Jonathan Gornall | The National - October 3, 2013
Helen Fielding (Illustration by Kagan Mcleod)
news this week that Mark Darcy, the dull love interest of fictional
everywoman Bridget Jones, had been killed off between the second and
long-awaited third volume of the British author Helen Fielding’s
trilogy has divided men and women everywhere.
When an extract from Mad About the
Boy was published last weekend in The Sunday Times, women
readers took to social media en masse to protest at the revelation that
the inexplicably yearned-after Darcy had been bumped off.
Men, on the other hand, who had been forced to sit through two
interminable Bridget Jones films, breathed a sigh of relief at the
demise of a po-faced dullard whose nice-guy schtick flew in the face of
everything they had been raised to believe that women, including
Bridget, wanted (bad boys, aka Daniel Cleaver).
But men, of course, were never the intended audience for Fielding’s
tales of the sorry singleton Bridget Jones, the “banana-skin girl”
who began life 18 years ago as a comic character in a British newspaper
column and who, in the shape of the actress Renée Zellweger, ended up
winning a worldwide female fan base on the silver screen.
Fielding has always denied that Jones is an autobiographical character
– but then she would, wouldn’t she?
The writer was born in 1958 in Morley, West Yorkshire, a market town
near Leeds that is built on seven hills (“like Rome”, states the
town’s Wikipedia entry, though a place less like the Italian capital
could scarcely be imagined) and the proceeds of the Victorian textile
Unlike many in the predominantly working-class northern town, Fielding
and her sister and two brothers were born into relative wealth – her
father was the managing director of a textiles factory, and a
private-school education was followed by studying English at Oxford.
After Oxford, Fielding joined the BBC as a researcher, but by 1985 had
graduated to producing a live BBC broadcast from a refugee camp in Sudan
for the first airing of the charity fund-raising effort Comic Relief.
Other television programmes from Africa followed, including more
broadcasts for Comic Relief and the documentary Where
Hunger is a Weapon, which she produced for British television.
By 1990, however, she had drifted out of television and stepped onto the
treadmill of freelance journalism, churning out decent if uninspired
stuff for a series of newspapers including The Independent, The
Sunday Times and The Telegraph.
For several months in 1990, for example, she found herself writing
articles for the motoring pages of The
Independent (“Helen Fielding sifts through the whacky and the
tacky and selects acceptable gifts for the car that has everything”).
Later, Fielding, who would describe herself as “absent-minded,
disorganised and insecure” – traits displayed by her future creation
– conceded to an interviewer that there was a considerable gulf
between the imagined perfection of her daily professional life and the
“I’d get down to work at 9am and then go out to lunch with someone
very smart. I would do more brilliant work in the afternoon and then go
out in the evening.”
In the real world, however: “Much time is spent searching for keys or
socks, trying to get up and trying to remember which newspaper I am
working for today.”
Inspiration, though, can lurk in strange places, and it was an article
that she wrote for The Sunday Times in 1992 that planted the seed
of a life-changing idea.
Following a notorious court case in which a killer had been exposed by
the entries in her own diary, Fielding wrote a light-hearted article
about how people felt compelled to keep a journal of their exploits.
Maybe this was even when the yet-to-be-created Bridget Jones first found
her voice. Midway through the article, Fielding illustrated her point
with a fictional diary entry, written by an imaginary murderous and
adulterous husband, written in a style that would soon become familiar
to millions of readers.
“Tuesday stabbed Binky to death that’ll teach him! Felt great. Hid
murder weapon in back of wardrobe. Wednesday, slept with wife’s
younger sister blimey! Hope she doesn’t find out!!’’
But Bridget was still awaiting her cue. Fielding’s first stab at
literature was a failed attempt to write a novel for the romance
publisher Mills & Boon.
“They said neither my character nor my story was up to the standards
demanded by the Mills & Boon reader,” she later told an
interviewer. “This was crushing, but I got back on that horse and
started my next book.”
