Dictionary of Literary Biography

Helen Fielding

(1958 - )


Helen Fielding has the distinction among younger British novelists of having written an enormously popular book that has changed the English language and aroused an intense controversy over the needs and desires of modern women and the fate of feminism. It is remarkable that a comic novel written solely with the intention of amusing readers should have such a large impact. Bridget Jones's Diary (1996) was a best-seller in the United Kingdom, has been translated into many languages, and was published to acclaim in the United States as well. The 1999 sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, moved directly to the top of best-seller lists in Britain. While she had neither lofty ambitions nor deconstructionist intentions, Fielding patterned the plots of her two Bridget Jones novels on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Persuasion (1817), thus contributing to the modern trend - both among feminist authors such as Emma Tennant and Fay Weldon and in the cinema - to re-envision and revise Austen.


Born in Morley, Yorkshire, Fielding is the daughter of a mill owner and a homemaker. She attended a girls' school and then went to Oxford, where she read English at St. Anne's College and received her B.A. in 1979. In a 31 May 1998 profile for The Observer (London), Robert Yates observed that while Fielding is hardly working class, she "could come on as the plain-speaking northerner whenever her contemporaries at Oxford threatened to get lost in pretensions." Yet, Fielding's views on Yorkshire are not always flattering either. The most repellent character in any of her books is television magnate Vernon Briggs in Cause Celeb, who tries unsuccessfully to pass off his greed, racism, and retrograde sexual attitudes as Yorkshire bluffness.


At Oxford, Fielding was reportedly a good, though not obsessively conscientious, student, interested in acting. After graduation she went to work in production for the BBC and contributed to current-affairs programs such as Nationwide, and to Playschool, a children's show. She also produced segments for Comic Relief, a widely successful televised appeal for African famine relief. Her work for this program was the stimulus for her first novel, Cause Celeb (1994), set amid African suffering. Having always wanted to be a writer, she moved to The Sunday Times (London), where she began contributing a personal column but resigned because of editorial interference with her copy. After attempting to sell a novel to Mills and Boon, publishers of romance fiction, and collaborating on a comical book about sex, Who's Had Who: In Association with Berk's Rogerage: An Historical Register Containing Official Lay Lines of History From the Beginning of Time to the Present Day (1987), Fielding wrote Cause Celeb, based not only on her experiences in Africa with Comic Relief, but also more generally on her knowledge of the London media world. The novel contrasts the two settings. Rosie Richardson is a relief worker in an African country that resembles Sudan, in charge of a refugee camp for families who have fled the civil war in neighboring Kefti. She came to Africa four years earlier on a "mission of mercy" invented as a publicity ploy by her employer, partly to escape and partly to impress her demanding, selfish, inconsiderate, and inattentive celebrity lover, Oliver March, the presenter of a televised arts program. (In a pattern that is repeated in the Bridget Jones novels, Rosie tolerated his mistreatment of her and seemed inclined to blame herself ).


As the novel opens, rumors begin to reach the camp about the impending arrival of thousands of new starving refugees, and, after other attempts to secure aid fail, Rosie decides to go back to London and enlist celebrities in a fund-raising program televised from Africa. Marchand agrees to help her, though not without exasperating demands, and eventually he arranges a broadcast that will originate in London with cut-in portions broadcast live by satellite from Africa. Though donations flood in, there is no artificially upbeat ending. Scores of the Africans die of starvation, and relief efforts begin to suffer from the short attention span or compassion fatigue of the British audience. Yet, the novel brings its various strands to satisfactory conclusions: Rosie frees herself from the allure of Oliver, finds a better man, and demonstrates how her time in Africa has made her a deeper and more serious person than the shallow media celebrities whose narcissism and other foibles the novel relentlessly and inventively satirizes.


Cause Celeb is an impressive first novel. Writing for The Independent (13 August 1994), Harriet Paterson praised its satire as "sharp, gutsy, and refreshing" and said that "Fielding confidently treads the sticky path of exercising her wit on those who deserve it without being flip about those who don't"; and Maggie Traugott in The Independent on Sunday (31 July 1994) saw that "juxtaposing the haves of London with the have-nots of Africa without pontificating or pathos is one of the things Helen Fielding pulls off so dextrously in this debut novel." Though the novel is funny, Fielding may well have been most interested in the sympathetic treatment of important issues. For her next novel she planned a satire about economic problems on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent (a book she still expects to complete).


