Before meeting Helen Fielding, mastermind behind the woman in Britain love more than the Queen (Bridget Jones, obviously), preparation was in order. With true dedication to the craft of method journalism, I spent a long days submersed in a thick pink fog of chick-flicks, period dramas, power-pop albums and ‘female orientated literature’ (…browsing the Mills & Boone Shelf in Borders). So it was I skipped to the Oxford Union to meet the duchess of Chick-lit herself.
Fielding, a St Annes English graduate, first gave birth to Bridget in the form of a column for the independent in 1995. Millions of housewives took up the Bridget-banner in response, eventually giving rise to two best-selling novels, which in turn became best-selling films. Presumably this is news to no one though.
Fielding walks into the room, with a small entourage of those chosen to have dinner with the fine woman. My immediate thought is what it was they did to get in there. My photographer suggests the unifying factor amongst applications was using the sentence ‘I am Bridget Jones’.
Which is the charm. Bridget is the ultimate everywoman. And so is Fielding. Like all good speakers, she’s an extremely likable woman. She stands to applause after the usual Union introduction, and tells the story of the first ever reading/signing she did for Bridget Jones; the one where two people turned up, one of which was someone she kissed at school. How far she’s come!
One of the most valuable things about hearing Fielding speak, and chatting to her afterwards, is the advice she offers to aspiring writers and word-scientists at Oxford. Fielding began her career as a journalist working for the BBC in Bristol. Finding her feet through reportedly similar experiences to those of Bridget herself, she went on to spend extensive time in Africa; experience that helped form her early novel Celeb. She went on to work for the Sunday Times, before leaving over an objection with an editor and moving to the Independant.
She feels that the experience she gained here definitely contributed to her eventual success. She talks about how journalism crafted her writing style; routine things like rewriting always makes a piece better, keeping your sentences short and sharp, and general functional, writing. Wise words.
She also has something to say for anyone feeling the Oxford grind might not be worth as much as it seems to be; Fielding makes a reference to a period of writing ‘12-18 hours a day’. Someone questions this, and she credits it to her weekly essay crisis-wake up at 5am and ‘write and smoke and smoke and smoke’ until the tute that evening. At the same time, this isn’t something she actually reccomends. On Oxford; ‘I remember worrying a lot of the time…Worrying that I wasn’t doing enough work. Which was ridiculous; of course I wasn’t doing enough work’.
Later, on getting into the industry itself, she offers some of the best advice I’ve come across yet; ‘I would think about what you can offer a newspaper. And [for students] that’s youth! Find a story or feature idea and do it!’. She trails off, possibly bemused at how intensely the wannabee journalist is listening; ‘Don’t make it too long…oh, and put the worst bit at the end, that’s the bit that always gets cut’.
Fielding speaking on the craft of writing is a fascinating experience. Before meeting her, I’d carried around the assumption that she wrote with the intent of righting wronged women and disparaging men everywhere which turns out to be exactly the ‘feminist’ view she derides. Clearly I’d mis-judged her style. It was with some regret then when I ask why she always goes for happy endings. All I get is the same bemused smile and ‘I like happy endings’. I pause, and she elaborates ‘I think the thing about happy endings is that they always satisfy me. I mean, Jane Austen always had a happy ending.’
The Jane Austen comment is a reference to a moment during her talk. When doing my usual whip-round of friends asking what they thought would be good to bring up in the interview, one joke was asking whether she thought Jane Austen would mind that she was rewriting her plots. Oddly enough, she said exactly the same thing to the room. Someone asks if she finds herself inspired by any particular writers; ‘Jane Austen more than inspired me because I just stole all her plots’.
Back to the lack of pretension: Fielding still seems so surprised at how well everything has turned out. One of the first questions from the floor is ‘Are you Bridget Jones?’. ‘I used to feel like I was carrying a sign around my neck saying ‘I’m not Bridget Jones’. Everyone asked that. Although actually it is quite autobiographical!’. The main surprise was how widespread the agreement was; ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ has sold over two million copies worldwide. What did it? ‘I think that Bridget touched the chord of it being alright to be human’.
An important message these days. You’re not about to read another diatribe about image presented by magazines; it’s bad in all the obvious ways. Between lifestyle magazines and a range of self-help books, we’ve all got so many places to turn to in search of happiness. Fielding describes them as ‘a modern religion’. I ask what she thinks about the magazine industry, and whether there’s any value in having that image thrown at us. ‘I think it’s fine if you read them alongside a good self-help book’. I have absolutely no idea if she’s being serious or not. But either way she probably has a point. Throw in a copy of Bridget and you could end up with a holy trinity of moral guidance.
Not wanting to lose the oppurtunity to abuse the potential of some startling insights into the female mind, I push for tips on just what women want from the woman more qualified to answer than any. I ask what the most romantic thing a man has ever done for her is.
‘What’s the nicest thing a man has done for Bridget…There was one quite funny thing. The girls were completely drunk and we were ranting about the men who are bastards. And Daniel suddenly turned up freakishly, for once in his life being the perfect boyfriend. With chocolates, and being all considerate and nice. Just as we had been saying all men were bastards’. Hmm. Not bad, but I was hoping for something more specific.
I’m more upfront; Any tips for the Cherwell readers looking to please their girlfriends this weekend?
‘I think what’s interesting about today is that everyone is so defensive now. All this texting, emailing, there are so many barriers to everything. Better just to talk. I think that…..I think girls like compliments.’ Then she thinks. Her face turns michevious. ‘Well, I can think of a rather obvious way to make their girlfriends happy this weekend; I’m sure they know that already!’ Point taken.