It’s a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in possession of a fortune through writing, must have her latest book panned. I’m talking about the fact that Mad About The Boy by Helen Fielding has been slagged off by the right, left and centre press. It’s also the reason (probably) that JK Rowling changed her name for her last book.
I have to fess up that I’ve never read any Bridget Jones, apart from the odd diary entry in its original form in The Guardian , which I recall as being a bit boring and all about fags and weighing scales, yet this became the book that launched a 1000 chicks. So I guess, to those of us who write books about relationships in a comic and hopefully meaningful way, Fielding is our Alma Mater. Somewhere along the way, though, the meaningful bit got left out of much of what is called chick lit and Mad About The Boy does sound as if it has joined that club. I haven’t read it and don’t want to, but it seems Fielding had to kill the hero, Mark Darcy, in order to free up Bridget to go back and begin another desperate search for a replacement. But can she, as a 51 year old widow and mother, still faff about in the same ditzy way she did as a 35 year old?
There was a great article in The Guardian last Saturday (12.0.13) by Rachel Cooke looking at Fielding’s latest and bemoaning how singleton females are portrayed in fiction. She describes the mature Bridget like this: “If you met her in a pub, you might find yourself worrying about how she was going to get home, but you had nothing at all to say to her.” And: “… rather oddly for a novel that purports to be comic, it is shot through with a horrible, paralysing fear.” This fear is about not having a man or hanging on to a man. She then goes on to describe how this has been set up from Jane Austen onwards. “In Austen’s world, such anxiety is well-founded: the woman who has no fortune literally cannot hope to survive if she does not bag a husband.” However, are we really still doing this these days? I think we probably are, but only as an archaic fear system that where both men and women adopt patterns of behaviour and set roles, eg. breadwinner/all-powerful as opposed to needy/acquiescent. But these days? Really? Come on. Come on Bridget, you’re supposed to be a role model, of sorts.
Of course, Fielding is known for using Jane Austen’s plots, but why does she do this and invite the the comparison? I feel she’s reversed the dumming down, as nowadays many people consider Jane Austen to be chick lit. Aaaaagh! Actually, I did read and really enjoyed Fielding’s first book Cause Celeb, which had a much more satirical take on the narcissism of celebrity and the course of true love not being quite where you might expect it. It felt quite prophetic for its time.
However, fiction is all about conflict, so if we are writing about relationships — and many of us are, both men and women, it’s the stuff of life after all– then that conflict doesn’t come from happy families, but from the difficulty of making and maintaining decent relationships. And what this whole mature Bridget debate throws up, for me, is whether there is a market for writing about fifty something women looking for love anyway? Is that Fieldling’s real sin? Or maybe, as a 52 year old myself, I’m wondering if I could think up a better plot for a mature woman. I might have to think about that one. Watch this space.
I’d also like to state that I believe the best modern day Jane Austen is actually a man, Philip Hensher, (he’s also from Sheffield like me- Yey!). His detailed, witty accounts of the relationships and connections in small communities (The Northern Clemency, King of The Badgers) are wonderful and remind me of Austen’s advice to her writing niece:
Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on, and I hope you will do a great deal more, and make full use of them while they are so very favourably arranged.
Back to women, because also this week, of course, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Liiterature and there have been snipes about her being a bit of a lightweight, because she writes about the minutiae of relationships and is also more known for the short story form. How dare she? Actually, I haven’t read her stuff for years, but this makes me want to look at her stories again, as others will now too, no doubt. Then there’s Malala missing out on the Peace Prize. A girl shot because she wanted to be educated. Am I wrong in connecting all these things? That anything women do is slightly inferior, lesser, yet at the same time we shouldn’t be allowed to express ourselves. It might be dangerous, this holding of a pen? Is that why we dumb down our own work. Oh I just write chick lit. I have to say I am glad Malala didn’t win, because I think it’s putting too much on a young girl’s shoulders. She needs to express herself as she is, not be burdened with another set of rules and have to behave like some kind of guru. Go be as you are Malala.
“Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody. ”
― Jane Austen