In 1995, however, Fielding was invited to contribute a column to The Independent (London). Joining the sizable group of single women writing personal columns daunted her because of her unwillingness to reveal too much about herself. In 1997 she told Lydia Slater that she created a fictional persona, "an imaginary amalgam of insecurities," because: "If you write as yourself, you can't help but want people to like you. If you write as somebody else, you can be honest about the secret, stupid, shameful things..."


Fielding did consult some of her old diaries and was surprised to find that they frequently included information about calories and drinking - a discovery that helped to dictate the unusual form of Bridget Jones's Diary. A typical entry begins: "St. 12, alcohol units 2 (V.G.), cigarettes 11 (g.) calories 1850, job offers from fire service or rival TV stations 0 (perhaps not altogether surprising)." This interest in weight, smoking, and drinking alcohol are a constant, providing a gauge of Bridget's emotions, particularly about men.


The popularity of the column led to publication of the book version, a novel that sold more than a million and a half copies in Britain and had surprising sales and critical success in other countries. A motion-picture version is scheduled for release in 2001, with Renée Zellweger in the title role and Colin Firth (whom Bridget interviews in the sequel) as Mark Darcy.


Fielding's two Bridget Jones novels place her in the tradition of comic-diary fiction, a well-established genre in England. Perhaps the best-known example is George and Weedon Grossmith's The Diary of a Nobody (1892), the story of nonentity Mr. Charles Pooter, which was originally published periodically in Punch. Other successful examples include Sue Townsend's series of diaries of the self-absorbed teenager Adrian Mole, beginning with The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 (1982) and continuing through Adrian Mole: The Cappucino Years (1999). The satirical magazine Private Eye regularly publishes fictional diary features, including "The Secret Diary of John Major Aged 47 3/4," while Major was prime minister. Keith Waterhouse has written two "sequels" to The Diary of a Nobody, including Mrs. Pooter's Diary (1983). There are technical advantages and disadvantages to the diary form; it lends itself perfectly to suspense and dramatic irony, but occasionally requires improbabilities such as Bridget's writing "Oops" when she falls drunkenly, or "GAAA" in frustration. The original newspaper-column format of Fielding's novels limited the length of diary entries and created a somewhat episodic structure for the novels.


Bridget Jones's situation is full of opportunities for humor. She is single and living alone, working at first in book publishing and later for a television company. She interacts most honestly and satisfyingly with her two friends Jude and Shazzer and her gay friend Tom, and, like Rosie Richardson, she is interested in the wrong man, in this case Daniel at work, with whom she exchanges spicy e-mail messages. Meanwhile, her parents and their friends worry about her future, and her mother tries to find dates for her. Her mother's newest candidate for Bridget is Mark Darcy, an old family friend.


Through vicissitudes-including a pregnancy scare, weight worries, and her mother's midlife crisis (during which she runs off with a Portuguese lothario) - Bridget eventually works out that the right man for her is really Mark Darcy, and the novel ends with them in bed together, after he has succeeded in bringing her errant mother back from Portugal.


The parallels with Pride and Prejudice are obvious (signaled, for instance, by the use of Darcy as the name of the hero) but not heavily underlined. Like Austen's Elizabeth Bennet, Bridget is prejudiced against her Mr. Darcy, as well as having a prior attachment to an unsuitable man, and Mark Darcy helps to extricate Bridget's family from a humiliating situation, as Fitzwilliam Darcy does for the Bennets in Austen's novel.


Among the other satisfactions of Fielding's novel are its lively and crisp use of language. Bridget's friends are "singletons" who suffer from the slights of "Smug Marrieds." The mental suffering that their boyfriends inflict on them is called "fuckwittage."


