All bestselling writers need an audience, and last week Fay Weldon startled hers with an extraordinary story of domestic abuse in an enduring marriage.
But the story she came out with was not, on the face of it, a work of fiction.
For the man she characterises as a He-Devil is entirely flesh and blood – the husband Weldon has been with for 30 years.
Nick Fox, she alleged, had driven her to an overdose and left her penniless after years of coercive control.
She had, she revealed, fled to the safety of her son’s home and would be divorcing him.
It is the kind of feminist narrative on which Weldon has built her formidable literary reputation. She has described it as her ‘liberation’.
Fay Weldon startled audience with an extraordinary story of domestic abuse in an enduring marriage. Nick Fox, she alleged, had driven her to an overdose and left her penniless after years of coercive control (pictured together)
It’s just, insists a devastated and blindsided Fox, 71, that none of it is true.
‘It’s a calumny of the vilest kind, I am not this person, I have done none of these things,’ he says, speaking from his wife’s book-lined study in what was their Dorset home.
‘This is a character assassination by the person I loved and believed in more than anyone else in the world. I can’t defend myself against it because when you marry someone, when you love someone like I love Fay, you don’t put up any barriers against them.
Quite the opposite, you make yourself vulnerable.
‘She was the woman for me and I have been happy to divert the course of my whole life for her. She is a brilliant writer and I was in awe of her intellect as well as fancying her.
‘It was like being married to Jane Austen in the body of Marilyn Monroe. We were indivisible, a strong couple who gave other people strength.
‘One friend told me people were drawn to our home like cats to a warm hearth.
‘I have been trying to keep my faith in Fay but I have to accept that the person I knew isn’t there any more.
‘I am trapped by her lies because the accused man who attempts to excuse himself looks guilty.
‘If I say she’s lost her marbles, I am accused of gaslighting her. It would be easier to cope with someone dying than this.’
Fox believes Weldon is suffering from an undiagnosed senile illness which has caused her to turn on him.
He says she was unhinged with grief after the sudden death of her son Tom, aged 48, from oesophageal cancer in April last year, and believes losing her child made her confront her maternal guilt at having devoted so much of her life to her writing.
‘Creative artists are not like other mothers,’ he says. ‘
Fox (pictured) believes Weldon is suffering from an undiagnosed senile illness which has caused her to turn on him
Fay found fulfilment and inspiration in her work and now she is trying to appease that by sacrificing herself, by hitting her self-destruct button. And she’s trying to take me with her.’
It sounds like hyperbole yet Fox, a bookseller and poet who became his wife’s business manager, is serious.
His wife has accused him of ruining her finances by amassing debts of half a million pounds, of distancing her from friends and family, of failing to summon help when he discovered her suicide bid, of throwing crockery, and of obliging her to write, teach and broadcast to keep money coming in.
He controlled, she said, the tiniest domestic details of their shared lives, such as not allowing her to have a television.
It’s an alarming list and has added piquancy since Weldon is one of Britain’s foremost feminist writers and thinkers.
The coda is that if it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone.
It’s a bleak warning too, about what happens to marriages and families, when people age and the prospect of a complex legacy disturbs any existing harmony between a blended or extended clan.
Clearly all stories depend on the perspective of the narrator, as Weldon, with her brilliant authorship of more than 40 books, knows better than most.
Fox, though, is vehement in his denials of her allegations.
‘Fay drove everything,’ he said. ‘She proposed to me and at the start of our marriage, she explicitly said she wanted a strong man to do everything she didn’t want to, which turned out to be everything except writing.
‘She wanted me to ride shotgun while she wrote, uninterrupted. That wasn’t me controlling her. It was her wish. She made all the running in our marriage. She seduced me.
‘I was her workhorse. As well as looking after her business affairs, dealing with accountants and publishers and her diary, I did the menial work, the cooking and the cleaning.
‘Now that’s being represented as me cooking food to make her fat and keep other men away from her. It’s nuts.
‘Every year I’d throw her a birthday party. It was my annual offering to her, my Queen.
‘It wasn’t about my ego, it was about giving what I could to her.
‘She loves country music, truck driving songs – songs about the emotions of ordinary people, the hidden stuff which fascinates Fay – so I’d get a marquee, gather some musician friends, and get on the keyboard.
Now she’s saying she hated the parties. I’m bewildered. Bereft.
‘The charges she’s levelling against me upend everything I thought we enjoyed together.
‘When I profess my love for her now she accuses me of being saccharine. What am I supposed to do? Blame her and hate her? No.
‘It’s a tragedy and I’m not the villain. I still love her, or the person she used to be.’
Certainly Fox is an unusual character who admits he may be on the autistic spectrum.
While he never enjoyed Weldon’s commercial success, he believed they made a good intellectual match.
They also had a happy sex life until Weldon had a fall and fractured a bone in her back last year.
