Just finished reading Puffball by Fay Weldon. I remember reading an abridged, serialised version of it in Company magazine in the days when Company serialised fairly serious literature (before you were born, dears), and I wondered how much I would remember.

Well, I remembered the premise: bright young London couple take a cottage in the country but all is not as idyllic as it seems. Bit like The Owl Service meets The Archers at first glance. What I also remembered is my gut feeling that Fay Weldon couldn’t be that much of a feminist because she didn’t seem to like women much. Even the heroine of Puffball is only redeemed by the innate wisdom that comes with motherhood.

Though around her are examples of bad women and bad mothers (Bella – the food writer who ignores her children; Mabs – the malevolent witch figure who enjoys pregnancy, but not motherhood; her own indifferent mother; her anxious, hostile mother in law), Liffey somehow transcends all through a pregnancy that resembles martyrdom more than mere gestation. Male doctors prod and patronise her (but it’s all for her own good); male neighbours sexually harrass and practically rape her when they feel like it; male friends ignore her and her husband alternately neglects her or showers her with attention while shagging just about every woman he encounters in London. Women, it seems, hate her or discount her because she is pretty and brittle and child-wifey.

And then, at the end, she gets the kid, the idyllic country life, Mabs loses her awesome power, and her contrite husband returns in the final chapter. I never did like the Patient Grizzel archetype much – the woman-as-martyr. The men in Puffball are either walking penises who merely exist to eject their sperm into as many women as possible; or they are raging impotents like Mory, the angry young tenant; or the doctor; or wistful weaklings like Ray. The women, on the other hand, are manipulative, cold-hearted and for the most part utterly selfish or just plain stupid.

Now, this is where it gets difficult. Is this book an exploration of middle-class ideas of country living vs the dark, primaeval reality; a portrait of a troubled marriage during a time of great social upheaval; or the story of one woman’s pregnancy? I would plump for the latter, because it just doesn’t make the grade as a social satire or as a modern-day Cold Comfort Farm.

It certainly highlights the feelings of isolation and the deep emotional charge of pregnancy; but the exposition of the biological events happening inside Liffey’s body are, I suppose, an attempt to demonstrate that despite all man and woman’s plotting, scheming, philandering, neglect, war, famine etc etc, life still goes on. Babies still grow in the womb: innocent and demanding.

Motherhood seems to be sanctified as this ultimate calling that her female characters nearly always get wrong in some way. Their children are deformed and scarred not by society, but by bad parenting – bad mothering in particular. I’m not quite sure what Weldon would classify as a “good” mother because I’ve never found one in her books. Praxis Duveen, perhaps, but even she is neglectful and selfish. Now, as a feminist, can I accept that it’s all the mother’s fault? Why do men get let off like this? Weldon’s men are nearly always useless, violent, distant or reduced to the status of walking sperm machines who are too busy gratifying their own urges to be up to much. I mean, in those pre-AIDS times, why would Liffey take Richard back after he has cheated on her with both secretaries, his best friend’s wife, her au pair and a model called Vanessa. The worst Liffey allowed to happen were two unhappy couplings with the neighbour, Tucker. And are women really that disparaging about other women? I don’t think so. I first read the book when I was 14 or so: now that I’m 37 (and pregnant), I keep looking back over my life and friendships, and wondering if I’ve lived in some arty-farty little bubble, because comparatively few of my relationships or friendships have been that competitive and/or…well…unsisterly.

Anyway, those are my random ramblings. Next up is If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor.


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