Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 20, 2018

Before the War, by Fay Weldon

In the 80s, my favourite authors were Mary Wesley and Fay Weldon.  Mary Wesley began writing in her seventies, and she died in 1997 so there are only ten novels listed at Wikipedia–which is still amazing, when you consider she was only writing for 14 years, beginning in 1983 with Jumping the Queue and ending with Part of the Furniture in 1997.  I’ve only got four of these novels because I read all the others via the library.  I’ve also got the BBC series based on The Camomile Lawn (1984), and somewhere, also the biography Wild Mary written by her son Toby Eady…

Fay Weldon (born in 1931) started writing in 1967 and is still going strong, with 42 books to her credit at Wikipedia.  Last year I read and reviewed Death of a She-devil published in 2017, the same year that she published Before the War.  She was 86 but her wit is as sharp as ever.

This is the blurb:

From a lioness of British literature, an absorbing, inventive novel of love, death and aristocracy in inter-war London.

Consider Vivien in November 1922. She is twenty four, and a spinster. She wears fashionably droopy clothes, but she is plain and – worse – intelligent. At nearly six foot tall, she is known unkindly by her family as ‘the giantess’.

Fortunately, Vivien is rich, so she can travel to London and bribe a charismatic London publisher to marry her. What he does not know is that Vivien is pregnant with another’s child, and will die in childbirth in just a few months.

Fay Weldon, with one eye on the present and one on the past, offers Vivien’s fate to the reader, along with that of London between the wars: a city soaked in drizzle, peopled with flat-chested flappers, shell-shocked servicemen and aristocrats desperately clinging onto the past.

Inventive, witty and empathetic, this is a spellbinding historical novel from one of the foremost novelists of our time.

I romped through Before the War in no time, admittedly enjoying Parts 1 & 2 more than the fallout from the hapless Vivien’s death.   I would have liked Vivien to surge triumphantly through life, leaving a trail of foolish people behind her.  But Weldon has never opted for the happy ending: it wouldn’t be true to her world view, nor—given the historical period of the setting—to real life.

However, the characters who underestimate Vivian all come to a messy end, and serves them right.  And while Weldon intrudes into the narrative to tell us that

‘I will not distress you with Vivien forever. It is not normal in books, films or on TV for much attention to be paid to unattractive women of any age…Why should I break the rules?’ (p.7)

in fact Weldon is, as she always is, being ironic.  She breaks those rules, and not just by demanding the reader’s attention on Vivian, but also on a period which, she says, is neglected in fiction:

We like to dream the costume drama of Edwardian times, all fine clothes, glittering jewels and clean sexy profiles — but we are less drawn to the twenty years between the wars.  Understandably.  Limbless ex-servicemen beg for alms on hard-hearted city streets while hysterical flappers, flat-chested, dance and drink champagne in Mayfair night clubs.  Shell shock, the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse — what we now call post-traumatic-stress-syndrome — still stalks the land.  Life expectancy for the poor is forty-five; for the rich, sixty-five.  (p.4-5)

It’s not entirely true that the era is neglected, I think.  R F Delderfield (1912-1972) is an author whose social history novels exemplify not just a tendency to romanticise the pre-war years in A Horseman Riding By (1966) but also one who acknowledges the miseries of shell shock in To Serve Them All My Days (1972).  (Both of these were made into BBC series).  Wikipedia tells me that he apparently also wrote The Avenue, which follows middle-class life over a few decades, from after the end of World War I with the Spanish Flu epidemic making an appearance.  Here in Australia, Katharine Susannah Prichard wrote books that cover this interwar era, and so did Christina Stead.  But if we judge by TV series, it seems that the producers do seem to be attracted to the glittering costumes of the flappers, especially in class-conscious London.