Despite its unprepossessing beginnings and Fielding's modest refusal to make claims for its literary merit, Bridget Jones's Diary provoked a strong response from reviewers, who found it realistic, representative, and honest. Many reviews, and letters to the author, declared that she had identified how women, particularly single women in their thirties, really think, feel, and behave. Writing for The Boston Globe (26 October 1998), Maureen Dezell called the novel a "deftly executed urban comedy of manners," and reported that "in every city she [ Fielding] visited - 'even New York!' - lawyers, commodities traders, and editors wearing expensive hairstyles and smart suits approached her to say: 'I am Bridget Jones!'" In The New York Times (1 February 1998), Warren Hoge quoted Fanny Blake, a specialist on the publishing industry, as saying: "What we're seeing now is the growth of a brave new women's fiction humorously and realistically addressing themes recognizable to women trying to make their way in their 20s and 30s: often career women with disposable income, unable to find either a heterosexual man or anything in the fridge."


In 1998, however, Decca Aitkenhead, a columnist for The Guardian, expressed concerns about the example Bridget Jones sets for women: "It's depressing that such a good writer confirms all of men's suspicions. Bridget might be talking about Sierra Leone, but it's only to impress the man in the corner. Her real concern is her skirt, and getting off with him." There has been some attempt to blame Fielding for the rise of books such as Arabella Weir's Does My Bum Look Big in This" (1997) - which is, in fact, the sort of question Bridget often ponders. In The New York Times (14 June 1998), Alex Kuczynski began an article with "Bridget Jones makes me ill" and then contended, "Ms. Fielding constructs her heroine out of every myth that has ever sprung from the ground of Cosmopolitan and television sitcoms. To wit, that men are, in the words of one character, 'stupid, smug, arrogant, manipulative and self-indulgent'; that women are obsessed with boyfriends, diets and body hair, and that every emotional reversal is cause for a chocolate binge." Charging Fielding with basing her comedy on "the premise that being neurotic is cute," Kuczynski complained: "Yes, yes, I know 'Bridget Jones' is satire, a sassy spoof of urban manners. But Bridget is such a sorry spectacle, wallowing in her man-crazed helplessness, that her foolishness cannot be excused."


When Ashton Applewhite brought up such criticism in an interview, Fielding responded by pointing out the number of superficial "male comic heroes. Take Bertie Wooster, from P. G. Wodehouse - we don't take him as a symbol, as a state of manhood. We've got to be able to have comic heroines without being so terribly anxious about what it says. We're not equal if we're not allowed to laugh at ourselves."


In 1998 Fielding moved her column to The Daily Telegraph (London), and in 1999 she published Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. While Bridget Jones's Diary follows Pride and Prejudice in leaving the heroine happily in the arms of her own Mr. Darcy, the sequel is patterned on Persuasion, in which lovers are parted and finally reunited after heart-breaking misunderstandings and disruptions. Bridget's daily concerns are familiar to the reader of the earlier novel. She has uncertainties about her love life, now exacerbated not only by conversations with her friends but by a new addiction to self-help books such as Beyond Co-Dependency with a Man Who Can't Commit. She has a job that does not challenge her much or receive her full attention. A new element in this novel is married friend Magda's adventures with toilet training. Her telephone conversations are now always interrupted by her attentions to her toddler: "Bridget, hi! I was just ringing to say in the potty! In the potty! do it in the potty!" Concerns about aging and being single continue for Bridget, along with her righteous contempt for such concerns: "Wish Jude would not talk about biological clock in public. Obviously one worries about such things in private and tries to pretend whole undignified situation isn't happening. Bringing it up in 192 [a bar] merely makes one panic and feel like a walking cliche."


Readers who object to Bridget's helplessness (whether "learned" or innate) are likely to find much to object to in this book, in which she permits a builder to make an enormous hole in the outside wall of her flat and leave it open, covered only by polythene sheets, for months. She also manages to be arrested in Thailand on a drug charge from which only Mark Darcy can help her escape. Likewise, though she is a reporter on a current-affairs television program, her attempts to discuss politics reveal her ignorance and lack of seriousness. When she discovers that Mark is a Tory, she retorts: "The point is you are supposed to vote for the principle of the thing, not the itsy-bitsy detail about this per cent and that per cent. And it is perfectly obvious that Labour stands for the principle of sharing, kindness, gays, single mothers and Nelson Mandela as opposed to braying bossy men having affairs with everyone shag-shag-shag left, right and centre and going to the Ritz in Paris then telling all the presenters off on the Today programme."


