Death of a She Devil

Fay Weldon

Published by Head of Zeus 6 April 2017

352pp, hardback, £14.88

Reviewed by Zoë Fairbairns

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Have you read Fay Weldon’s 1983 novel The Life and Loves of a She Devil? Do you remember the plot? If so, you can skip the next paragraph.

Ruth Patchett is not beautiful. She knows this, and so does her husband Bobbo, who leaves her for the extremely beautiful romantic novelist Mary Fisher. When he calls Ruth a ‘she devil’, Ruth decides to live up to this. Using a mixture of diabolical magic, gender politics and low cunning, Ruth arranges for Bobbo to go to prison for something he didn’t do, and for Mary to die of cancer.

Which is where we come into Weldon’s latest novel Death of a She Devil. Mary Fisher is a ghost. Ruth, now in her eighties, has appropriated Mary and Bobbo’s former love nest (the High Tower, a converted lighthouse on a cliff in Sussex), and runs it as the headquarters of the Institute for Gender Parity (IGP), of which Ruth, now Lady Patchett, is chairperson. Bobbo has dementia, and is kept in a locked wing on the top floor – the mad husband in the attic.

So the scene is set for Ruth’s final years. Ghostly Mary muses on how ‘the women of the world’, in demanding emancipation and refusing to endure ‘the pain of love’, have become ‘a generation of millennials sunk into callously copulating digital gloom’. Ruth for her part gloats that ‘the world is as I want it: women triumphant, men submissive.  And Ruth’s PA, a young woman named Valerie Valeria is, we are told, ‘a power in the land’.

But which land, which world? References to the Mumsnet, HMRC, the Charity Commission and Harvey Nichols have a contemporary ring, but beyond that there is little context. The action of the novel rarely ventures outside a corner of Sussex. Has worldwide violence against women diminished? Has the gender pay gap narrowed? Do men take their share of domestic tasks? Have patriarchal religions relinquished their claim to control women’s personal and sexual autonomy? I think we should be told.

Detailed information – sometimes more than one would want – is offered on the practicalities of male-to-female gender reassignment surgery. ‘No-one gets it cut off any more, dear child, except a few nutters determined to make a perverse point. It gets reassigned, peeled like a banana, turned inside out. Bits fitted here and there, no sensation lost.’  This is the option under consideration by Ruth’s grandson Tyler/Tyla as a strategy for dealing with women’s alleged empowerment. The book is rather less informative about the nature of that empowerment. What is the status of the Institute for Gender Parity? What is its remit, what are its powers, what happens to people who disobey it? Not that there is much to disobey. IGP’s main work seems to be to have meetings, submit accounts and organize ceremonial walks which get called off it the weather is bad.

The original Life and Loves of a She Devil is a hard act to follow, particularly as it didn’t really need following.  The sequel lacks its compulsiveness, its raw, recognizable emotions – sexual insecurity, jealousy, vengefulness.

Whether you see the era from which Death of a She Devil has emerged as a time of triumph or embarrassment will depend on what you ever hoped feminism would achieve, and how much progress you think has been made. Personally I think that in spite of setbacks we have done rather well, but I am still hoping for more.

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