I’m thrilled to be here. I flew from LA to London, and then to Delhi; where I got into a taxi and fell asleep. I opened my eyes hours later in the middle of all the forts, palaces, sight and sounds of Jaipur. Wow, I’m in India,” said Helen Fielding excitedly, a little after her first session at the recently-concluded Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. The venue was packed with fans of Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996), and Fielding, 59, talked about her iconic novel about a clumsy but adorable 30-something young woman in London, who wobbles her way through the professional world while trying to make sense of her love life. It had been a long day for her, and while she looked great in a white dress, Fielding didn’t want to be photographed. But she was happy to talk about Bridget and that was fine with us. Excerpts from a conversation:
Bridget Jones began as a column in The Independent in 1995. Did you always know that it would be in the form of a diary?
The Independent wanted a column, so it was always going to be written in the first person. I’m quite private, and didn’t want it to be about my life, so I used a fictional character I’d been working on instead. I remembered my university diaries which were quite funny when I looked back on them — almost no social engagements, just lists of food with the calories next to them. So, I thought I’d use that as a comic device.
Lists and reminders seem to be good markers of how we spend our lives now.
I had a theory at the time about how women spend so much time trying to control themselves — their intake, their bodies — whereas men try to control external things. Nick Hornby’s books, High Fidelity and Fever Pitch, came out at a similar time and his male characters made lists of favourite songs, teams and scores. I thought women try to organise themselves internally, while men try to organise the rest of the world.
You’ve said one of your favourite lines from the first book is: ‘There’s nothing more unattractive to a man than a strident feminist.’ How do you feel about that line in the light of #MeToo?
That line has always got me into trouble with solemn feminists who don’t get that it is a joke and an ironic one. I think it’s still relevant — being a feminist, and a sexual creature who finds men attractive is still complicated.
For all those who think that Bridget Jones’s Diary is not a feminist book, they’re missing the irony. Would you say that irony could be feminism’s weapon of choice?
I think humour is a good coping mechanism. At one point in my life, I worked in East Africa as a journalist. We filmed a nomad in the Red Sea Hills of Sudan, talking very movingly about the dire situation his people were facing after a drought. We were all in tears. Once the camera stopped rolling, he said, like a total luvvie, ‘How did I do?’ (laughs) Humour is a universal way of showing resilience.
Bridget’s often been attacked over the years for laughing at herself, and therefore, all women.
I know, and it’s ridiculous. Men create comic, flawed, fictional characters all the time. No one says, ‘Oh no! PG Wodehouse is not a masculinist!’ Women are not a minority, and if we can’t laugh at ourselves, we haven’t gotten very far at being equal, have we?
I think the current movement against sexual harassment, misconduct, and years of bullying and belittling of women in the workplace is a massively needed correction. At the same time, it’s important to be rational and fair. There are some decent, kind men in the entertainment business, who have behaved in a respectful manner throughout their careers, who are now looking back and panicking, and worrying about asking a colleague to meet over a cup of coffee.
One of the things that really struck a chord with readers of the books is the bit about ‘urban families’. The UK now has a Minister of Loneliness, and it would appear that in the age of social media, more than ever, singletons need urban families.
I think it’s not just singletons who are lonely. What’s very heartwarming for me about how people continue to relate to Bridget is that she is, in a way, celebrating kindness, community, support for your friends and family, whether a blood family, or a created family, and admitting to vulnerability and the need for support.
Bridget is kind to her friends and her friends like her — it enforces the fact that she’s a good person, and balances out the self-absorption which comes from the diary form. I think that’s increasingly important in the age of social media which often, rather than giving a sense of community, gives a sense of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).
Last question, why was it important to kill off Mark Darcy in your last book, Mad About the Boy (2013)?
I’d like to make it clear that I didn’t actually murder anyone. His death was on the BBC News, and someone came out of a pub yelling at me, ‘You’ve MURDERED Colin Firth!’. Mr Darcy is actually a fictional character, and Firth is still alive, and still delicious.
I write stories and that’s just what happened in the story. But I think, subconsciously, what happened was that Bridget needed to be single for me to write about her. Darcy was the quintessential gentleman, he would have never willingly left her alone with two children. So that was the only way I could make the new story work. Also, as it progresses, life has both dark and light notes. Comedy always comes from difficult or painful things at its roots, and it’s always interesting for me to try and write comedy in a tragic situation. When people, in the early days, complained that Bridget Jones was too silly, I did point out that my first book, Cause Celeb, was a satire set in a refugee camp. But nobody bought that one.