Fay Wheldon, Born, 22 September, 1931 - Died, 4 January, 2023

THE life of Fay Weldon, who has died aged 91, was replete with experiences of which it is said “you can’t make it up”. Indeed, much of what happened to Weldon was translated by her into novels that, for some readers, pushed the limits of probability to the extremes.

This did not perturb their author who, in books such as Praxis (1978), The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983) and The Cloning of Joanna May (1989), transformed elements of her own life into stories that entranced the prurient and enraged the prudish. Attempting to explain her method, Weldon said, “I think novelists may be like other professionals: astute when it comes to others, hopeless when it comes to themselves.”

As the blurb to her unguarded memoir, Auto Da Fay (2002), noted she was “a central figure among the Bohemian writers, artists, thinkers and poets of the Sixties”. For four decades thereafter she maintained this position, along the way testing the loyalty of some of her most ardent fans. Feminists, who were among her earliest champions, rejected her when she later seemed to turn her back on the movement.

Hard as it may now be to believe, there was shock when in 1983, as chair of the Booker Prize judging panel (the first woman to hold that position), she appeared at the award ceremony dressed in sequins and stiletto-heeled shoes.

Where oh where, they wailed, was their overweight, unkempt heroine of yore? “I’m all for artifice,” remarked Weldon, unapologetically, “and to hell with all this reality...I’m so hooked on fiction that I’ve promised myself five years and then I’m off to Los Angeles to locate a top class plastic surgeon who can turn me into a glamorous fictional character.”

Fay Weldon was born in Britain in 1930 but she spent her formative years in New Zealand. Her father, Frank Birkinshaw, was a doctor; his marriage to her mother Margaret was short-lived and Fay and her sister Jane ping-ponged between both parents for years. Christchurch public library was where she caught the reading bug, astonishing the librarians by her capacity to devour books as if they were chicken nuggets.

At war’s end, the now fatherless family returned to the UK. Weldon attended schools in London and Sussex before enrolling at St Andrews University, where she studied psychology and economics with “a clutch” of fellow students who would emerge as advisers to Margaret Thatcher. Though she got a First in economics two years running, she later wrote: “I cannot say I took my education seriously.”

At St Andrews she edited Saltire, the student magazine – “There was so little to say I ran a banner headline saying ‘Man Bites Dog’” – discovered a love of sex and worked as a chambermaid at a local hotel which, in the 1950s, might have been the model for Fawlty Towers. “Steaks returned from the dining-room as too tough to eat would be stamped upon and returned to the complainant tenderised, in traditional mode.”

She left St Andrews in 1952 and worked briefly for the Foreign Office. Though unmarried, she then became pregnant with her first son, Nicolas, and got a job at the Daily Mirror answering readers’ queries, some of which she took even less seriously than her studies.

She was duly fired and found her métier in advertising. At first she worked for Pearl and Dean in the nascent business of TV commercials. “None of us,” she said, “had the slightest idea what we were doing.”

Later she was headhunted as a copywriter, initially for Colman, Prentice and Varley, then for Ogilivy, Benson and Mather. “Unzip a banana” was one of her memorable lines. For Fisons, a fertiliser manufacturer, she produced “With Fisons green gets greener.” By the time she was 29, Weldon was head of the team in charge of the account for the Egg Marketing Board, which invented the slogan, “Go to work on an egg”.

In 1957 she made a marriage of convenience to a schoolteacher in his late forties called Ronald Bateman. Apparently, he needed a wife to help him get promotion. Sex was not on his agenda. Weldon, however, was allowed to take lovers as long as she kept him abreast of events. Once, she told him she had been propositioned by market trader. “Next time he tries it on,” Bateman said, “ask him how much he pays.” Weldon did and was told that the going rate was a pair of nylons, which clinched the deal.

The couple were divorced in 1959 and four years later she married Ron Weldon, an artist, musician and antiques dealer, with whom she had three more sons. That relationship would also have ended in divorce but her husband died the night before the papers could be signed. That same year, 1994, Weldon married Nick Fox, her manager, who was fifteen years her junior. In 2020, aged 89, she left him, complaining in an email to friends of “coercive control and financial mismanagement”.

Weldon’s writing career began in the 1960s with television commercials, which metamorphosed into TV dramas. In 1971, she wrote the pilot for ITV’s Upstairs, Downstairs, drawing on her mother’s former job as a housekeeper.

Her debut novel, The Fat Woman’s Tale, was published in 1976. Over the years twenty-five more followed, including Praxis, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978.

In 1989, she received the LA Times fiction prize for The Heart of the Country. Accompanying her to the United States was her Scottish agent, Giles Gordon, who in his memoir, Aren’t We Due a Royalty Statement?, described Weldon as a “formidable intellect”, with “not an iota of jealousy or envy in her make-up”. He added: “It’s invidious to pick one, but of the eighty-odd authors I represent Fay Weldon is probably my favourite. I would follow her to the Promised Land. I would die for her.”