The 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 industry.
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 chaotic reality.
“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 Jones’s Diary.
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 wake.
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 less appropriate.
The author, at least, does still share certain characteristics with her fictional creation.
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 week.
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 charts.
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