“It is extraordinary to me that Bridget Jones, which I started writing so casually as an anonymous newspaper column to make ends meet, is still being discussed 25 years later,” reflects Helen Fielding, author of the four Bridget Jones novels.
Twenty years after the cinematic release of Bridget Jones’ Diary, the pull of one of modern literature’s most unlikely heroines feels as if it has barely waned: such is the universality of Bridget’s story. Excitingly, there’s buzz about a new film, but how will she fare in a more socially-conscious era?
When Hugh Grant, Colin Firth and Renée Zellweger strode youthfully through Leicester Square for the film’s world premiere in 2001, their smiles beamed in from a pre 9/11, pre Me Too, pre social media age.
But a more modern outing was birthed in 2016 with Bridget Jones’ Baby, which gleaned good reviews, demonstrating the character’s relatability fifteen years on from the initial movie.
“When I was writing the novel of Mad About the Boy I always envisaged it as a movie,” says Helen of translating the fourth novel for the screen.
There are no confirmed details about the production as yet, or which stars would return to the series, although Bridget actor Renee Zelwegger has hinted that she’d be keen.
Reflecting on her 2013 bestselling novel, Helen believes “there are some definite movie-like set pieces, rather in the tradition of the old fashioned British rom-com.”
Yet the author believes the past year has left “a lot of uncertainty” around the type of films audiences want to watch. “I feel like many people are looking for escapism, romance and comedy,” she says of how the pandemic has left us in need of a light-hearted fix.
In Mad About The Boy, there is the potential for generous servings of all three. By now, Bridget is into her middle age, and has been widowed with a young child. Helen seems excited by the prospect of representing older women on screen as she has done in the book.
“There are still some terrible depictions of single older women in sitcoms and movies,” she says.
She remembers a storyline from Mad About The Boy which reflects her commitment to better represent older female characters. “It was particularly enjoyable to write a scene where Bridget turns up amongst these people at a party with her gorgeous younger boyfriend, who ends up ripping off his shirt and diving into a pool to save a drowning dog.”
″’Goodness! Is that your nephew?” to which Bridget replies, ‘No, that would be a very odd relationship.’”
Born in Morley in West Yorkshire in 1958, Helen went on to study English Literature at Oxford University alongside Richard Curtis, the Mr Bean, Vicar Of Dibley and Four Weddings writer, who she briefly dated.
After graduating in 1979, Helen worked as a journalist, including for The Independent, where she conceived the idea for Bridget Jones, writing under the pseudonym in a column for the paper in 1995. The first Bridget novel, Bridget Jones’ Diary, was published in 1996.
Now aged 63, these are experiences straight out of Helen’s life. “My actual experience with the women around me is that they are staying pretty much the same,” she realises. “Still finding the same things funny - and still sexual. I think there’s a big adjustment needed.”
Too often, she says, women are “presented as sad or irrelevant or annoying or delusional and non-sexually viable.”
“And on this last front there’s an outrageous imbalance with straight men,” she adds.
How about for thirty-somethings of today? “When I first wrote Bridget the fictional representation of a single girl in her 30s had not caught up with reality,” says Helen.
“Things are better on that front now,” she believes - but there’s still much work to do.
How about gender equality in the workplace these days? “Honestly – I think it’s better but it’s all still lurking.”
Helen recently reprised Bridget for a couple of lockdown columns published in The Times, in which she wrote that Bridget’s colleague Mr Fitzherbert would lose his job “no question” after ogling Bridget’s breasts so overtly. But have behaviours really changed so fundamentally?
“These things run deep,” says Helen of systemic prejudice against women. “Change takes a long time and we have to stand alert.”
How about the scourgeof social media, which pervades our lives in a much wider sense than the workplace? Has it made women more lonely than Bridget was in the 1990s or 2000s?
“No, not lonely,” believes Helen. “Paranoid perhaps, insecure, filled with FOMO, obsessed with presentation, burdened by expectation, crippled by inadequacy... but not lonely.”
Helen deleted her own social media accounts recently. “It’s enough to actually live life without presenting a running commentary on it,” she says - but there is one saving grace that has derived from social media: she believes memes have kept many of us sane over the past year.
“They have provided bonding through shared human frailty, struggle or despair and humour,” she says of the shareable joke images banded around online. “That’s real humanity and support.”
“One of my favourites is the clip of the mother gushing about how marvellous it’s been having the children, then when a voice says, “mummy!” She yells, “Fuck off!”
These days, when not sharing memes with her friends on WhatsApp, Helen’s been helping with the Covid effort in hospitals. “I became a total bore about immunology,” she says.
She confesses to “a giant crush on Anthony Fauci,” but stops short of saying whether she’s with anyone herself.
“I think the fact that I originally wrote Bridget under a pseudonym and anonymously because I wouldn’t want people to think she was me, allows me to continue to claim that I never drink and I am a virgin,” she jokes.
“I would never keep churning them out just for the sake of it. That would be too creepy.
It feels like comedy is an essential part of Helen’s outlook - inside and outside of the world of her fiction. During our interview, she inserts gags throughout.
She puts much weight on the value of her comedy writing, including convincing Hugh Grant to come back to the series.
“Write something really funny,” she quips, hinting at potential future novels.
How about more Bridget literature?
“I would never keep churning them out just for the sake of it. That would be too creepy. It would have to be because I just started writing something anyway which turned into Bridget and because I had something I really wanted to say.”
Given how surprised Helen has been by the ongoing success of Bridget over all these years, has she thought much about a legacy for the character? What might become of Bridget in, say, 100 years? Would she mind a remake?
How could she, when Bridget Jones’ Diary itself was inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy character is borrowed straight from the novel.
“It will be a bit like me stealing the plot of Pride and Prejudice to write Bridget Jones’ Diary,” she jokes.
“I told myself, ‘I don’t think Jane Austen would mind. And anyway, she’s dead.’”