Ruth, wife of Bobbo, mother of Nicola and Andy, mistress of No. 19 Nightbird Drive, a good address in the best London suburb, feels she is “trapped in her body.” Ruth is six-foot-two, unshapely, her awkward form undergirding an indifferent face with a hook nose and three black moles, each sprouting hairs. Ruth’s rival is best-selling romance novelist Mary Fisher: diminutive, blonde, pretty, rich. She’s “accustomed to love,” to lying, and to sleeping with other women’s men.
At under 300 pages, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, Fay Weldon’s 1982 novel of jealousy, transformation, and revenge, is around the length of one of Mary Fisher’s romance novels, and just as full of sex and intrigue. But She-Devil’s pages are sometimes painful to turn, because the reader must grapple with crass exchanges of power and manipulation. Rarely in this book does a character submit willingly, to anything.
Not to say that this book is about BDSM sex, although one man whose power Ruth coopts prefers his sex kinky, whether his partners do or not. Rather, Ruth responds to being hurt by wielding power, sometimes learning to do so by inflicting harm gratuitously; by learning to regret nothing, Ruth won’t regret hurting people on the way to toppling Mary Fisher.
Mary Fisher in fact lives in a tower, an old converted lighthouse, which Ruth mentions frequently, as if repeating “Mary Fisher lives in a High Tower” is an incantation the she-devil uses to work her dark magic. She-Devil’s symbolism is both heavy-handed and tongue-in-cheek. The book’s references range from Robin Hood to Aleister Crowley; Ruth’s plastic surgeon even remarks upon the similarities between Frankenstein’s story and Ruth’s quest to remake herself as a normal woman.
She-Devil’s pages are sometimes painful to turn, because the reader must grapple with crass exchanges of power and manipulation. Rarely in this book does a character submit willingly, to anything.
Ruth muses whether she is no longer—or perhaps beyond—human when Bobbo abandons her for her enemy. Bobbo has already told Ruth in excruciating detail about his love life outside their unilaterally open marriage. The string of domestic embarrassments that lead Bobbo to leave Ruth culminate in Bobbo telling her, “You are a third-rate person. You are a bad mother, a worse wife, and a dreadful cook. In fact, I don’t think you are a woman at all. I think that what you are is a she-devil!”
At first Ruth grows despondent at being discarded, but she adopts the identity of she-devil by freeing herself from her domestic duties and thus from her identities as mother, wife, cook—and woman. First, Ruth sexually liberates herself by visiting a mentally disabled man who lives in the town park’s maintenance shed. He’s described as a reliable source of debasement for housewives all over the tony suburb, and he’s Ruth’s first fuck outside of her marriage. The sex isn’t hot or even appetizing, which is one of the novel’s first departures not only from romance novels but from other sexual-liberation novels of the post-Roe era. Erica Jong’s Isadora character in 1972’s Fear of Flying has freeing but disappointing sex with a man she doesn’t like; she doesn’t put on her clothes and walk out on a man having seizures, covered in his own shit.
Even in 1982, She-Devil was fairy sexually advanced for popular fiction. I found some of its pragmatism and mechanical descriptions a bit shocking in context. It’s not so much that Ruth’s sex scenes themselves are shocking, it’s the calculatedness with which Ruth pursues them, with anyone, male or female, who will allow her intimate access to Bobbo’s and Mary Fisher’s lives for the purpose of wracking ruin. (Bisexuality is treated as both fulfilling and expedient.) Ruth obtains power through sex in ways inaccessible to her while she was married to Bobbo, even though marriage had privileged Ruth with the trappings of wealth and status.
It’s a subversive version of a usurper tale in which an enchantment is broken, an imposter ousted, and the true queen restored; it’s a Cinderella story in which the mother, instead of dying at the beginning of the book, comes back as both princess and stepmother.
Ruth in quick succession burns down her own house, abandons her children, disappears one step shy of faking her own death, and assumes a series of identities that allow her to liberate Bobbo’s fortune and that of his high-profile accounting clients. While commandeering people for her plan, from prison guards to priests, she also frees them from their own stuck, dogmatic lives, making Ruth something of a sadistic fairy godmother, altering bourgeois, patriarchal culture by perverting its practitioners.
Ruth’s goal is not merely revenge on Mary Fisher; it’s to have Bobbo back, “on my own terms.” Ruth’s scheme, revealed gradually to the readers, is to exile Bobbo, ruin Mary Fisher, become her replica, and take dominion over Bobbo. It’s a subversive version of a usurper tale in which an enchantment is broken, an imposter ousted, and the true queen restored; it’s a Cinderella story in which the mother, instead of dying at the beginning of the book, comes back as both princess and stepmother.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Little Mermaid,” having achieved her wish to breathe air and walk with two legs upon the earth, is beset by constant, chronic pain, as the sea witch warned she would be. “All who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw, [but] every step you take will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives.” Likewise, Ruth’s physical metamorphosis leaves her in constant pain, and “with every step it was as if she trod on knives.” In those fairy tales in which powerful women are spiteful, no wish is granted without giving the witch something in return.
Ruth achieves her human guise and her place in the High Tower, and retrieves her prince, under the conditions of constant pain and the enslavement of her beloved. The Life and Loves of a She-Devil is at root about upending the idea that women’s personal empowerment necessarily results in fulfilling, self-actualized, respectable lives. But what Ruth unleashes along the way—financial, artistic, and sexual freedom for many of the people whose lives Ruth hijacked—provides a rich contrast to the tower Ruth locks herself into.