey. I was enthralled.

I read a passage in Weldon's ghost novel that was to become central to my dissertation years later: "Death makes a firm dividing line between the present and the past. Then they were, and now they aren't, and the knife slides firmly into the home-baked cake, dividing," Weldon insists; "This side, that side, then and now. There, see, isn't that real enough for you? And you were beginning to think, weren't you, that experience slipped along in some kind of continual stream, more or less under your control, at your behest? That'll teach you. Before death, after death. Now you see them, now you don't."

It was Weldon's authoritative, incisive, bitter, funny truth-telling that grabbed me. I read everything of hers I could find.

But I didn't meet Fay when I lived in the U.K. either.

I met her in 1984 when I was a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York.

I was teaching at Queens College and invited her to deliver a lecture. Her American publishers and agent at the time thought she wouldn't have a large enough audience on this side of Atlantic to warrant paying for the flights and accommodations. So I got money from everywhere I could: the deans, the student government, and the central offices at The Grad Center. I taught myself how to do publicity and got a piece into the NY Times advertising the event. The room was not only filled to capacity; there were dozens of people who were standing outside the auditorium just to hear what they could of her presentation.

When her next book was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review by John Updike, Fay sent me a telegram (in those days, we still used telegrams) that said: "Gina! All your doing I suppose! Love from Fay."

I still have that telegram in a baggie, saved for the archives. She felt that because her publishers and agent had attended the program, seen for herself the overwhelming response to her reading, and witnesses the passionate personal affection she aroused in her readers, they started marketing her differently.

Whether or not that was true, I accepted the compliment. She and I have been friends ever since.

Twenty-one years ago she came to Connecticut in October to celebrate my wedding. It was raining so hard that friends from out of town were navigating small flooding country roads, but since, like Fay, many of them were staying with us, we were all in the kitchen talking as people arrived. Ten or so were arguing about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. One was Fay who was "give me away" the next day (my own mother had died when I was a kid; Fay was stepping in). She figured out how to land an op-ed piece for that Sunday's New York Times, too, and was happily taking in all the talk of the election of this new Supreme Court judge along with her slice of pepperoni.

Her latest book, Habits of the House is getting excellent reviews throughout Britain. One friend described it as Upstairs Downstairs with all the sexually scandalous bits kept in" and that's a good on-line summary. While some critics see her as "cashing in" on Downton Abbey, it's hard to imagine that the woman who created the prototype for such dramas could be accused of nefariously profiting from them.

Not one to leave comments unsaid, Fay has dished all the dirt about Downton Abbey. She's talked about all kinds of scandals, including her theory that "the more governments preach equality the more we seem to relish the old days when there were fixed hierarchies and strict formalities to be observed. When we knew our places and doffed our caps." She attributes the success of "Upstairs Downstairs" and Downton Abbey to this rebellion against rebellion, this "class business, " suggesting that "perhaps it's just that the relationship between the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate offers the writer a wealth of material that's denied to the writers of soaps, cop shows, doctors and nurses."

"Reality TV palls," she argues, and " 'issue' drama fails: we're tired of examining our own rather grubby navels."

Fay Weldon has always examined the scary parts of what lies beneath the silk cushions and behind the closed gates. In her 1987 novel, The Shrapnel Academy, for example, she writes "Those who sit on soft cushions and live politely and eat well and play war games, have the advantage in energy and cunning over those who starve and suffer and are bitter. Everything's so much easier when it's fun! Everything goes better if you don't take it seriously. On the other hand, downstairs has a vast superiority in numbers of Upstairs and the advantage of surprise and an inbuilt system of informers."

Let's keep that in mind not only as we watch the next episode of Downton Abbey, but also as we read Habits of the House.

And let's raise a glass to Fay Weldon birthday and to her extraordinary life.

 

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