Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 18, 2017

Death of a She Devil, by Fay Weldon

Maybe if you weren’t there, reading Fay Weldon in the 1980s, you just won’t ‘get’ this sequel to her most famous novel, Life and Loves of a She Devil…

I don’t mean that you can’t follow the novel.  It’s decades since I read SheDevil#1 and I’d forgotten the detail of it but Weldon provides all you need to know in SheDevil#2.  I mean that for women of my generation the novel will evoke memories of all kinds of feminist battles large and small and the sense of excitement that came with yes, changing the world.  Today we can’t use the term The Sisterhood without self-mockery, but back then we knew we were working with women across a yet-to-be-globalised world, and we knew with a sense of empowerment that we were not alone.

And we were all very serious about it.  We were reading such serious stuff about feminism.  We were reading The Female Eunuch and The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique and Damned Whores and God’s Police et al, and Fay Weldon came along and made us laugh about ourselves and the patriarchal society we lived in by skewering everything we held sacred.  We loved her then, and even though some of us stopped reading her novels when they were bitter and twisted after her marriage breakdown, (almost as if we expected that not to hurt because she was an iconic feminist) she still has a place in the hearts of women of my generation.

And now Death of a She Devil.  Ruth Patchett (the She devil) like her creator is getting old and as the fight goes out of her, she worries about handing on the reins of her feminist empire to the young.  It’s no coincidence that her would-be usurper Valerie Valeria is a brash PR from Australia: Britain is full of energetic young imports making the place barely recognisable to people born before the war.  (I myself have two – sometimes three – Aussie-born expat nieces living and working there for a start). Valerie is boundlessly confident: she bullies Ruth into agreeing to a bizarre ‘World Women’s Widdershins Walk’ to celebrate the equinox, the founding of the Institute for Gender Parity and Ruth’s 85th birthday, and she thinks breezily that she can manage this major event because she took Event Management as part of her degree.  Experience and expertise no longer necessary, you see, as long as you have mastered Spin and look smart and purposeful in your skimpy cashmere cardigan.

It’s also no coincidence that another would-be usurper is the She Devil’s estranged grandson Tyler, resentful but clueless.  Despite his qualifications, he can’t get a job because women are now exerting the exclusionary power that blokes used to wield.  In characterising Tyler, Weldon skewers the resentful male we have all encountered, and though you have to do some thinking for yourself to see it, she has a go at gendered abortions in China and India while she’s at it.

It had been his great misfortune to have been born a boy.  Even his mother had wanted to abort him because he was the wrong sex.  All along the way girls had it so much better than boys.  It had begun in nursery school: if you ran around and shouted and rolled on the floor they said why couldn’t you be more like a girl and offered you Ritalin to keep you quiet.  (p. 246)

In this absurdist world, maternal favouritism is for girls:

Of course his mother favoured girls, girls didn’t get ill, have autism or get acne; they passed exams, got to college, got jobs, wore nice dresses, went shopping with their mums, chewed men up and spat them out.  He worried about his sisters; they confused ‘nasty’ with ‘strong’. They’d never find anyone to commit, because who’d ever want to? Women ruled the world.  Men were second-class citizens and he was fed up with it.  (p. 247)

Of course he can’t get a job.  From the Institute of Gender Parity in the (ironically phallic) High Tower, Ruth and the rest of her ageing board employ only all-female companies:  Trans & Co Bandsters, Femina Electrical, Luxuriette Caterers, and Amethyst Builders.  Though this policy does cause problems when Ruth’s husband dies and the Board meets to organise a funeral:

The no formal funeral matter having been decided (there were no all-female firms in the area, anyway, the excuse apparently given was coffin-bearers in the age of obesity had to be extra strong, which meant male)… (p.227)

Oh yes, and a problem with a mouse requiring collaborative decision-making gives Weldon a chance to skewer Australian refugee politics at the same time.

Such a lovely morning! Valerie said she was sorry to be so late with the coffee.  Femina Electrical had reported that a mouse had got into the wiring for the platform lights and they needed to know what her views were on humane killing.
‘What are your views?’ asked the She Devil.
‘Australian,’ replied Valerie.  ‘Just get rid of it,’ and they both laughed.

Readers won’t ‘get’ these barbs unless they are keeping up with things, but Weldon takes no prisoners.