‘I’m a man, she’s a woman, we loved each other. People may think it’s weird at our age but we are only human and we both wanted to.’
Fox believes Weldon started showing her age a couple of years ago. ‘In retrospect she seemed to be slowing down. She was going quiet on people and repeating herself a bit,’ he said
Romantically, they met on Christmas Eve 1981 when Weldon walked into his book shop at 6.30pm to buy some last-minute gifts.
They became friends and then, eight years later and both divorced, lovers. Weldon had four sons and Fox had three when they married in 1994.
Fox says his wife’s belief in her wealth was misplaced even then. ‘When we got together, there wasn’t £500,000 a year [the sum Weldon says she was earning], the big money had all been and gone.
‘In the 1980s, yes, there had apparently been millions.’
He is referring to her best-known book, the 1983 blockbuster The Life And Loves Of A She-Devil which was turned into a multi Bafta-winning BBC series three years later.
‘Fay liked spending money and she always said if we spent it, then more would come in. I tried to say ‘not always’.
She was throwing big sums at her family, helping them buy property, more maternal guilt I think, and she had a terrible accountant.’
Fox blames this for a vast and unexpected bill from HMRC which obliged the couple to take out a mortgage on the Dorset house.
Along with their overdraft of £40,000 and loans of £25,000, he is mortified that this has become public knowledge.
Today he is wearing a £12 tweed coat from a church fete, driving a £600 Mercedes and says he cannot afford to heat his home. ‘What is this high life I am supposed to be living?’ he asks.
Romantically, they met on Christmas Eve 1981 when Weldon walked into his book shop at 6.30pm to buy some last-minute gifts (pictured together)
Fox believes Weldon started showing her age a couple of years ago. ‘In retrospect she seemed to be slowing down. She was going quiet on people and repeating herself a bit.
‘I tried to cover that up for her but now I am accused of doing all the talking and making her work to keep the money coming in.
‘Fay was at her happiest when she was writing and teaching – that’s what made her glow – I tried to keep her buoyant, keep the show on the road for her.’
He believed he was succeeding until she had a bizarre accident in August last year when she leaned on his car as he edged out of a parking space and fell heavily. Ten days later it became clear she had cracked a bone in her spine.
Fox organised care from a doctor, an osteopath, a physical trainer and an NHS hospital bed at home. But he was exhausted by the demands of being her carer 24 hours a day.
Last week’s charge sheet against her husband included the accusation that he had thrown things which had occasionally hit her.
Fox says this refers to an incident when she spoke to him with such contempt that he dropped the plates and cutlery he was carrying.
‘That’s all it was. I would never hurt Fay. I was so tired that night, doing everything for her, hearing her speak to me like that was a stab in the heart. I froze, dropped everything. The alternative narrative is that I threw something. I didn’t.’
By mid-October, Weldon was still in great pain from the fracture and, says Fox, taking significant quantities of strong painkillers. He woke early one morning to find her making ‘little squeaky sighs’ and half out of her hospital bed.
Unable to get her back in, he joined her on the floor, pulling a duvet over them both. He assumed she had taken the sleeping pill temazepam, which she had used routinely over the years.
When a carer arrived a couple of hours later, and he woke up, Weldon could still not be roused, so Fox called an ambulance. Weldon is now saying this was a suicide attempt.
She was admitted to hospital and six weeks later moved to a cottage hospital 500 yards from their house.
Because her medical notes specified she had taken an overdose, safeguarding measures were put in place.
‘She was on patch and oral morphine and talking complete drugged-up cobblers,’ says Fox.
‘I found myself accused of doing practically everything on the safeguarding sheet apart from FGM.’
This was the point at which Weldon chose to go and stay with her eldest son Nick Weldon and his wife at their home in Northamptonshire.
Fox also discovered she had changed her will the previous June without telling him.
‘Her son told me with great glee she had done it behind my back. I believe it was about further appeasing her sense of guilt towards her family.
‘Her dedication to her writing has left an emotional debt which needs paying. I’m no psychiatrist but that’s what it looks like to me.’
On December 5 last year, Fox went to the hospital with clothes, make-up and business documents for his wife.
‘I was confronted by two nurses with their arms folded saying, ‘she doesn’t want to see you, talk to you or come home with you’.
They said if I didn’t go they would call security. I had no forewarning, no expectation that the person I’d shared everything with for 29 years would be disappeared.’
Weldon has been at her son’s home ever since, with Fox banned from contacting her. He has tried to send her an Edward Lear nonsense poem and a reference to her grandmother he found in Evelyn Waugh’s diaries – but was told all communication was forbidden.
‘I carried on,’ he says, ‘treating her like the person she used to be. People get old. At 89, they’re not the same as they were.’
He concludes with a reference to one of her novels, Splitting, about a woman with multiple personalities which bicker with each other over her marital problems.
‘It was published in the earliest years of our marriage,’ he says. ‘Who’d have thought that one day I’d be living it.’