Lancashire Times
A Voice of the North
Features Writer
6:07 AM 28th August 2020

'Women Are From Venus': Joanna Trollope And Helen Fielding

I have long loved the novels of Joanna Trollope and have read most of them. She seems to understand the female mind, the insecurities and needs, the passion, the almost contradictory longing for relationships and independence, the importance of family, the love of home, and the inherent nesting instinct. Rarely, in my view, has any writer shown such empathy with the female psyche.

I think I read The Rector’s Wife first and I loved it. Anna Bouverie is the frustrated wife of the local Rector of a small parish church in rural England for whom the continual giving, smiling and sacrificing begins to weigh like a huge stone on her chest, especially as her once beloved husband now seems to see her only as an unpaid administrative assistant. It all becomes too much for Anna and …. no,you’ll have to read it for yourself!

That novel was Trollope in her prime, a well-paced narrative with credible characters, for whom you could feel and with whom you could identify. It made me both laugh and cry. The Best of Friends, Other People’s Children and The Other Family all explored the sort of relationships which really exist between people, between friends, families and extended families, complicated and delicate as they are. And Trollope rarely gives you a truly satisfactory ending – life is not a fairy tale – but the finale is usually thought-provoking at least.

So, when I found City of Friends in mum’s house, on that pile destined for the charity shop, I snaffled it as one I had not read and quickly settled down to engross myself in Trollope’s world once more.

Four friends, their lives, their families and their relationships, have grown and developed since their days at university. From being as close as girlfriends often are, sharing everything, they have all followed lucrative careers and their love lives, with varying degrees of happiness.

The book opens with Stacey losing her highly paid, powerful position because she dared to ask for a flexible working arrangement so she could look after her ailing mother. A dramatic start, with a contemporary understanding of the principle that women in positions of power are still expected to cope with domestic crises in a way the modern world does not, even now, seem to expect of men.

That element of a woman trying to succeed in a man’s world is sustained to a degree, but the conflict becomes a little mundane – domestic, I suppose. I could understand why Gaby and Melissa both felt guilty about the secrets they harboured but they weren’t earth shattering. It was the sort of thing we might worry about in real life, thinking we may have hurt someone by not being wholly honest and certainly not relishing the conversation which will inevitably have to take place, but if I am truthful, there was not really enough drama or conflict to inflame any real passion in me. The teenage angst of the offspring was nothing more than that - mild teenage angst - and the lesbian relationship between Beth and Claire was everyday; they broke up, so what? Even for the 1990s, when the book was first written, it was not earth shattering.

Helen Fielding
Helen Fielding
The book almost fizzled out with nothing fully realised but then, quite often, that’s life - isn’t it? Maybe that was Trollope’s point. What seemed momentous one minute, actually turned out to be of little real import. Perhaps there’s a message there for all of us. I found myself asking if I really cared about Gaby, Stacey, Beth and Melissa or their husbands, their children, their jobs. I most definitely recommend Trollope’s earlier novels and this is another very good read – despite the suggestion of a ‘but’. I cannot deny I saw it through to the end with no desire to give up.

Now Bridget Jones's Diary, is of a totally different order, yet Helen Fielding also proves that she understands women. Invested as it is with humour and self-deprecation, it concentrates on the life and loves of the eponymous character, with whom women can all identify on so many levels – even if only in private! Here is the love life and anxiety of a female, trying to make her mark as a ‘serious journalist’, and survive the trials and tribulations of whatever she encounters – mainly at the hands of the various men in her life. It is portrayed in what purports to be a personal diary of a thirtysomething single woman in London. Those things which invade the waking mind of Bridget (Everywoman?) Jones, are listed at the start of each chapter: weight, cigarettes, sex, job. Once again, there is an exploration of women in the workplace but written in a very different tone!

Yorkshire-born, Helen Fielding knows how women think and certainly knows how to bring her protagonist to life with humour, sentiment and a good dose of realism. Described as ‘a reinterpretation of Jane Austen 's Pride and Prejudice , and beginning life as a diary column in The Independent in 1995, Fielding published the first book in 1996. Far from being a real diary as had been signified by the lack of a byline in the newspaper, she was poking fun at the female obsession with love, romance, appearance and all those other things women worry about and love to discuss at length - and yet the self doubt was authentic.

Ultimately, it was a series of three books and all three made me laugh out loud, although, the more we get to know the endearing Bridget, the more seriously we take her. The plot of the final novel is significantly different from the third film in the series; it remains touching, however, and leaves the reader with a sense of relief that Bridget has at last found some sort of peace – whether it lasts of course remains to be seen. I have a feeling she would be a ‘wicked’ grandmother!

City of Friends is published by Macmillan

Bridget Jones's Diary is published by Picador