If the irony isn’t quite so ever-present in Isaac Babel as some like to think, in Fay Weldon’s ‘Weekend’ it’s so developed it’s heading straight for a thunderhead of bitterness. Martha works in an advertising agency, she’s married to Martin, is mother to three young children. As the story begins the family are about to set off for an idyllic weekend in their country cottage. Away from London and, supposedly, their cares and worries. But Martha does everything while her husband has a nice line in lazing around and delivering barbed comments.
Weekend guests arriving in the morning. Seven for lunch and dinner on Saturday. Seven for Sunday breakfast, nine for Sunday lunch. (Martin: ‘Don’t fuss darling. You always make such a fuss’).
She’s left reeling and worn out by the never-ending list of chores and small emergencies that arise, and this weekend isn’t an exception – it’s the pattern of her life. What I find fascinating is Weldon’s attitude to her protagonist. On a first read you can’t help but feel outraged on Martha’s behalf. Everyone’s taking the fullest advantage of her. They’re draining her life-energy and they’re as ignorant as vampire bats. The screw’s then twisted further when Colin, Martin’s oldest friend, turns up at the cottage with his new, attractive younger partner, Katie.
Katie is his new wife. Janet, Colin’s other, earlier wife, was Martha’s friend. Janet was rather like Martha, quieter and duller than her husband. A nag and a drag, Martin rather thought, and said, and of course she’d let herself go, everyone agreed. No one exactly excused Colin for walking out, but you could see the temptation… Katie was languid, beautiful and elegant.
This languid, beautiful and elegant creature then proceeds to patronise Martha in various ways and generally make things more unpleasant than they already were.
So we see the drift. It’s an overtly feminist commentary on getting older, on being compared unfavourably to those who happen to be more beautiful, on the extraction and exploitation of unpaid labour in the form of housework. Yet re-readings reveal another, psychological, side: Martha’s complicity in being exploited, her willingness to put up with it, and Weldon’s camouflaged contempt for her protagonist. It only breaks through once or twice, but it’s there undeniably, a current that’s powerful if almost invisible. And here we have to bring in Weldon herself, who (allegedly) was neglectful of her own children. I don’t believe for a minute that Fay Weldon would have allowed herself to be treated like Martha is in this story. So what’s going on? Herein, I believe, lies a touch of James Frazer’s ‘homeopathic magic’. In creating this masterpiece-in-miniature, in externalising it, was there a process at work of self-justification, even expiation? It’s speculation only – possibly half-baked. Neither should such an interpretation detract in any way from the larger, truthful, critique of patriarchy’s structural forms.
First published in Cosmopolitan, 1978. Collected in Watching Me, Watching You, Hodder & Stoughton, 1981 and also in The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories, ed. Susan Hill, 1990