Born in England in 1931, Fay Weldon began life as Franklin Birkinshaw. Right from the start, she had one of those eccentric childhoods that so often turn sensitive children into writers, if they do not destroy them first. Her parents' marriage was already foundering, and soon collapsed completely. The next 12 years were spent shuttling across New Zealand between her tireless, talented mother and her handsome, philandering father. In 1946, when Weldon was 15, an unexpected inheritance enabled her mother to return to England, with her two daughters and elderly mother.
Raised by adults who, for varying reasons, paid scant attention to what she and her elder sister thought about any of the momentous, often traumatic, changes that were imposed on them, Weldon lived in a succession of houses that were never quite homes, and was sent to a series of schools, each as different from the one before as it could possibly have been. These ranged from a rigid girls' convent school to a progressive co-educational secondary modelled on Summerhill, where the teachers were even less likely to turn up for lessons than the pupils, and where Weldon was taught English by the 17-year-old Bernice Rubens.
Her mother's parents were literary and musical. They held twice-weekly soirees attended by the likes of H G Wells, Rebecca West, Ford Madox Ford, Jean Rhys and Ezra Pound, who would turn up drunk and play the piano with his nose. Two generations on, Weldon would mix with the equivalent names of her day: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard, Adrian Mitchell, Mel Calman, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller. "I am very conscious of the patterns our lives make," she writes, "of interconnecting cogs and wheels, of coincidence which is no coincidence but fate, of the quiet sources of our energy. All things connect . . . Nothing is without result."
These patterns are not just social. Few of the women in her family seem to have had much talent for self-preservation. Her mother's sister, Aunt Faith, was seduced by her own uncle when she was 17. She later went "mad" and spent most of her short adult life in an asylum. Weldon's own sister, Jane, also succumbed to madness and eventually killed herself. But there are survivors, too: her grandmother Frieda kept life at bay by playing the piano for hours every day, and finally died a week before her 100th birthday, grateful she would not have to go through the embarrassment of a telegram from the Queen.
In her novels, Weldon specialises in the cruel twist of fate, the bizarre coincidence, the sudden reversal, all dispensed with an unflinching hand. And so, in real life, people's paths interconnect in unexpected, often terrible ways. Her friend Claire survives a difficult divorce, only to be killed immediately afterwards in a plane crash. Another friend, Ellen, is widowed when her husband kills himself because he designed the controls of the plane in which Claire has died.
There is a brazen quality to the writing: here, as in Weldon's novels, a no-nonsense practicality as she canters through the chaos and wreckage of human lives. Sometimes the effect is a little chilling.
As a small child, Weldon hid behind cheerfulness; the only indication of the strain she felt was her frequent bouts of illness. As a teenager, she hid behind school work and dreamy crushes on older girls. As a student at the University of St Andrews, her sexual ignorance was the buffer against too much feeling. Describing her first marriage, to the deeply peculiar Mr Bateman, a school teacher with eccentric sexual tendencies, Weldon simply switches into the third person and refers to herself as Mrs Bateman.
As her story advances towards 1963, the year when she started to define herself as a writer, Weldon seems to find it increasingly hard to keep her experiences at a safe distance. The writing itself undergoes a kind of crisis: tenses slide about, narrative trails lead to nothing. The gap between Weldon the biographer and Weldon the character collapses.
Auto Da Fay ends in 1963, with Weldon recently married to her second husband, Ron Weldon, who is a painter and antiques dealer. (He will divorce her after 30 years of marriage, and abruptly die on the day the divorce papers come through.) She is pregnant and has just completed her first novel. "What I do from now on," she suddenly concludes, "all that early stuff digested and out of the way, is write, and let living take a minor role."
The book ends there, at that full stop, as if she had simply run out of interest in her own story. If we have learnt anything about the inner workings of Fay Weldon from this book, it is that emotional distancing was always a crucial means of survival.