Books: A right old bunch of viragos

BIG WOMEN by Fay Weldon, HarperCollins pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
FAY WELDON's novels deal with women's troubled relationships with one another, their children and the men who exert what seems to be undue influence on their lives. Her latest book runs true to type. It tells the tale of a group of women and their struggle to make sense of their lives, and those of all women in Seventies Britain, by seizing and acting on the idea that the personal is political.

At a drunken conciousness-raising meeting with the surreal battlecry "A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle" they decide that setting up a publishing house to specialise in women's classics (sound familiar?) will reclaim female history, art and self-esteem as well as fulfil their own needs. But is this truly the first blow for feminist publishing or just astute recognition of a gap in the market which co-incidentally allows them all the freedom to be themselves away from the perceived tyranny of men?

"Running these places is child's play, so long as you don't have to bother with male status seeking ... [find] anyone whose works are out of copyright, and you don't have to pay. A guaranteed readership - everyone reads classics - and pure profit. This is an amazing window of opportunity," says Layla the pragmatist. They are practical enough to realise from the outset that the venture must be successful (read profitable) and in spite of consulting the I Ching to make editorial decisions, their feet seem firmly planted on the ground.

Stuffy Stephie, boring Nancy, foul-mouthed and opportunistic Layla, mystical Alice and stay-at-home Zoe are unlikely sisters-in-arms but together and apart they confront their personal demons as they push forward the feminist frontier with varying degrees of enlightened self-interest. As ever the husbands are little or no help and are to be pitied; there's Hamish, a chain-wielding libertine and Bullivant, an unrelenting chauvinist who, by insisting blindly on his rigid view of what makes a normal family life, tears the heart from his own family with the fatal consequences of his intransigence. The children fare no better; Stephie deserts her two boys without a second thought, whilst Zoe's children are neglected as she grapples with the conflicting demands of motherhood and her overwhelming need to write. The characters' flaws are cruelly exposed at every turn, there is little love lost between the narrator and the protagonists - the narrator's tone is detached, an Olympian viewing with bemusement the mortals below.

Four naked women dancing on the striking cover (after Matisse, in the purple and green colours of the suffragette movement) epitomise, in their wild, unconventional and utterly self-absorbed twirling, what Big Women is all about. For whatever you think about the individual women, they each bravely pursue what they perceive as truth and the fall out from their actions has an impact far beyond their own circles. This is the story of "four women who changed the world, because it seemed easier than changing themselves".