That book, a novel called Cause
Celeb, found a publisher in 1994. Inspired by Fielding’s
experience of the western charity machine at work in Africa, it failed
to sell well but was nevertheless something of a prototype for Bridget
Like Bridget, its narrator-heroine worked for a publisher, where she
“wiggled around in short skirts, legs in sheer black tights crossing
and uncrossing in meetings, then kept going on about people not being
interested in my mind”. She, too, fell for a selfish cad but – guess
what? – she ended up with the nice guy.
Then Fielding had the sort of break that journalists dream about – the
offer of a weekly column on a national newspaper.
The Independent, keen to attract more female readers, wanted a
blow-by-blow account of Fielding’s own life as a single
thirtysomething living in London. Fielding (who was 37 when the column
first aired) baulked at putting her name on it, however, and on June 5,
1995, Bridget Jones’s fictional diary made its debut.
The column quickly gained a following among the paper’s readers.
Bridget’s chief concerns appeared to be her weight (“9st 3; vg ...
must lose half stone in order to put back on over Christmas”), smoking
(“almost New Year so no point giving up yet; better to smoke more, in
fact, in order to disgust self”), alcohol consumption (“units – 6;
v bad”) and men (“I feel a colossal failure. How can it be a proper
relationship if Daniel and I haven’t even been mini-breaking yet?”).
It wasn’t long before Fielding had been outed as the author of the
column, and her publishers quickly invited her to turn it into a book.
The hardback, published in 1996, made little impression, but then one of
those little miracles that publishers pray for blessed the paperback
reissue of the book the following year.
Critics were divided on whether Bridget Jones, with her utter reliance
on the approval of beastly men for her sense of self-worth, was
post-feminist, anti-feminist or (like Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, upon whom, with her small-minded concerns,
Bridget is loosely based) ante-feminist.
Get over it, said her supporters. It’s comic fiction. Hang on, said
her detractors; like all comedy, it’s funny because it contains more
than a grain of truth: this is the sad state into which modern women
have got themselves.
As one contemporary review in The
Sunday Times put it, the book may have been “gloriously funny ...
But you can’t help thinking that for young women to be so fixated on
being something other than themselves is one of the unforeseen
consequences of feminism”.
Nevertheless, on July 6, 1997, The Observer newspaper reported
that Bridget Jones’s Diary had popped up at number 15 in the UK’s
top 20 paperbacks, summarising its contents thus: “Calorie-counting
smoker staggers through working-life snake pit of London. Very funny.”
Bridget – and Fielding – was on her way. The book shot to the top of
the charts and became an international best-seller, and the rest, as
they say, is her-story. Post-, anti- or ante-feminist, Bridget Jones had
clearly struck a chord with thirtysomething singleton women everywhere,
and, in 1999, another book followed, with two films to match in its
It remains to be seen whether Fielding’s fans have grown up with her.
Seventeen years after the first book, like her (she’s 55) they will be
largely in their 50s now, an age at which the term “chick lit” seems
The author, at least, does still share certain characteristics with her
Fielding, who never married and is single after a long-term relationship
with The Simpsons producer Kevin Curran ended in 2009, has a
nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter.
Bridget, married to Darcy but widowed in circumstances yet to be
revealed, is also single again, with two children, Billy and Mabel, and
a toyboy to fret over.
Once, Fielding defined a generation. Has she done it again with Mad About the Boy? The jury of her peers is out.
“The problem is that Bridget doesn’t seem to have grown up despite
the seismic changes that her creator has bestowed on her,” wrote one
female critic after the extracts from the new book were published last
The new Bridget was “a thirtysomething singleton trapped in a
fiftysomething body. Has Fielding confused Darcy’s declaration that he
loved her ‘just the way you are’ with ‘stay the way you are’?
Would a 51-year-old single parent of two really be obsessed with
thigh-high boots and Twitter?”
Sadly – and, for Fielding, profitably – the answer may very well
prove to be yes. Two weeks before it was actually available, Mad
About the Boy had rocketed to the top of Amazon’s pre-order