Weldon, however, demolishes any fanciful notions about upper-class life by sabotaging the genealogical tree of her characters.  There’s so much sleeping around going on that anyone would be hard-pressed to claim any superior ancestry because any parentage is a dubious claim.  It’s not just fathers who are ascribed children they haven’t fathered, but with splendid sleight of hand, Weldon’s twins Mallory and Stella can’t even be sure who their mother is.  Any snobbery is misdirected, though of course the characters try.

Vivian, who loves and admires her tiny mother intolerably, takes much comfort from the fact that at least Adela doesn’t have to suffer the pangs of envy so many other mothers feel as their own beauty fades and that of their daughter grows, and of rage as the daughter takes the affection from the father that was once his wife’s by right.  And some comfort in that at least her mother has risen up the social ladder now that her husband has been dubbed a Knight of the Realm by a grateful monarch and at last has a title, ‘Lady Adela’.  She no longer feels bereft at being so well born on her father’s side and yet a mere Mrs, and actually a Princess on her mother’s side had not so many European titles been abolished over the years by revolution and the fall of empires. (p.123)

Adela is a bit of a monster, actually….

Author: Fay Weldon
Title: Before the War
Publisher: head of Zeus, UK, 2016, p.298
ISBN: 9781784082079
Source: Kingston Library

 


Responses

  1. I’m not sure I’ve ever read any Weldon, although I know the plot of Life and Loves…. I am very tempted by the sound of this one though!

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    • It’s hard to convey the sense of excitement that I felt when I first read her. My reading tastes were shaped by Austen and Co, and by the great social/political writers like Orwell and Huxley. And then there was this amazing, transgressive author whose plots and style were so authentic about the lives women lead, but daring to be iconoclastic, unladylike, unbeautiful, unsubmissive and outrageously funny. It was all so larger than life but it was also instructive… and the best message of all was that no, you didn’t have to automatically respect men just because they were men and – remember, at that time – they were in all the positions of power in politics, commerce, religion and domestically , expecting us to conform.

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  2. I’ve never read Fay Weldon but I have a friend tells me that I need to remedy that. Our book club read the Chamomile Lawn. I really enjoyed it. Not read her others.

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    • I wonder if libraries still keep her work. I must check next time I’m there…

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      • Tasmania Librarie has 50+ of her work so I imagine her works are still very available. 🤠🐧

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  3. I have this one, and I’ve been thinking about Fay Weldon lately, so perhaps it’s time.

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  4. I went back through my journal to see if I had read Weldon, it seems not, but I did find M. Wesley, An Imaginative Experience on 29.07.15 (I looked it up and the plot does sound dimly familiar).

    Between the wars was a golden age for Australian women’s writing. Think not just KSP and Stead, but Kylie Tennant, Barnard, Eldershaw, Eleanor Dark, Cusack & James, Miles Franklin, Henry Handel Richardson.

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    • Yes, I was hoping you and Nathan would come up trumps on this interwar period. As your AWW Gens 1,2, &c come to fruition, that will be a place where I can quickly look up who wrote what when.

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  5. Hi Lisa, I remember watching The Chamomile Lawn series and many years later I picked up the book at a Lifeline Book Sale. I haven’t read any of her other books (yet) but I am impressed that she only started writing in her seventies. Still plenty of time for the rest of us then!

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    • Indeed yes, after all, Ros Collins, who’s a friend of mine was in her 80s when she published Solly’s Girl!

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  6. Gosh, it’s years since I experienced anything by Fay Weldon! I recall the TV adaptation of The Lives and Loves of a She Devil, which caused quite a stir when it aired over here. It’s good to see that she’s still producing interesting work some 40 years on.

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    • I’ve just discovered that there’s one called After the War as well. There’s a few I’ve missed, just because our bookshops have inexplicably stopped stocking her books, but I’d like to read that one too.

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  7. Reblogged this on LIVING THE DREAM.

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  8. BEST WISHES FOR THE NEW YEAR LISA, FROM CHINA

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    • Thank you, China, all the best to you too:)

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