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Leeds Lit Fest Review: ‘In Conversation with Helen Fielding’ 08/03/20

By Alice Browne and Emily Jones

Image credit: USA Today

In celebration of International Women’s Day, Leeds Lit Fest invited writer and journalist Helen Fielding to The Carriageworks Theatre to discuss her life, inspirations and writing career. Best known for creating well loved 90s ‘every woman’ Bridget Jones, a character earning her three books and films, Fielding’s work helped to define an era of British pop culture.

During the interview, Fielding partially attributes the novel’s (and subsequent film’s) success to this desire for an ‘every woman’. She explains that as she began to invent the character, an exaggerated version of herself for a column in The Independent, she noticed a gap in what she, and women like her were reading- women like them. ‘Women like them’ being 30 something year old, perfectly average, young professionals living and existing alone, in an era of glossy magazines, crash diet culture and celebrity weddings.

On stage, Helen creates an instant sense of ease amongst the audience. Her responses are cut with a dry sense of humour as she quips that, in our current climate, situations like Bridget’s sound almost idyllic. Her own flat, car and a job in publishing sounds like the dream now, raising the question of whether society’s view on single women has truly improved, or have our overall prospects just been limited?

As she credit’s this humour to her northern roots, it becomes noticeable that a lot of what she says is littered with memories of growing up in Yorkshire, specifically Morely, and attending Wakefield Girls High School. She emphasises the cultural value of the north, something ignored by those in government for decades now, giving the audience a knowing look as she says ‘supposedly things are supposed to be improving now’ as she’s met with cheers. When posed by a question from the audience as to whether she thought about making Bridget a northerner, however, she laughs it off. ‘I can’t have any more people thinking she’s me!’.

It’s impossible to appreciate the legacy of Bridget Jones, however, without reflecting on it by today’s standards. It is undeniable that there are valid and complex debates surrounding the issues of Bridget’s weight, something I feel was not, and could not be, fully explored in this talk. However, when asked about criticism claiming Bridget is ‘anti-feminist’, Helen becomes thoughtful and tentative. She makes the rightful point that, although Bridget was intentionally relatable, she was never intended to speak on behalf of every woman everywhere.

Furthermore, the book works as an account for her innermost thoughts, fuelled by neuroticism and insecurity- something that even the most ‘woke’ of audiences fall victim to. As she goes on to say that it takes an incredible strength to laugh at yourself in these moments, her justified passion in defending Bridget’s shortcomings becomes clear.

In both the transcending relatability of her work and her warm yet insightful presence on stage, the event made for a fitting way to celebrate International Women’s Day as a celebration of the imperfection and humour found in the female experience.

By Alice Browne

To end Leeds Lit Fest I attended the event ‘In Conversation with Helen Fielding’. This was a great event to attend on International Woman’s Day, and was also being filmed by the BBC to feature in a documentary about Fielding. Fielding is certainly an inspiration for twenty-first century women - arguably the modern day Jane Austen. She bridges the gap between how a woman is supposed to feel and how she actually feels; Bridget Jones is the “everywoman”. She really is what Fielding referred to as “a woman’s real response to the real world”. Starting off as a newspaper column, her writing became popular before it was adapted to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and became an international success.

For all of us, Bridget is more than just a character. For example, Bridget featured on the 2016 ‘Woman’s Hour Power List’ as ‘one of the seven women who’ve changed women’s lives’, along with Margret Thatcher and Germaine Greer. Her character is likeable and relatable, having the power of connecting every woman. Everyone knows a Bridget or sees Bridget’s characteristics in themselves. Helen identified that she was writing in the evolution of social media, starting with the 1990’s magazine culture that featured the likes of ‘Cosmopolitan’ that fed into the “global epidemic of insecurity and lack of confidence”. She comments on how this played into Bridget’s anxiety, highlighting the insecurities of the “everywoman” through the comedy in Bridget counting how many units of alcohol she consumed and cigarettes she smoked. Helen said the support system Bridget has from her friendship with Shazza, Jude and Tom opposes the anxiety created from the media.

Criticisms were also addressed in the conversation. Fielding responded to the question regarding her work being labelled as ‘anti-feminist’. Her response was fabulous; “If we are not strong enough to laugh at ourselves, then we haven’t come very far then have we?”. For Fielding, Bridget did not need to say that she was a feminist to be one. She also shared stories of fans approaching her to challenge her decision (spoiler alert!) to kill off Mark Darcy. She laughed and said “Bridget cannot be ‘smug married!’”.

Helen was very likeable and, as a literature student, I felt like I could connect with her. Her advice on writing was very helpful, suggesting to “write as if you are writing for a friend”. Without pressure we write what is natural, which is difficult when you are writing pieces that are marked for your degree! This was a highly informative and engaging event and I would highly recommend researching Helen and re-watching or reading ‘Bridget Jones’.

By Emily Jones