An Interview with Fay Weldon
With the publication of The New Countess, Fay Weldon completes her trilogy of novels concerning the loves, losses and eccentricities of the aristocratic Dilberne family and their servants. The celebrated British author and playwright who has (to quote her own website) been assiduously writing fiction for five decades, recently provided the following frank and engaging answers to questions about writing, Edwardian sex and comparisons to Downton Abbey.
KB: Some years ago I read (and cut out and have kept to this day!) a newspaper article where you said that most writers begin as readers and “end up writing the novel they want to read, if only because nobody else has got around to writing it.” Does that premise still hold true for you and, if so, how did it apply in the case of this trilogy?
FW: Forty years ago when I was young and foolish and a TV writer, I worked on a series called Upstairs-Downstairs. I wrote the pilot episode and three more and then I was fired for not making the characters loveable enough. True, I had made the cook drive the kitchen maid to suicide. But the insult – I won’t say rankled, I’m not a rankle-prone person – certainly chafed away on the edges of my consciousness for years. I had not finished with the odd parallel lives of the upper and lower classes at the turn of the 20th century, just as new notions of ‘equality’ began to dawn. And everyone else dealing with the era seemed to see it as a time of smug complacency and I knew – if only from my grandmother, a young woman at the time – that it was not. There was so much literary energy, wit, sheer naughtiness – all going without recognition. So yes, the trilogy was not just the book I wanted to write, but three of them, to get it out of my system. Now I could write unobserved what I wanted to write, in novel if not screen form – if only because no-one else has got round to writing it. I loved the glitter of the jewels and the sheer opulence of the time as well as pale Lily the kitchen maid, plotting away in her cupboard under the stairs.
KB: The novels are set in England at the very beginning of the twentieth century and real historical events and people are integral to the narrative. For example Edward VII’s appendicitis and delayed coronation is an important plot line in Long Live the King, but, without spoiling the story, you also have a fictional episode in the New Countess when a major historical figure accidentally shoots someone dead. What are your views on the question of historical truth and authorial responsibility (if any) when writing historical fiction?
FW: Do you know, it hadn’t occurred to me until I read your question that this is what I had done! I quite shock myself. I think I knew X – I will call him X, so as not to spoil the story – so well three novels in, that I truly thought I had invented him. That he was as real (or as fictional – see it how you like) as all the others in the trilogy. I knew his strengths and his failures, I so liked him while so disapproving of him. I felt he was mine to manipulate. I was on his side, as it were. And since what X did was never going to see the light of day, was to be deliberately hidden from history, was so very likely an event, and was an accident anyway – perhaps it was a venial sin on my part, not a mortal one? But yes, writers do have an authorial responsibility to the truth – and the more they deal with the realities of the past, the records, the documents, the actuality that went before, the sheer excitement of discovery – the more they feel it. So I’m sorry. And yet, the exigencies of the story, the way that death worked at that particular point – there’s another duty here, isn’t there?
KB: You are a renowned for writing about woman, feminism and sex throughout your career and sexual relationships are important to your characters, young and old. What were the challenges – or fun parts – about writing about sex in Edwardian England?
FW: It was a real relief to be writing about sex a hundred years or so ago, when people kept their eyes closed during sex so as not to see the horrible truth, and did it (unless they were of the rackety classes and/or the exchange of cash was involved) in the missionary position. Anything else was un-thought of, obscene and probably illegal. And sex meant babies. And the fear of babies kept a girl pure. And coitus interruptus was the favored means of contraception and not at all reliable. Those were the days when women loved and men yearned, and purity was the great ideal. What’s forbidden is more fun to write about than what is allowed. Modern sex, with its naming of parts and its frantic quest for the extreme, lacks the eroticism of the past.
Feminism? It’s a bit too early. Indignation didn’t really enter the Edwardian consciousness. Though Rosina shows signs of stirring. But the world was the way it was, people thought. Men were men, and women were women. Why would you want to change anything as fundamental as that? How could you?
KB: Much of The New Countess is concerned with the handing over of power from the older to the younger generation. Lady Isobel’s efforts to modernize are central to the humour in the novel. I’m thinking of the bamboo furniture in particular. Was it important to you in writing the story to reflect wider themes through domestic concerns?
FW: When I started out as a writer, women’s writing was seen as ‘kitchen sink’ writing. Pram in the hall stuff, never literature, No male writer wrote about domesticity. Themes must be grand, noble, political: ignoble to worry about who cleared up after the party, how the blood got mopped up and the beds made after the palace coup. I thought it was time this changed; the practicalities of life needed to be given proper recognition. Writing the trilogy was a great joy. I loved every minute of helping Lady Isobel turn the old manor house into a palace fit for a king (literally) in The New Countess. And in the end she got it so wrong. I had the Sears Roebuck catalogue for 1902 and consulted it on the latest in gas cookers, washing machines, mattresses and letter boxes as Mrs Baum set up her brand new suburban home in Long Live the King. (The US was way ahead of the UK in domestic advances.) How did Cook in Habits of the House manage to wrest a twelve course dinner including cheese puffs out of an oven that lost heat every time its door was opened? My copy of Mrs Beeton (1904) suggests to me how it can be done.
The devil’s in the detail when you’re writing but these domestic details just delight me. And of course it’s all about more than mere things – it’s about how the women of the time, doomed as they were to domestic enslavement, managed to express aspiration, ambition, and both informed by and informing a rapidly changing culture, brought about aesthetic and social advancement. Throw out the old heavy oak furniture, waft in light and airy bamboo, and social and sexual attitudes change too.
You have to be prepared for opposition, of course. Isobel’s background was not sound – a Countess, perhaps, but still the daughter of a soubrette. These things mattered.
KB: A lot has been made of your having written the first episode of Upstairs Downstairs, particularly in the context of these books. What are your thoughts on comparisons between these books, Upstairs Downstairs and the highly successful series Downton Abbey?
FW: Novels and TV are different animals. Novels are written by one person sitting alone in a quiet room, read by one person sitting in a room – or on the beach, or on the train, but least alone in their heads. One calm writer can create the steps of 17 Belgrave Square in a paragraph: to do the same thing on TV you need thirty over excited people, a whole lot of clipboards, a long line of transport vans and catering vehicles. Writing the novel is a one-to-one activity, very cheap and rather lonely; creating the TV version is a group activity, very expensive, but great fun. The novelist can count his/her communicants in thousands: the script writer in millions.
When the first novel in the trilogy, Habits of the House, came out there was a sticker on the dust-jacket saying’ If you liked Downton Abbey you will love this’. But it wasn’t necessarily the case. Some people like watching TV, at its best a group activity, others like reading, of necessity a solitary-mind to solitary-mind event. Some are happy doing both, of course – I am, while acknowledging that interests can overlap while not necessarily coinciding. I think what I am saying is comparisons are odious, but books are best.
KB: Are you still a voracious reader of fiction and if so, whose books do you read?
FW: Yes, I am. I am a voracious reader, and indiscriminate. I keep my head well stuffed with other writers’ ideas and opinions. I hate to be without a novel. I read whatever looks readable on the help-yourself-for-£1 thrift bookshelf in the doctor’s waiting room. Lee Child, Daphne du Maurier, Conrad, Alistair McLean, HG Wells. Picked up Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life the other day, thought it was brilliant and wished I had written it.
The New Countess was released in the UK on November 7th 2013 and will be on sale in the US from December the 17th.