How did a maid of all work reach the top table? Susan Jeffreys samples a savoury life
In the world of cooks and scullery maids, death often came calling in the middle of a banquet. A cook’s life was hard. The hours were unending and the stress unbearable. Rich food and frequent nips at the sherry bottle meant these women often fell where they cooked. The meal had to go on, so the maid simply took over the dead woman’s place, while the other servants dragged away the body. It was how a girl got promotion and was baldly referred to as “stepping over the cook”. Fay Weldon records the practice, and attributes her own rise in the world of advertising to a 20th-century equivalent, in this strange, deceptively formless but actually very structured autobiography of her early life.
Fate and will, nature and nurture are underlying themes in this book, and in her life. Scheduled to be born into a tolerably settled doctor’s family in New Zealand, Fay was actually, thanks to an earthquake, born in London into a family fractured by much more than an earthquake. Blown backwards and forwards between England and New Zealand, scrabbling around to get an education and make a career, Fay Weldon got on with what was under her nose. It was a family tradition, handed down through the female line. Her mother, born to an eccentric intellectual family in Hampstead, worked as an artist, a writer, a guard on the London Underground, a home help and whatever else came her way.
Exasperated into adultery by her husband’s philanderings, Fay’s mother brought up her two daughters, along with her own idiosyncratic mother, shifting them all back to England for the last time on an unexpected legacy. If that money hadn’t arrived Fay and sister Jane might have stayed in New Zealand and been happy housewives with perms. The book is littered with paths not chosen, but what appear to be random, whimsical decisions seem to have a theme and structure.
This is so much more, though, than one woman’s journey over difficult, seismic terrain. Fay Weldon is not so wrapped up in telling the extraordinary facts of her life not to notice the scenery around her. Her account of arriving among the blasted buildings of post-war Britain, of sexual politics before and after the pill, about suburban behaviour and social mores, are sharp and particular. She remembers, as few others would bother, to record how when a husband came in the front door any visiting female neighbour would sidle out the back. She records all those lost tribes: sleazy doctors who got by on work for insurance companies and were prone to groping the daughters of doctors, the first wave of advertisers working for commercial television, the last wave of poor tenants hanging on by a legal thread to lodgings in up-and-coming areas.
An unmarried mother in the Fifties, Fay Weldon got on with being a career woman. Stuck at home with a pregnancy that seemed unending, she got out the pen and paper and became a writer. Husbands, lovers, a truly bizarre cast of relatives, and a few ghosts, have pushed her life this way and that. But she was always determined and resourceful, and she has always had her tremendous talent for writing. Weldon may have simply stepped over the cook and done “what was under her nose”, but she had to be willing to do it.