My artistic practice (and yes, I can just about write that without laughing myself off my chair) depends on two things: reading and writing. Reading, because what I write is connected with what has gone before, and writing, well, because I mainly write. (And before you filmmakers, musicians and visual artists turn off, you can substitute other pairs like watch and make, listen and compose, look and paint.) In this two part post I want to poke at each of those in turn to get a better understanding of how they interact: let me start with reading.
In my haphazard way I read the second Bridget Jones book before the first one. I was ambling through Bridget Jones – the Edge of Reason enjoying the diarising and the self-disgust when I came to this passage in which Bridget is stuck, kneeling down at a party with a small boy clinging to her neck and refusing to get off:
‘Then suddenly William’s arms were released from around my neck. I felt him being lifted away … I turned to see Mark Darcy walking away with a writhing six year old boy under each arm’
I stopped reading. I had recognised something else in there. I was not just reading Helen Fielding, I was also reading Jane Austin’s Persuasion at the same time:
‘In another moment she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his sturdy little hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was being resolutely borne way, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.’ (Persuasion, Chapter IX.)
Two hundred years apart, two different authors, but the same scene at the same structural point in each story, as the heroine rescued from an annoying boy by the man she has been/is still in love with. Identifying that incident unlocked the book for me. I read on with more attention and found other pieces of Austin’s plot and fragments of her characters under Fielding’s twenty-first century clothing (although Bridget Jones is no Anne Elliot). The trip to Lyme Regis and the fall on the Cobb became a weekend house-party and a foolish jump into a shallow lake. The books which drew two lovers together were no longer the romantic poets, but self-help books.
As I read, my familiarity with Persuasion (which for personal reasons is my favourite Austin novel) coloured and deepened my enjoyment of Bridget Jones. By drawing on Persuasion Helen Fielding put Bridget Jones into the continuing conversation among the other romantic heroines of lost, and sometimes recovered, love from Ophelia onward. I had travelled from Kansas to Oz. From black and white to colour. Or perhaps it was the difference between hearing someone whistle the tune of Ode to joy and hearing that same melody embedded in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
We need to read: it is a courtesy we owe previous writers, in the same way we should listen to other people in a conversation, and not just selfishly formulate what we are going to say next, irrespective of what they have said. We don’t need to read everything, just as we don’t need to to listen to every conversation going on at a party, but we do need to pay attention to the conversation we choose to join: it will make our writing better.