Praxis: A Novel

Praxis: A Novel

by Fay Weldon

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Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this modern masterpiece by Fay Weldon asks, What do women really want?
Praxis Duveen is a survivor. At five years old, in 1920s England, she is still innocent, the product of an unstable mother and a flighty father who abandoned Praxis and her half-crazy sister, Hypatia. As the decades fly by, Praxis experiences…  See more details below


Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this modern masterpiece by Fay Weldon asks, What do women really want?
Praxis Duveen is a survivor. At five years old, in 1920s England, she is still innocent, the product of an unstable mother and a flighty father who abandoned Praxis and her half-crazy sister, Hypatia. As the decades fly by, Praxis experiences many incarnations, from prostitute to rape victim, wife to adulteress and eventually becomes the accidental leader of an international women’s movement. Now, from her dingy basement apartment, where she’s attempting to write a memoir, Praxis tells about the story of her remarkable journey—peppered with more than a few detours along the way. Spanning forty years, Praxis is by turns shocking, savage, strange, and exhilarating.

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A Novel

By Fay Weldon


Copyright © 1978 Fay Weldon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-1249-1


Praxis Duveen, at the age of five, sitting on the beach at Brighton, made a pretty picture for the photographer. Round angel face, yellow curls, puffed sleeves, white socks and little white shoes—one on, one off, while she tried to take a pebble from between her tiny pink toes—delightful! The photographer had hoped to include her elder sister Hypatia in the picture, but that sullen, sallow little girl had refused to appear on the same piece of card as her ill-shod sister.

'Of course,' said their mother, apologetically, Hypatia is the artistic one, and very sensitive. Praxis is the pretty one.' She clearly valued sensitivity above prettiness.

Snap! went the photographer. Praxis beamed. Hypatia scowled. The photographer Henry Whitechapel, had been a bombardier in the First World War, and afterwards, too gassed, wounded and shell-shocked to continue his original profession, had taken to his present trade more in desperation than enthusiasm. But he enjoyed his summers on the coast. The sea-air eased his damaged lungs, and the pickings were better than in London, and holidaymakers less likely to remember money spent in advance on photographs which then failed to turn up in the post.

'Interesting names,' he observed to the little girls' mother. She was a pretty woman, and most genteel. The maid would come down to the beach at midday with a lunch basket for the little family. Henry Whitechapel, who dined off a pork pie if he was lucky, would watch with envy as she unfolded linen napkins and little grease-proof packages of sandwiches and chicken.

'They come from the Greek,' she replied, as if marvelling at it herself, but did not want to take the matter, let alone the acquaintance, further. He wrote down her name and address, 'Mrs. Lucy Duveen, of 109 Holden Road, Brighton,' and even made his writing legible, just in case he was able to afford enough developing fluid to get round to these particular prints.

Praxis, Henry noticed, was easily bored. When other diversions failed she would run shrieking into the sea, still wearing her shoes and socks, to the distraction of her mother, and the distaste of Hypatia, who was content to sit for hours staring at the sea and making poetry in her head.

If that young one were mine, thought Henry Whitechapel, I'd belt her one. Later he was to have the opportunity of doing so. He had never married, and had no children of his own; his lungs and his concentration where not what they had been before the war; nor certainly at that time was his sexual capacity. But a romantic interest in the opposite sex remained and Lucy Duveen, sitting on the pebbly beach with her hamper, her parasol, and her two little girls, made for him a romantic image.

He took the opportunity of passing 109 Holden Road one evening in September, when only a trickle of holidaymakers remained to pose before his by now film-less camera, and he knew he would soon have to go back to London and take his chances there. He found, much as he had expected, a stout Edwardian house sheltered by laurel bushes, with a circular drive, well-kept flower gardens, and a motorcar outside the front door. All the lights in the house blazed, in apparent defiance of the electricity bill: and he heard what he took to be the noise of revelry within, but was in fact the sound of Ben Duveen drunk, laughing and beating his wife, while the two children wailed.

Benjamin Duveen had other children in other places, who wailed for the absence of their father, as these two wailed for his presence.

'Dirty Jew,' shrieked Lucy Duveen at the top of her tormented lungs.

'Whore,' shouted Ben Duveen, getting her in the small of the back with a hand made amazingly strong at the golf-course. He was an excellent golfer; a row of silver cups on the mantelpiece bore evidence to this. Falling and stumbling from the blow, she yet managed to sweep them to the ground. Understandably. Forgivably.

The epithets hurled in the course of a domestic row, the incidental damage done to furniture and fittings; his books, her tea-set; his face, her ribs; they are all understandable, all forgivable, except of course to those involved.

Dirty Jew? Forgivable? Oh indeed, for it was not, as Ben thought, the automatic anti-semitism to which Lucy's race and kind were accustomed. No. Lucy was not like that. She was the odd-one-out in her own family, and identified too strongly with that then-derided race. But she suffered from his Jewishness in a way she had not anticipated. She had thought the Christian equal to the Jew; no more nor less, but found that Ben believed differently. Ben despised her for the shiksa girl she was, lacking morality, sensitivity, history, and that profundity which constant fear can create in the individual. At the same time he worshipped her body, for the forbidden charm of its non-Jewishness. When she produced two girls, and not the son he waited for, he knew that he was right: she was a tainted Christian and his guilt had found him out. She was, after all, second best. He had gone out sexual slumming, and found Lucy. She felt it. She suffered.

