There was a time when novelist Helen Fielding was the darling of single women desperate to find a soul mate.
In Bridget Jones she gave us the most comforting kind of role model: a lovable, dipsomaniac, chain-smoking, binge eating, perpetually dieting thirtysomething whose haywire behaviour set such a low bar that, by comparison, the rest of the country's lonely hearts appeared paragons of commonsense.
Such was the success of Bridget Jones's Diary, its sequel and their film adaptations, that Fielding's stolid hero Mark Darcy, whom Bridget finally agrees to marry, seemed at times about to eclipse his more literary namesake for popular appeal. That his part was played on screen by Colin Firth no doubt magnified his appeal. Even so, the news that in her latest novel, Mad About The Boy, Fielding has killed off Darcy is hardly the stuff of headlines. And yet this report from the frontiers of fiction was splashed on the front page of a serious broadsheet yesterday, overshadowing political squabbling at home and revolutionary turmoil overseas.
Nor is this a symptom of an era in which, thanks to virtual reality, real life and fantasy are increasingly intertwined. When the last chapter of Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop arrived in America, crowds flocked on to the pier at New York and called out to the sailors bringing the final instalment, to learn if Little Nell had lived. She had not, and for that calculated act of dramatic cruelty, many never forgave Dickens.
I doubt Fielding will draw such ire, though one can never be sure. Certainly, for those who saw Bridget's engagement as the happiest of endings, the new book will be a rude awakening. It won't matter that Fielding had little choice but to bump off the husband, so that her trademark schtick - Bridget's romantic mishaps - could continue, nor that to make her ageing heroine as appealing to heartsore middle-aged singles - more of whom have suffered divorce than death - she must of necessity be solitary.
Startled though I was to pick up the paper and be confronted with a fictional death, I'm curious to know what Darcy died of. I doubt I'll be alone, because, for whatever reason, we seem to be hardwired to find made-up characters not only as interesting as flesh and blood, but in some ways every bit as real.
Some years back, newspapers reported that when the smoking ban finally came into operation, Inspector Rebus, Ian Rankin's hero, would feel obliged to relocate to a country where he could light up with impunity. Given the column inches this merited, the imaginary detective's opinions carried as much weight as if he lived and breathed. More seriously, during the recent trial of an actor from Coronation Street, the jury had to be reminded that the man in the dock was not Kevin Webster the car mechanic but actor Michael Le Vell, who most likely would not know one end of a spark plug from another. The instruction to the jury may seem ludicrous, but it was also wise. Like it or not, fiction is often as powerful as fact.
The modern malaise of celeb-watching is nothing new, merely an exaggeration of the timeless appeal of make-believe, a new twist on the fairy tales and folklore our ancestors enjoyed. I suspect that when Princess Diana died the outpouring of grief was not as ersatz as cynics believed. After years of following her story, as told by newspapers and TV, Di's admirers treated her as a sort of fictional character, someone they might never set eyes on, whose life was vastly different from theirs, and yet to whom they were powerfully drawn.
It's a bit like the stories I hear about distant relatives or friends of friends. I will probably never meet these people - in that sense they are as fictional as characters in novels - yet I follow the ups and downs of their lives with fascination, keen to hear what happens next, as if their exploits were a serial, unreeled for my entertainment.
In the end, whether it's Mark Darcy's untimely demise, or the Duchess of Cambridge's pregnancy, we all need stories. Indeed, if the dividing line between the importance of fiction and fact was not so fine as to be invisible to the naked eye, libraries and bookshops and book festivals would be half empty. So too, I'd suggest, would our imaginations.
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