Nevertheless, the comic quality of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason holds up well. The writing is crisp; the plotting, even if more exotic than in the first book, is clever; and Fielding contributes another useful neologism to the English language: "mentionitis," which is the suspicious condition "when someone's name keeps coming up all the time, when it's not strictly relevant: 'Rebecca says this' or 'Rebecca's got a car like that.'"


In an interesting exploration of the life/art confusion that has plagued Fielding since the publication of Bridget Jones's Diary with the persistent questions about whether she actually is Bridget, Fielding incorporates an event from her life in the second novel. Fielding once interviewed actor Colin Firth as Bridget Jones and found, she told Slater in 1997, that "I could ask all sorts of questions I'd never have dared to if it'd been me, like whether being called Colin was a disadvantage and whether, instead of his Italian fiancee [now wife], he shouldn't be going out with someone who was English and more his age." In the novel Bridget interviews Firth, who interests her primarily because he played Mr. Darcy in the 1995 television version of Pride and Prejudice. Bridget and her friends have obsessively replayed the part of that program in which he emerges from a pond in tight white trousers, and in her interview Bridget innocently confuses him with the role, cross-examining him about the pond scene and eventually telling him that she thinks he is "exactly like Mr Darcy" - because he looks like him and talks like him. Such confusion of actor and role is inexcusable from a journalistic point of view, and she is ridiculed at her office. Yet, the office is itself ridiculous; in passages reminiscent of the satire on celebrity culture in Cause Celeb, her commissioning editor, Richard, regularly invents silly projects for the television show, usually making inane comparisons: "I'm thinking bunny girl, I'm thinking Gladiator, I'm thinking canvassing MP, I'm thinking Chris Serle meets Jerry Springer meets Anneka Rice meets Zoe Ball meets Mike Smith off the Late, Late Breakfast Show."


Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason has received mixed reviews. In the Sunday Times (21 November 1999), Lynne Truss maintained that the novel is "funnier and more accomplished than the original diary, and in fact takes recognition humour into a new dimension." Noting the parallels with Austen's Persuasion, she added that "the theme of persuasion also gives the book an underlying seriousness, although naturally I hesitate to mention it. Bridget has no meddling Lady Russell to spoil her life [as Anne Elliot did in Persuasion], but she has the modern, comic equivalent which is, in its results, quite as bad-a set of loyal single mates (Jude and Shazzer), who are all addicted to 37 varieties of self-help books... and consider it their duty to gang up against any invading man from Mars."


Other reviewers have detected the same faults in Bridget Jones as they found in the earlier book, accusing it as presenting a young woman as needy, obsessed with getting a man, and not serious enough. Reviewing the book for the 2 December 1999 Herald (Glasgow), Lesley McDowell judged that the "longer, more absurd sequel has meant a thinly-spread, less realistic Bridget Jones, a sub-Peter Pan it's harder to believe in." In a 24 November 1999 review for The Independent ( London), Louisa Young agreed that Bridget has not matured in the second novel, but wrote: "She's reassuring because even though she hasn't grown up, I have. I can look back and laugh... And that is what Bridget Jones is for... She's no role model-she never was."


Helen Fielding seems to have solved the problems attendant on following a well-received novel with a sequel. Presumably she can carry Bridget Jones on for as long as she wishes, but in interviews she continues to discuss her plans for the novel about the economic problems in the Caribbean and, more definitely, the movie version of Bridget Jones's diary. Having originally invented Bridget as a character about whom she wanted to write a sitcom, she has been involved in writing the script, though she now says that there are "quite a few" working on it.


Fielding is modest about her literary ambitions and secretive about her personal life. It is known that she is unmarried and lives in London. Whatever she does next, she must be recognized as having created one of the most original characters of the 1990s in British fiction and given voice to beliefs and feelings to which thousands of women have responded.


Dictionary of Literary Biography. ©2005-2006