'Dirty Jew!' she cried, putting herself hopelessly in the wrong. Justifiably incensed, he hit her. And away went the golf-cups! How she resented the time he spent at the golf-course, and in the golf-club, while she sat bored and miserable on the beach. Was this what she had shattered convention for; broken with her family, her friends? Everything she had ever known; doomed herself to eternal damnation, for the sake of what she had believed would be heaven on earth, and had turned out to be hell, here and now? He was to remember Dirty Jew, and she the blow, while breath stayed in the body.

'Whore,' he cried. Well, she was not his wife, yet she slept with him. She lived in sin. What else but a whore did that make her; and what did her whoredom make of Ben? They couldn't be married. Her fault, not his. She was married already. When she was seventeen she had married a young army officer. He was nineteen. It was a year for early marriages. He'd gone off to the war and never come back. He'd deserted. He was last heard of in Hollywood, U.S.A., working in the movies. And that was that. The international divorce laws, she told herself (and Ben) were too difficult to face. At any rate, she did nothing about a divorce. Perhaps she was afraid of being free to marry Benjamin in case he did not, after all, want to marry her. Better to live with the guilty secret than the open truth of their life together—that they were bound by the habit of illicit lust, mutual degradation. His Jewishness, her Christianity.

'Drunk!' she cried, kicking him as he stooped to pick up his dented trophies. 'No-good, disgusting drunk!'

And indeed Lucy's Jewish lover, her piece of exotica, had turned into as boring a drunkard as ever graced the golf-courses and clubs of the Twenties, frittering away in alcoholic despondency the fruits of his father's and grandfather's labours. But of course he drank to excess: it was Lucy's fault: she had dragged him down: he should be married to some nice Jewish matron and his eldest son coming up to Bar Mitzvah.

Instead of that, what?

Praxis and Hypatia, crying on the stairs!

Little non-Jewish girls, no use for anything except, when the time came, screwing: good Jewish genes lost and diluted in the great amorphous pool of barbarous humanity: even their names out of nowhere, out of a culture so far gone as to be meaningless. Ben had made sure of that.

Praxis, meaning turning-point, culmination, action; orgasm; some said the Goddess herself.

Hypatia, a learned woman: stoned to death by an irate crowd for teaching mathematics when she should have stayed modestly at home. What did he want for them, hope for them? Anything?

Crying on the stairs, while their parents savaged themselves in each other's form.

'You had to come to me; no one else would have you. Idle cow,' he snarls. But who would have him? What decent Jewish family would allow a daughter to marry a drunken wastrel, with a degree in classics, and a reputation for arguing with rabbis, doubting the fundamentals of his faith, his eyes pink from alcohol, hands trembling after a night out at the gambling table, haggard from screwing barmaids and the like: no thank you. So what if he could trace his ancestry back to King David: no thank you! Drag yourself down, Benjamin, if you wish, but not our daughter too. And you from a good orthodox home, every privilege in the world, the best parents that ever lived, working their way over three generations from the East End to the grand suburban heights—for what? So that you could waste their hard-earned substance away?

Idle, profligate, ingrate. No one decent could ever want him.

'You don't care for your family at all,' she shrieked. 'Look at your poor little girls—you're destroying them with these scenes.'

But she makes no effort, herself, to get them back to bed. Let them witness her distress. Lucy is such a good mother: he knows she is: surely he will be aware, seeing this, that he had gone too far? No, she will not save them. She will use them as witnesses to his bad behaviour.

'Frigid bitch,' he seizes her hair, pulls back her head. He is strong: she is helpless: if he wishes to rape her, he could, he would. It is in the air. The little girls fall quiet: terror silences them. Ben makes love to Lucy, these days, with hatred, not with love. The love he feels for her (and he does) weakens him, softens him, makes him impotent. He feels it. She is far from frigid: she is ashamed of her response to his violence: frightened of being out of her own control—is she not a mother? And mothers must be on duty day and night.

'Animal,' she bares her teeth. She would crawl around on all fours, she would, the better to excite herself, and him.

'Oh, horrible!'

He forces her down upon the ground. Does he force her, or does she sink?

'Get out of here,' he shouts at his children, in so loud and frightening a voice that they flee, and Hypatia, much as she dislikes Praxis, allows her into her bed for the night, whereupon Praxis promptly wets the sheets and the mattress.

In the morning the mother, white-faced and wild-eyed, stripped the bed with angry movements. She did not let the maid do such things. It was her instinct to hide disgrace away.

