Death of a She Devil review: skewering smug Botox feminists
Fay Weldon wickedly lances fake feminism like a boil in this topical, absurdist satire
Fay Weldon: Easy to tell that she was once a copywriter. An aphorism a day keeps the boredom away: ‘Let those who are without lust cast the first spell.’
Death of A She Devil
Head of Zeus
When Death of a She Devil followed fast on Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises, a grim thought occurred: our women rabbis are getting old. Is a flood of visceral accounts of old age and death inevitable? A good thing perhaps: the fate which so shocked the narrator of Doris Lessing’s The Diary of a Good Neighbour – the invisibility of old women – might abate. Nonetheless, literary gerontophilia is an acquired taste.
Happily, no priming of the palate is required for Death of a She Devil. An appetite for absurdism will suffice.
Feminism is Fay Weldon’s target. And her purpose.
“Just as some people put off death to see a daughter married, others seemed to be able to put it off by sheer malice.” There is only one death here: Father Jack is the archetype for the mad old man, She Devil’s husband, “who leaked disgustingly from every orifice”. But sheer malice is indeed the life force of this novel. Delicious, savage, satirical malice. Feminism is Fay Weldon’s target. And her purpose.
Hearing young feminists criticise Fay Weldon lately, I am struck by their callowness. They clearly have not heard of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983), the high feminist farce that, preaching control and transformation, became a manifesto across generations. Like She Devil, a woman could achieve anything – provided she had the necessary ruthlessness.
Life and Loves was also a prefiguration of another cultural change: the Kardashian phenomenon of cosmetic alterations at will. The She Devil of three decades ago would not have disapproved of the way young women who call themselves feminists today inject Botox and pay fortunes to have their pubic hair shaved in order to please men.
But the She Devil has moved on. And so we meet Ruth Patchett, She Devil, in 2017: “deserted wife and mother, the feminist, the ultimate victim. Came to rule the world sitting smugly on the moral high ground in all her squalid bulk, casting lightning bolts of disapproval and condemnation wherever she goes.”
She Devil’s lightning bolts are metaphorical. There are other bolts. The High Tower, where she lives as president and chief executive of the Institute of Gender Parity, is haunted. The ghost is previous incumbent Mary Fischer, writer, whose “novels were a lesson in love, in the glory of adoration, of surrender”, who stole the affections of She Devil’s husband and unleashed a fury that empowered generations of feminists .
Poor Mary Fischer, even in ethereal form, is still ruled by a man. And here the novel takes its Swiftian turn. Her puppetmaster is Momus, the god of “fabrication, who shelters in the lower foothills of Olympus from whence he directs so many of the plots and plans of mankind. He has no standards, he rejoices as much in the sudden twists and turns of celebrity living, as in those of a great movement.”
The Trumpian spectre is everywhere. She Devil herself is a climate-change denier, while the young careerist feminist, Valerie Valeria, thinks PR spin can solve anything.
Even as she executes Momus’s plan to destroy the diabolical feminine, Mary Fischer doubts his divinity. “Sometimes I think he is not so good a writer as he is cracked up to be. He’ll do anything for a good headline. If things get too complicated he’ll cut a story short.”
Climate change denier
The Trumpian spectre is everywhere. She Devil herself is a climate-change denier, while the young careerist feminist, Valerie Valeria, thinks PR spin can solve anything. That and spiking the old Devil’s coffee.
The action centres around Valerie’s plan for International Widdershins Day, in which the women of the world will be reminded that the old concepts of feminism are over: men and women both must walk anti-clockwise. (“Walk the other way,” is Valerie’s mantra.) The plan for that auspicious day provides most of the fun in the novel.
The Institute of Gender Parity employs only all-female companies – Trans & Co Bandsters, Femina Electrics, Luxuriette Caterers, Amethyst Builders. The invitation list includes Fem-Fight, Education for Choice, The Ministry for Women and Other Minorities. She Devil struggles to keep up with the likes of Mumsnes and De-GenderNow, but Valerie is on top of everything.
It’s easy to tell that Weldon was once a copywriter. An aphorism a day keeps the boredom away. “Let those who are without lust cast the first spell,” wails the ghost of Mary Fischer, whose limbo state is as much punishment for her literature as her life – “In my novels the slim girls always got the prize, that is to say, the man”. Weldon’s eye is as jaundiced as Jane Austen’s. “What are your views of humane killing?” She Devil asks Valerie. “Australian,” replied Valerie, “Just Get on With it.”
Widdershins “walking the other way” encompasses many things, specifically the gender fluidity of She Devil’s grandchild, Tyler/Tyla, who sleepwalks into “transition” on a whim of Valerie’s to inherit the feminist empire. Weldon’s satire packs as hard a punch as Germaine Greer’s polemics.
Well nourished here are her familiar gripes, from the nanny state (“a government assuring everyone the childcare was beneficial to the intellectual and social development of babies”) to therapists (like Weldon’s husband, She Devil’s daughter sets up home with her therapist).
Everything in the novel shows: feminism, like She Devil’s face, is a construct grown bulged, botched and lopsided over the years.
For all this, the book is a delight to read. Each chapter has a hilarious heading, revealing Weldon’s affinity with the pre-Romantic tradition of Sterne and Swift.
Bulged and botched
Death is in the title, and the cadaver is feminism. I don’t know why Weldon felt the need to explain that “the feminists will have their revolution . . . and change the social order . . . the new order will be become the establishment and that in its turn will be challenged and overthrown”. Everything in the novel shows: feminism, like She Devil’s face, is a construct grown bulged, botched and lopsided over the years.
But never forget the She Devil’s genius is for reinvention. Before she is assumed (to where, nobody knows), she nails it: “feminists of the world unite. You have nothing to fear but your stale group-think.”
Not only that, she draws the new battle lines: “the real war today is between the young and the old.” Energy may trump wisdom, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Not when Fay Weldon is around.
Anne Harris is a former editor of the Sunday Independent