A darkly comic satire of the war of the sexes, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil is the fantasy of the wronged woman made real. Our group opened with the comment that Weldon’s famous text is absurd, funny and unbelievable, not meant to be taken seriously. We, of course, then proceeded to take it very seriously indeed in our further examination of the writing!
Some readers found Weldon’s grossly exaggerated, hyper-real characters and scenarios comical; the writer is presenting us with a grotesque, a “freak show”, and holds nothing back in the playing out of this ultimate woman-scorned revenge story. The plot, in its simplest form, goes thus: Ruth, an ordinary, down-trodden housewife with an extraordinary (for all the wrong reasons for a woman, according to socio-cultural standards of attractiveness) appearance lives by the Litany of the Good Wife:
I must pretend to be happy when I am not; for everyone’s sake.
I must make no adverse comment on the manner of my existence; for everyone’s sake.
I must be grateful for the roof over my head and the food on the table, and spend my days showing it, by cleaning and cooking and jumping up and down from my chair; for everyone’s sake.
Her husband Bobbo (we did not miss the opportunity to mock the name Bobbo), a “good-looking man” whom Ruth is “lucky to have” begins an affair with Mary Fisher and shares the details of his sexual experiences with Ruth, his homemaker. Not only this, he claims to have fallen “in love” with Mary Fisher, who “lives in a High Tower, on the edge of the sea” and “writes a great deal about the nature of love. She tells lies.”. Where Ruth is tall, lumbering, dark and unprepossessing, Mary Fisher is “pretty and delicately formed, prone to fainting and weeping and sleeping with men while pretending that she doesn’t.”
After a particularly disastrous and ill-timed visit from Bobbo’s sympathetic parents in which the soup is ruined by dog hairs, Ruth finds that “the Litany doesn’t work. It doesn’t soothe: it incenses.” From here on she dedicates every moment and ounce of energy into becoming a She-Devil, renouncing all attempts to be a good wife, mother, woman. She divests herself of emotion and emotional connections: “I am a woman learning to be without her children. I am a snake shedding its skin.” Ruth (and some of us) henceforth relishes in her ingeniously cunning plans to exact her revenge on Bobby and Mary Fisher.
Speaking of shedding skin, the most-discussed and disgust-inducing part of the novel is when Ruth, having already succeeded in destroying Bobbo and Mary Fisher as individuals and a couple, as well as building a business empire, proceeds with the most outlandish surgeries to reconstruct her entire appearance as well as her voice and mannerisms. She becomes Mary Fisher: “Now I live in the High Tower, and the sea surges beneath as the moon circles and the earth turns”. Even those of us who supported and gloried in Ruth’s supremely devious vengeful ploys found this to be disappointing; Weldon’s message seems to be for a woman to be truly successful and win at life she must be beautiful and sexually desirable. Her daughter is robbed of her own agency and infected by the bias that Ruth passes on to her, perpetuating internalised misogyny in another generation. Although …She-Devil is oft cited as a feminist masterpiece, we found it problematic on these grounds as Ruth’s story ends with her embodying the “perfect woman” in appearance, sustaining the ideology not challenging it.
It was said several times that Weldon was very cynical and used the novel to criticise every societal construct going: marriage, the woman’s role, the man’s role, misogyny, separatist feminism, the medical profession, care homes and workers, the judicial system, religious types, unreligious types, the working class, the “dole” class, children, old people…nobody and nothing is spared the satirical, scathing pen wielded by Weldon. Unsurprisingly, this world where pretty much everyone (even Richard, the guinea pig) and everything is awful was too grim, gruesome and unsparing for some. Even with the rampant plastic surgery that exists today, Ruth procedures still jump out as particularly extreme and unpleasant.
The book reads almost like a fairy tale or incantation, something from an oral tradition which utilises lots of imagery and repetition of both words and ideas. It is told in simple, childlike sentences and the narrative voice changes from 1st (Ruth) to 3rd person, lending us Ruth’s immediate perspective but also creating a feeling that Ruth is omnipresent as the She-Devil, overseeing the ripple effects of the actions she sets in motion. The repetition of “Mary Fisher lives in a High Tower” has almost the same rhythmical beginning of “Once upon a time…”. One member pointed out that the motif of beautiful women in towers has sexual connotations.
Closing comments on the book were: compulsive reading, didn’t identify with any character, entertaining, funny, grotesque, silly, too manipulative, disappointing, dissatisfied with the style and character portrayals, could have been shorter, lost interest 3/4 in the novel, learned the lesson: invest in yourself, enjoyed in a horrible way, absurd, enjoyed more after watching the film, too contrived, a rollercoaster, testament to plastic surgery (!), loved it, anything but feminist, finished just for the group, enjoyed the snipes at various institutions, didn’t enjoy it, unsatisfactory, rollicking and fearless.
We scored The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon 7 out of 10, with a range of 4-9.
Rita, Carnegie Library Reading Group