Few visitors came to the house. Lucy did not care for Ben's loud-mouthed, hard-drinking friends. She feared he would tell them—perhaps had already told them, in drunken confidence—that they were not married, that she was a kept woman. It was one of the reasons she hated his drinking. That, and the soiled clothes, slack jaw, bleary eyes, and silly talk that went with it. Animal. Except it was to this gross animal nature of his that she was so humiliatingly inclined. Little Lucy, with her prim mouth, pale face, gentle eyes and delicate wrists, born to be degraded.

As for her own friends, she had moved away from them, lost touch with them. Her own family had cast her off: she was a source of trouble and shame to them. She was in no position either to make new friends, or renew old acquaintances. Imagine a tea-party, or lunch on the lawn, with Ben erupting into its midst, snorting his contempt up and down his hooked, avowedly Jewish nose.

'I see you're looking at my nose,' he was as like as not to shout. 'You're quite right. Can't you see I'm a Jew? Why don't you spit?'

Lucy was lonely.

Lucy dressed Praxis and Hypatia in white, and pattered them off to Sunday School, and slept apart from Ben, from time to time, to punish him. Punish herself more like. He fell into his drunken sleep and barely noticed.

It was all too much for him. No wonder he drank too much. Within a year of Henry overhearing of that one particular, worse than usual row, Ben had become enamoured of Ruth, the dark little waitress at the golf-club (where anti-semitic feeling ran high, but made an honourable exception for Ben, who was not only the only Jew they had ever encountered in person, but was universally liked), and presently ran off with her, and married her.

Ruth was free to marry; she was the daughter of a Jewish taxi-driver, made excellent beef sandwiches and her lowly social status was sufficient to keep Ben free from sexual anxiety and mental torment. He could love her, and make love to her, all at the same time. They were happy ever after.

Lucy was of course unhappy ever after, and so was Hypatia, and Praxis too.


Now what kind of memory is that to comfort anyone? The memory of the afflicted child one was: the knowledge of wrongs unrighted and wounds unhealed, the tearing pain of a past which cannot be altered? Unless of course I remember it wrongly, and it is my present painful and unfortunate state which casts such a black shadow back over what would otherwise be a perfectly acceptable landscape of experience? But I fear not.

I, Praxis Duveen, being old and scarcely in my right mind, now bequeath you my memories. They may help you: they certainly do nothing to sustain me, let alone assist my old bones to clamber out of the bath.

Last night, doing just that, I slipped on the soap and cracked my elbow. This morning the pain was such that I took the bus to the hospital, instead of to the park.

My erstwhile sisters, my former friends: I did what you wanted, and look at me now!

You have forgotten me.

Two years in prison have aged me two decades. I should not regret the new grey wiriness of my hair, the swollen veins in my legs, the huddling lumpiness of my figure, faded look in my watery eyes. But I do, I do. The eyes of the world look quickly past me, beyond me, and I am humiliated.

My fingers are stiff and sore with what I suppose to be arthritis. Writing has become painful. But I will write. I am accustomed to pain. And pain in the elbow, the fingers and, since my abortive journey to the hospital, pain in my stamped-upon toe, is nothing compared to that pain in the heart, the soul, and the mind—those three majestic seats of female sorrow—which seems to be our daily lot.

I do not understand the three-fold pain: but I will try. Perhaps it serves a useful purpose, if only as an indication that some natural process is being abused. I cannot believe it is a punishment: to have a certain nature is not a sin, and in any case who is there to punish us? Unless—as many do—we predicate some natural law of male dominance and female subservience, and call that God. Then what we feel is the pain of the female Lucifer, tumbling down from heaven, having dared to defy the male deity, cast out for ever, but likewise never able to forget, tormented always by the memory of what we threw away. Or else, and on this supposition my mind rests most contentedly, we are in the grip of some evolutionary force which hurts as it works, and which I fear has already found its fruition in that new race of young women which I encountered in the bus on the way to the hospital this morning, dewy fresh from their lovers' arms and determined to please no one but themselves. One of the New Women trod me underfoot and with her three-inch soles pulped my big toe in its plastic throw-away shoe (only I, unlike her, cannot afford to throw anything away, and am doomed to wear it for ever) causing me such fresh pain that when the bus broke down and we were all to be decanted into another, I lost heart altogether, abandoned the journey and limped home.

The New Women! I could barely recognise them as being of the same sex as myself, their buttocks arrogant in tight jeans, openly inviting, breasts falling free and shameless and feeling no apparent obligation to smile, look pleasant or keep their voices low. And how they live! Just look at them to know how! If a man doesn't bring them to orgasm, they look for another who does. If by mistake they fall pregnant, they abort by vacuum aspiration. If they don't like the food, they push the plate away. If the job doesn't suit them, they hand in their notice. They are satiated by everything, hungry for nothing. They are what I wanted to be; they are what I worked for them to be: and now I see them, I hate them. They have found their own solution to the three-fold pain—one I never thought of. They do not try, as we did, to understand it and get the better of it. They simply wipe out the pain by doing away with its three centres—the heart, the soul and the mind. Brilliant! Heartless, soulless, mindless—free!


Excerpted from Praxis by Fay Weldon. Copyright © 1978 Fay Weldon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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