News emerged recently that the novelist Fay Weldon, aged 89 and left frail by the after-effects of a stroke, has left her third husband Nick Fox, 15 years her junior, accusing him of "coercive control and financial mismanagement". She is now staying with her son, and Fox has responded by saying that he is left "stunned, bewildered and sad" by the claim.

What makes this even more poignant is that Weldon is best known for writing The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, one of the great 80s works of feminist fiction. Here, Ruth, an angry middle-aged housewife, takes ruthlessly violent and entirely successful revenge on her faithless husband, Bobo. It’s a satire, of course, but represents what Weldon has consistently supported: a robust, common-sense feminism that deplores cheap sexism in the media and champions women’s independence.

Truth is stranger than fiction?

This unhappy episode raises the insoluble problem of the disparity between what an artist fictionally creates and how he or she actually lives. We know from biographies and interviews that writers draw deep from the well of personal experience, but what is less easy to determine is the extent to which art also comes out of their daydream fantasies or wish-fulfilment in what amounts to an evasion of the uncomfortable realities of their actions.

In some cases, this could be branded as hypocrisy; others could at least shake their heads ruefully with Jane Austen’s heroine Anne Elliot in Persuasion, who "like many other great preachers", eloquently counsels the forlorn widower Captain Benwick on "a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination".

The most egregious example of hypocrisy is surely Charles Dickens’ treatment of his wife Catherine. Having unsuccessfully attempted to have her sectioned, he then brutally shut her out of his life after his liaison with the actress Ellen Ternan was discovered, and discouraged her from communicating with their children. His one public statement on the matter – "some domestic trouble of mine... of a sacredly private nature" – concluded with the barefaced lie that this involved "no anger or ill-will of any kind". Beyond that, he can be convicted of contravening all the emphasis that not only his novels but also his journal Household Words placed on the cosiness of the family hearth and the sanctity of marriage.

Not practising what they preached

At the opposite pole of literary achievement, what should one make of Enid Blyton, endlessly churning out stories about cheerful adventurous bunches of well-adjusted kids in unproblematic relationships with their parents? In an open letter to her youthful readers, Blyton claimed that her own household was also constituted as "a happy little family. I could not possibly write a single book if I were not happy with my family and I put them first and foremost". Her daughter Imogen took another view (hotly disputed by her elder sister Gillian), accusing her mother of being "arrogant, insecure, pretentious, very skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind and without a trace of maternal instinct. I found her very cold and saw little of her. Most of my mother’s visits to the nursery were hasty, angry ones, rather than benevolent..."

Blyton’s first husband and father of her children was an alcoholic; she had extramarital affairs. One could be forgiven for thinking that she dreamed up her fictional "happy little families" in compensation.

Writers do that sort of thing: Fay Weldon’s She-Devil is a fictional creation, presumably imagined rather than copied from life, but it’s surely fair to wonder whether the irresistible gusto of the character as she wreaks havoc on her male prey reflects impulses somewhere in Weldon’s own psyche.

This sort of sublimation is a phenomenon that the literary critic F R Leavis memorably explored through the work of George Eliot, noting her tendency to present flattering versions of herself in her heroines – young women like Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss and Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch who share her high-minded hunger for spiritual exultation but who have been endowed by the novelist with a physical beauty that George Eliot herself entirely lacked and deeply desired.

Can The Bard be excused?

Perhaps one reason for Shakespeare’s unique status in our culture is that because his biographical record is so minimal, such questions cannot be asked of him. "Never trust the teller, trust the tale," advised D H Lawrence: in Shakespeare’s case, that’s easy, because we have only the tale to go on. Yet he’s the exception: in an age wise to the mechanics of psychoanalysis, we find it elsewhere hard to separate the two, as though novelists were in the habit of dropping trails of clues about themselves through their work, some of them deliberately designed to throw readers off the scent.

If this is the case then, as Plato’s philosophy insisted thousands of years ago, there is something essentially dishonest about fiction: it presents not so much the world as it is but the world as the writer would like it to be, shaped by his or her will into the consoling form of an arbitrary beginning and happy-ending conclusiveness. But even if fiction is just a fib, we would be the poorer without it.

The Daily Telegraph

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