Sunday, 16 August 2009

Review: Rebecca West, Fay Weldon (1985)

Not everyone would dare to advise a giant of 20th century feminism on sex, career, family. Fay Weldon’s contribution to the Lives of Modern Women series (“a series of short biographical portraits by distinguished writers of significant twentieth-century women whose lives, ideas, struggles and creative talents contributed something new to a world in transition”) takes the form of a set of direct addresses given over 70 years after the facts she writes about. She pulls no punches. She exhorts, she soothes, and she applauds. It is a tour-de-force in biographical writing.

The book is so appealing because Weldon covers so much ground in such a small space (it is just over 100 pages long). In her addresses she recreates imagined scenes involving West in the process of recovering from the birth of her first son, Anthony, whose father was H.G. Wells. The scenes include West’s mother and sisters, friends, the landlady and a nurse.

This cast allows Weldon to examine the realities of illegitimacy among free-thinkers in context. Social mores that leading lights such as West and Wells sought to overturn were deeply ingrained. It would take several more generations before they were remodeled in a less censorious, more equitable mold.

Weldon also seeks to paint an accurate picture of the father, H.G. Wells. An uxorious, middle-aged husband and father, Wells sought out dalliances with the daughters of friends in the circles he habitually moved in. Weldon is not at all kind toward Wells, but she acknowledges his importance in world history. Some of his ideas, such as a World Nation, have started to come to fruition in the form of the EU. But he was a typical philanderer, in Weldon’s eyes, unable to settle with one woman and give her the due she deserved.

For West she has more praise, naturally.

The intimate scenes Weldon creates are full of interesting chatter and banter of the type we frequently see in happy families. But we less frequently see it in biographies. And although the book does not pretend to be exhaustive, it is certainly replete with wisdom and grace. In the course of the book Weldon, a feminist from the generation following West’s, answers her own question when, in the Introduction, she asks herself how she could talk to such an imposing figure.

Weldon rises to the task, and in the process gives us an example of biographical writing that may profitably be copied when writing about other dead people. We feel that we are in good hands.

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