The plot of Fay Weldon’s She May Not Leave is encapsulated in the first chapter title: “Martyn And Hattie Have Employed An Au Pair.” Martyn and Hattie are a successful London couple – he working for a political magazine, she a publishing house – who have just had their first child. Unpleasantly surprised by their new daughter’s effect on their finances, sex life and liberty, they hire Agnieszka – a domestic goddess who is not, however, all that she seems. Agnieszka gradually usurps Hattie in the wormiest of ways.
In magazine interviews, Weldon has admitted her fascination with what she calls “that whole women’s magazine area, the communality of women’s interests, and the sharing of the latest eye-shadow.” Perhaps this is why her novel adopts many of the conventions of chick lit, inclusive of “quirky” chapter titles. Hattie is the typical chick-lit heroine, an urbanite seeking career success as well as love, anxious about her appearance but, of course, actually sexy, thin and beautiful. (When she puts on weight after eating too much of Agnieszka’s home cooking she balloons from a British size 6 to a size 10 – a pain we ordinary twelve-to-fourteens would love to experience.) Fortunately we are spared the other chick lit conventions of lists, UNECESSARY CAPITALS and odes to shoes.
And Weldon does subvert the genre. The chick lit heroine is, of course, usually single, with a choice of two possible love interests. In this case, Hattie is partnered – it is Martyn who finds himself torn between two women, and his solution is not one often found in popular romantic fiction. But what most distinguishes it from chick lit is that this is an uncomfortably cynical book.
From the beginning, Martyn and Hattie seem genuinely to love each other. They are gentle with each other and keen to communicate. But even before things start to really go wrong, there are cracks and contradictions in the relationship. Martyn loves Hattie for her lack of doubt, “the way she didn’t hesitate when she found she was pregnant and just sighed and said it was fate, why fight it?” Meanwhile Hattie is secretly punishing Martyn for the split condom.
Another interesting subversion, one that stands stubbornly as an obstacle to interpretation of the novel, is the unreliable narrator. Hattie’s grandmother tells the story, and it is insisted upon that we do not forget this: “Let me make clear who is speaking here.” But how can Grand-Nan Frances know what she claims to know? She takes us into the minds of her protagonists; she takes us into their bed. There are accordingly moments when thoughts ascribed to the characters seem those of an outsider with hindsight. Before Agnieszka arrives, Martyn has “a stereotyped Polish girl in his head: she is pale, thin, high-cheekboned, small-breasted…” and that is exactly who turns up.
Perhaps, then, this book isn’t about Martyn and Hattie at all, but about an old woman bewildered by modern society. This would explain the book’s bizarre obsession with the couple’s unmarried state. The novel’s final “shock” (of which much has been made in previous reviews) is the sort of thing that was shocking in Ibsen’s time – now, not so much.
If this book is more about an old woman’s attitudes than anything else, then it has to be said that the wise old crone doesn’t think much of the human race. Who wants to believe people behave, feel, think like this? Weldon was once considered a feminist, largely because she writes caustically about relationships between men and women. But Jane Halley was closer to the truth when she described Weldon as “a woman embracing her own misogyny.” Halley, like this reader, does not recognise herself in what she calls Weldon’s “reductionist” characters.
Though this novel presents itself as savvy and blunt – just “telling it like it is” – it is similar to Weldon’s infamous advice to women to fake orgasms. It asks us to accept more depressing “truths” about the world than we should be asked to accept. Compulsive reading in the way trashy women’s magazines in doctors’ waiting rooms can be – and equally bad for the spirit – this pessimism is ultimately unconvincing. Most people aspire to live better and more authentically than Martyn, Hattie and Agnieszka; most people succeed.