Heroines: Harman, Fielding, Jones (& Austen)

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.

***and I have been reminded by my companion that I really should mention the great bookshops of Bath: Mr B's Book Emporium, and Topping's - any town would be lucky to have one of these. Bath can be proud of itself for supporting both of them.

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.

Bath - Helen Fielding

So: first we went to see

Helen Fielding

talk in St Swithin’s church, where Jane Austen’s parents were married. Fielding was funny and charming, and explained away at least some of the mysteries of Bridget’s Choose-your-Own Adventure recent history – see this blogpost. She worried about swearing in church, she told funny stories from her own life, and said she collected anecdotes from all her friends to put into Bridget’s story. She didn’t explicitly say there would be more books about Bridget, but surely we can all hope…

Bath Bridget 1Bath BRidget 2

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.

Bath Harriet 2

Our next engagement was with

Harriet Harman

- an event in the Bath Assembly Rooms, where Jane Austen and Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey both danced.

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.

Bath Harriet 1

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.


  1. Oh, Moira, that sounds like a fabulous experience! And in a lovely place, too. Lucky you! I can see how you thought this was so inspiring. Now, I want to read that Harman...

    1. Thanks Margot, yes I was very lucky and it was tremendous fun as well as being inspiring. I think Harman would appeal to right-thinking women in all countries, and would make any young person interested in politics.

  2. That does sound both fun and interesting, Moira. I had not heard of Harriet Harman and she sounds very admirable. I think I would enjoy her memoir.

    1. It was terrific fun Tracy. And Harriet Harman is wonderful, even if she seems only a politician local to the UK. And her memoir would be interesting to any thinking woman (or man).

  3. I certainly want to read Harman's book, glad it's a good one.

    1. You will like it, I would bet. I couldn't put it down. Anyone with an interest in politics will find so much that is familiar. And, thought-provoking...

  4. I don't think I will be joining in the reading circle for Helen and Harriet. I always found Harriet Harman a bit annoying if I'm honest - to me she came across as insincere and patronising as well as having a monopoly on being right all the time....I suppose I didn't find her different to any other politician in that respect. (With the exception of Robin Cook or Tony Benn.)
    Glad to hear she might have a bit more about herself.

    1. The book and her talk have convinced me that she's been somewhat unlucky, and misjudged. I think many people (often labour supporters) saw her in a different way, and she didn't help by seeming so serious and rather humourless. But she obviously isn't, and is clever sharp and witty. I really liked her - much more than I was expecting to.

  5. Moira: What a fascinating pair of lectures. I wish I could get to England for these spring book events but they come at a time of year I would rather be in Saskatchewan.

    With regard to female political autobiographies I did read Margaret Thatcher's two volumes. I hope I will not mortify you but I did enjoy reading them. I thought they were clearly her words.

    On Ms. Harman it is a wonder to me how England only seems to end up with female political leaders by accident when it is clear that the country loves a strong woman leading the nation if the woman can manage to get to be leader of a party.

    1. Bill - I'm sure you have equally good events in Canada - though they may be farther apart. Here we can never be more than a few hours train-ride from an event, don't think that's true for you.
      I was no supporter of Mrs T, but I did respect some things about her, and I respect anyone who writes their own book and is honest in it. I actually didn't read hers so cannot yet judge!
      And yes - you can imagine how infuriating it is as a Labour supporter to never have had a female leader even, when the opposition have managed 2 prime ministers!


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