"Look at me! My skirt and blouse are neat: my hair is combed: I am not distressed. I look what I am; a solicitor's wife, aged thirty-five, well set up for the slow run down to old age and death."
The narrator is Threnody, so named at birth by her mother in the mistaken notion that the word meant some sort of happy, lilting melody. The truth was learned too late; the name not only stuck but also suited her life with sad felicity. It set her up, as she is explaining here to her therapist.
Threnody seems the archetypal Fay Weldon heroine in this collection of elegantly crafted stories. "Look at me!" cry the women, forbearing, repressed victims of life's unfair arrangements, marriage most particularly. For the thread that runs truest through these pages is that, in the battle between men and women, women are the losers. And men are tyrants, either cruelly whimsical or stupidly insensitive in their tyranny. What is most striking about this confrontation is that women have signed a nonaggression pact; they are acquiescent in their underdog role, consenting in the daytime to obey their mates, if not to agree with them, and to weep silently beside them at night. Sometimes they acquiesce with bitter despair, sometimes with rueful humor.
Threnody is runner-up in a poetry writing contest. And how did her husband respond to her achievement? "Eric brought half a bottle of champagne. Had I won, it would have been a whole bottle. He's like that."
Other examples of female resignation:
In the story "Angel, All Innocence," Angel hears footsteps in the empty attic above the bedroom and starts to move her hand to wake her husband, but then withdraws it for fear of making him angry. "Easier to endure in the night the nightmare terror of ghosts than the day-long silence of Edward's anger."
Martha, a harried hostess in the story "Weekend," keeps her mouth grimly buttoned during a chaotic house party, especially when rebuked by her husband, because "any mild complaint was registered by Martin as a scene. And to make a scene was so ungrateful."
Worried about a swollen vein in her leg, Tania, an overburdened mother in "Geoffrey and the Eskimo Child," thinks it might be varicose. " 'Good God,' said Geoffrey, 'you're lucky to have a leg! Lots of people don't even have legs to have varicose veins in!' and Tania was obliged to admit it was true."
"I am of the lost generation," thinks Minette in "Man With No Eyes" , "one of millions. Interleaving, blotting up the miseries of the past, to leave the future untroubled. I would be happier dead, but being alive, of necessity, might as well make myself useful."
The single exception in this woman-as-victim litany is Esther Sussman in "The Fat Woman's Joke," a novel published in 1967 and long out of print, included with 11 new short stories in "Watching Me, Watching You." Esther, although she is unreservedly misanthropic and speaks with the others from a standpoint of resignation, does seem to get the better of things in the end. She certainly gets the better lines. Esther has left her philandering husband after he caught her cheating on her diet. She lives alone in a musty basement flat, cupboards crammed with food, furniture nailed to the floor ("The less freedom of choice she had the better"). Between mouthfuls of biscuit and jam, cake, porridge, pudding, cocoa and sweet sherry, she defends her gluttony and other frailties to the visitors -- old friend, son, husband, husband's mistress -- who troop to her refuge and implore her to return home where, as her husband argues, "you can be of some use." She gives in, but not before she has had her devastating say on each of her visitors and on mankind in general. Esther's a font of spiteful bons mots, an acerbic delight.
The other stories, of more recent origin, are far more poignant and compelling. Their settings are the "poor humiliated England" of high unemployment, numbing inflation and outre fashion, and of "numerous posters which lined the walls calling on women to live, to be free, to protest, to re-claim the right, demand wages for housework, to do anything in the world but love." An unlikely place for rosy prospects, the writer seems to be suggesting; a bad time for the sisterhood.
Still, these women of Fay Weldon's short stories, for all the limitations imposed on them by their environment, are a distressingly meek bunch. They are sensitive and appealing, and they view their predicament with imagination and wit, but one grows impatient with their cool self-mockery and longs for the heat of real anger in their response.
Perhaps it is unfair for a reviewer to deal cumulatively with these droll yet melancholy tales, some of which -- "Man With No Eyes," "Holy Stones" and the title story -- are splendid examples of the storyteller's art. On the other hand, it surely is evidence of their power and cogency that they provoke feelings of outrage and regret as well as admiration and delight.