This weekend I was lucky enough to attend a couple of talks at the Bath Festival – a marvellous event in a beautiful, historical city in the West of England. The festival had a great programme, but we could only pay a flying visit so went to just two of the highlights – but what a perfect, unimprovable combination they were.
I was going to say theywere two modern heroines for my generation, but eventually realized I had to say three: we saw author Helen Fielding, politician and now-author Harriet Harman – and then have to add in Bridget Jones herself. And of course skittering round the edges was the ghost of Jane Austen, for whom Bath had a great importance, in two of her novels as well as her life.
So: first we went to see
Bridget has featured several times on the blog, and in my Guardian articles too – click on the label below for more. As I said a long time ago:
Bridget Jones was the first, the original, the best. To categorize her as ChickLit is just wrong – the first book is extremely clever, extremely funny, and a true satirical comedy of manners. It’s as if Edith Wharton re-wrote House of Mirth for the 1990s, with Lily Bart allowed a modicum of happiness in an unforgiving society.The fact that her name is used as shorthand for a certain kind of ridiculous disparagement of women (see Mail Online) is infuriating, but, as Fielding says, it doesn’t matter in the end – the books are still in print still being read. Any woman with half a mind can see Bridget for the wonder that she is.
Our next engagement was with
Harman is a British Labour politican who came to the House of Commons in 1982 and has been there ever since. She was young and good-looking and pregnant when she arrived, and if anyone thinks the trolling of successful women came with the internet age, her story proves the opposite. She has been condemned and criticized endlessly – commentators said she was humourless, she was a mad feminist, that she was obsessed with political correctness, a bad mother and (of course) that she should go back in the kitchen where she belongs.
She kept on fighting and working for what she believes in, refusing to be cowed. Her recent autobiography, A Woman’s Work, is far and away the best political memoir I have ever read. That’s not actually setting the bar very high – most of them are self-serving claptrap – but her book is honest, riveting, real, and shot through with moments of self-doubt, and moments where she says she did the wrong thing. I was very active politically during much of the time she covers, so it was very familiar to me, but I think anyone interested in recent history would be delighted by it.
She should have been leader of the Labour Party, she should have been Prime Minister.
She says there is still a lot to do, but the list of her achievements (she would always be collegiate and say they were achievements of a team, or the party) is astonishing. To take one small example: in her maiden speech in the House of Commons she spoke about the need of good childcare for working mothers. She was mocked and disdained for this (by, it must be said, her own side too): the then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher simply sneered at the very idea that such arrangements were any business of government. Harman was treated as an idiot. Well, we’ve come a long way since then.
She was electrifying to hear talk – she argued passionately and convincingly in favour of positive discrimination if necessary, using all-women shortlists for candidate selection as her example. At the end she had a standing ovation – very rare for such an event. She really is an inspiration to everyone, not just women. It’s just a pity she didn’t become party leader.
For those of us with daughters: a capsule library of Harriet Harman, Bridget Jones and Jane Austen will go a long way. Role models all of them.