Here (contrary to some critical interpretations I’ve seen) Weldon is mocking the valorisation of a binary view of the world among hardline feminists:

The She Devil wondered if she had the will to resist the rise and rise of Valerie Valaria.  The girl was bright and energetic, a force to be reckoned with, but she seemed incapable of realising that though gender might be on a sliding scale, men were still born bigger, stronger and less empathic than women: if women gave way to biological imperatives, the patriarchy would come surging back.  The price of liberation was eternal vigilance.  Too much accommodation of the male principle was dangerous: male/female apartheid was the only way ahead. (p.174)

But *chuckle* perhaps Ruth is right to be wary of Valerie and her modern interpretation of feminism…  Along with The Ministry for Women and Other Minorities on Valerie’s guest list, there are Mumsnes and De-GenderNow because modern feminism should be progressive and inclusive and bring the blokes back under the umbrella.

Valerie was able to explain, quite poetically and to the satisfaction of most of the Board, why it was appropriate to invite men to a celebration of forty years’ pursuit of gender parity.  The She Devil and Ellen abstained from voting on this, the She Devil still muttering that it was the thin end of the wedge… parity was initially about pay: no one had anticipated such a change in gender attitudes that men would demand parity with women.  But again the effort of arguing defeated her.  She was tired.  (p.197)

As if.  If only, as if.  Let me know when men demand parity with feminised workforces in childcare, education and nursing and I’ll write a book about it myself…

I’ve seen some humourless and occasionally anguished commentary about Tyler’s gender transition to Tayla and I’ll just say this: IMO Weldon is not poking fun at the very serious matter of gender identity disorder (gender dysphoria).  As she did in SheDevil#1 when Ruth has surgery to transform herself into her romance novelist rival for her husband’s affections, she is mocking the idea of transforming the self to fit the preconceptions of others who have phony values anyway.  In SheDevil#2 she is mocking the idea that transforming the self to fit the prevailing society could make the modern economy any fairer to young people not getting a proper job, and she’s taken it to its ultimate absurdity.  It’s an absurdist novel.

There’s an interesting interview with Weldon at The Guardian and reviews at

Author: Fay Weldon
Title: Death of a She Devil
Publisher: Head of Zeus, UK, 2017
ISBN: 9781784979607
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: Death of a She Devil


Responses

  1. I just ordered this from the UK. I read some professional reviews which mostly seem to be negative, and while I haven’t read it yet, just from the reviews it seems that Weldon has been misunderstood yet again. Transforming the self is a big theme in her work, so why not take it to the next level?

    • You’ve just reminded me… I made a note of some print reviews which I meant to add…will do it now…

      • I am so pleased you have written up this glorious novel, Lisa. I have reviewed it on my blog at:
        http://carmel-bird.blogspot.com.au/2017/06/

        • Hi Carmel, thanks for dropping by:)
          I found yours and linked to it (down at the bottom of the post) at The Newtown Review of Books:) I’ll add the link to your blog as well.

          • Thank you Lisa. I don’t know how you do all your constant reading and writing and blogging. Where is the time??

            • Easy. I hardly ever watch TV. (You’ll see the blogging rate drop when Masterchef is on!)

  2. Okay, I might have to revise my decision to give this one a miss – sounds like Weldon has kept it issues focused (and I could be tempted on the strength of the Aussie PR Valeria, alone).

    • I think it will appeal to your wicked sense of humour:)

      • 😊

  3. Fay Weldon was my introduction to feminism and I read all her books back then. Did you get the TV adaptations, it was excellent? I am very tempted by your review, though I sometimes worry it might feel like a nostalgia trip.

    • Hi Martine, I still have a shelf of them among the Ws on my paperback shelf. Just looking at them makes me feel good!
      I don’t know if the TV series was available here… I only watch the ABC (and not much of that) because I can’t stand ads. I think She-Devil came our way, but I have a feeling that it might have been the US version. Maybe someone else knows?
      I know what you mean about the nostalgia. It was a heady time!

  4. I think I missed (looked the other way) in the heyday of 2nd wave feminism. Jong’s Fear of flying was as close as I got. But your review has me enthused enough to look out for some of her earlier titles.

    • LOL I don’t think there were a lot of blokes reading FemLit in those days….
      But if my Ex’s experience was anything to go by, they didn’t need to, they heard it all from the women in their lives anyway!


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