Coincidence or a timely message from overlighting angels (characters from the new mythology), or my Muse (a visitor from the old mythology?) I ask you - whichever mythology you espouse - do you honestly believe in coincidences any more?
I was starting to work on a piece about Ruth, the Biblical Ruth who Keats so memorably saw ‘standing alone in the alien corn,’ when I was given a DVD to watch. I found the juxtaposition of these two exhilarating, there’s no other word. As we all do who find myths touching us in unexpected places, I picked out my own lessons from these two tales.
‘The Life and Loves of a She Devil’ by Fay Weldon
adapted for BBC TV, screen play Ted Whitehead.
‘How DO women survive? How do ugly women survive? Those whom the world pities?.....’ ‘We wait for old age to equalise all things. We make good old women, us dogs.’
In 1986 when the BBC dramatisation of Fay Weldon’s novel was broadcast I was in a time of turmoil, fighting for my own survival. Almost, but not quite, resigned to losing my marriage. That happened wily-nilly and caused me great pain. It was also the best thing that could have happened, but a decade or more passed before I could see that.
In 1986 I wouldn’t have been open to the thoughts, feelings, beliefs that Fay Weldon put into this novel. I read it, can’t remember when, but most of the meaning - all of the meaning - spun over my head. I found it unpleasantly bizarre. Now I can see the wisdom in it. 30 years ago I was still clinging to that which the ugly wife Ruth at first blames as the cause of most of women’s suffering: the pursuit of love.
Mary Fisher, Ruth’s hated adversary, the woman her husband is seduced by, is a writer of romantic fiction. Her belief is that, ‘Romance is reality at its most radiant.’ In the throws of his own infatuation for Mary, Bobbo, Ruth’s husband, is only too happy to agree.
Bobbo is determined to have his affair with Mary, expecting Ruth to willingly allow him to indulge in the thrill of being ‘in love.’ Even to be happy for him. He claims he loves Ruth and always will, that they are friends and that he will never leave her. It’s simply that he is not ‘in love’ with her. In the way of men (and women) who find it easy to make love alliances, casting off one and taking on another, seeking mainly the buzz, he cannot see why Ruth should be jealous or even disturbed by his needs. All she has to do is keep the home going and wait. Ruth does not see it his way, though she tries. She tries to be a ‘good wife’ and thus earn her husband’s love. It doesn’t work of course. A good wife is not what Bobbo, or millions of men (and women) like him want; what they want is the excitement of new affaires. The druggy high of first love. Especially with a woman like Mary Fisher who is very, very wealthy.
Ruth’s painful jealousy gets in the way of his happiness and he resents that. The fury in Ruth begins to build so that the first layers of Good Wife start to burn off. She disgraces ‘herself’ in front of his parents, revealing to them the loveless state of the marriage. In fact his mother realises it reveals more about her son than it disgraces Ruth. Bobbo, outraged by such behaviour, leaves calling Ruth a ‘she-devil,’ a description she learns to relish.
Meanwhile Mary is becoming progressively more ‘in love’ with Bobbo and wanting him for herself. She is starting to be clingy. This isn’t immediately a problem. He wants to be clung to. He makes up his mind to move in with Mary.
Ruth is devastated by her loss, even though she recognises that she has lost something she hardly had at all.
‘I have lost my chair at the edge of the ballroom,’ is how she puts it to herself.
Fortunately for the ugly woman, alongside self-pity rises fury. The white heat of wrath finally cauterizes any remaining resolutions to prove herself a good wife, and brings in its wake the urgent need for revenge.
‘Peel away the wife, the mother, and there the woman is. There the she-devil is.’
Ruth is a very clever woman. For the first time in her life she uses her intelligence to improve her own situation, to avenge herself.
There is plenty written about this novel and the truths, or perceived truths, it illustrates, plenty that give away the ending so I won’t write more, only to emphasise what so many of these diatribes or essays miss, (IMO) Ruth’s final revelation. Her conclusion hit me hard:
‘I thought it was a matter of male and female but it isn’t, it never was. It is merely a matter of power. Power. I have all and you have none. As I was so you are.....’