Devotees of Jane Austen’s fiction might understandably express little interest in contemporary novels dealing with the urban singles scene of the late twentieth century. A sensibility that revels in the long ago world of country dancing, chaste heroines, and polite courtships in delightful villages might well be put off by today’s typically sexually promiscuous heroines. Yet in her two recent bestsellers chronicling the adventures of a single modern thirty-something Londoner, British author Helen Fielding appeals to both sensibilities. In Bridget Jones’s Diary and its sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Fielding presents a thoroughly modern heroine who is surprisingly reminiscent of, and at times as endearing as, Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot. What’s more, Fielding provides a glossy and humorous prism through which Austen’s themes are refracted.
Fielding sees the connection between Austen’s youth-oriented culture and its attendant problems of finding suitable mates and Bridget Jones’s contemporary singles scene. An astute observer of today’s mating rituals, Fielding is straightforward in connecting her novels to Austen’s: “I shamelessly stole the plot from Pride and Prejudice for the first book. I thought it had been very well market-researched over a number of centuries and she probably wouldn’t mind” (“News Review”). As for the sequel, she says, “I borrowed quite a bit from Persuasion for this book too, there’s a Benwick character and persuasion is one of the themes; Anne Wentworth was persuaded out of a relationship by her elders. Bridget is persuaded out of a relationship by—ironically enough—too many self-help books about how to improve your relations” (“News Review”).
Even without Fielding’s admission that she does not suffer from the anxiety of influence, Austen fans would immediately recognize the parallels between plot episodes and characterizations. In her first diary entry, Bridget writes of her encounter with a Mr. Mark Darcy at Una and Geoffrey Alconbury’s New Year’s Day Turkey Curry Buffet: “It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr. Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party” (Diary 9, 12). According to Bridget’s mother, Mr. Darcy is “‘one of those top-notch barristers. Masses of money’” (9). And though it is near the close of the twentieth century, “in manner of” (to use one of Bridget’s favorite phrases) Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Jones is desperately trying to get her daughter married. Mr. Darcy, available, rich, successful, the son of old friends, is her number one target. As part of her matchmaking strategy, Mrs. Jones has been planning to have Bridget and Mark meet at this very Turkey Curry Buffet, a contemporary analogue to the Meryton assembly. Alas, by Bridget’s frank, humorous, and accurate estimation, the result is a “day of horror” (9). Her first impressions? “Mark Darcy. . . . Yuk. . . . [C]learly odd” (11, 13).
Fielding’s deliberate weaving of the plots, characters, and themes of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion into her own novels is hardly unique. The movie Clueless did much the same with Austen’s Emma. Art imitating art. But Fielding cleverly raises the ante, working at a more self-consciously intertextual level: art imitating art imitating art. For example, she portrays Bridget and her friends Jude and Sharon as obsessed with the BBC’s 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice. Bridget writes:
Just nipped out for fags prior to getting changed ready for BBC Pride and Prejudice. Hard to believe there are so many cars out on the roads. Shouldn’t they be at home getting ready? Love the nation being so addicted. The basis of my own addiction, I know, is my simple human need for Darcy to get off with Elizabeth. . . . They are my chosen representatives in the field of shagging, or, rather, courtship. (215)
And just after the broadcast, she writes,
Jude just called and we spent twenty minutes growling, “Fawaw, that Mr. Darcy.” I love the way he talks, sort of as if he can’t be bothered. Ding-dong! Then we had a long discussion about the comparative merits of Mr. Darcy and Mark Darcy, both agreeing that Mr. Darcy was more attractive because he was ruder but that being imaginary was a disadvantage that could not be overlooked. (215)
The difficulty in separating the real, that is, the Austenian prototype, from the imagined appears again when Bridget confronts the real life affair between the Pride and Prejudice costars Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle:
I stumbled upon a photograph in the Standard of Darcy and Elizabeth, hideous, dressed as modern-day luvvies, draped all over each other in a meadow: she with blond Sloane hair, and linen trouser suit, he in striped polo neck and leather jacket with a rather unconvincing moustache. Apparently they are already sleeping together. That is absolutely disgusting. Feel disoriented and worried, for surely Mr. Darcy would never do anything so vain and frivolous as to be an actor and yet Mr. Darcy is an actor. Hmmm. All v. confusing. (216)
Several times in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, when reality is getting them down, Bridget, Jude, and Sharon pop the Pride and Prejudice video into the VCR to drool over Mr. Darcy emerging from the lake at Pemberley, dripping wet in a sexy white shirt (35, 90-91). The fixation culminates with Bridget landing a freelance assignment (she is a broadcast journalist) to interview none other than Mr. Firth. To prepare, she watches the video of this diving scene fifteen times (125). The resultant interview is hilarious since Bridget, absurdly, cannot get beyond the sexy dripping white shirt (135-43).
Adding yet another self-referential layer to the intertextual complexity, Fielding and company have hired Colin Firth to play the role of Mark Darcy in next year’s film of Bridget Jones’s Diary (Mcdaid). One can only wonder if the parodies and intertextual jokes will end there. In a film of the sequel, will Mr. Firth be called upon to play himself in the interview, as well as the Mark Darcy character?
While both of Fielding’s novels were bestsellers around the world, the response has not all been favorable. Feminists have complained that Bridget “isn’t a very impressive role model” (“News Revies”). One can easily see their point. Like Elizabeth Bennet, Bridget has a lively mind, but some critics might characterize her as “scatterbrained.” She and her fellow “Singleton” (as opposed to “Smug Married”) girlfriends are consumed with finding suitable men. Their careers and paychecks cannot compensate for their loneliness and fear of “dying alone and being found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian” (Diary 18). If in Pride and Prejudice Charlotte and Elizabeth debate the judiciousness of a woman’s showing or concealing her affection for a man (21-22), in Bridget Jones’s Diary Bridget and her anxious girlfriends desperately scour magazines and self-help books for the key to the male psyche. Periodically, they convene emergency summit meetings to engage in heavy duty “feminist ranting” about “commitment phobic” men (Diary 17,107-09). These decidedly unfeminist get-togethers invariably turn into junk food orgies accompanied by prodigious amounts of wine.
Bridget’s frustrated friend Sharon says, “we women are only vulnerable because we are a pioneer generation daring to refuse to compromise in love and relying on our own economic power” (18). But two hundred years before, Elizabeth Bennet was just as adamant in her refusal to compromise, though she lacked the economic power. In her famous remarks on Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr. Collins, Elizabeth is emphatically pioneering: “‘the woman who marries him, cannot have a proper way of thinking. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavor to persuade yourself or me, that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger, security for happiness’” (PP 135-36).
Responding to the inevitable criticism that attaches itself to a work that interfaces with a masterpiece of fiction, Fielding argues that she has written “about all the secret anxieties that—apparently—lots of women have but don’t like to admit to. It was very interesting going to readings all over the world and talking to—say very whizzy businesswomen in New York—who whispered over the signing table that they related to Bridget” (“News Review”). Fielding, like Austen, is an observer with a very satirical eye.
Would Austen relate to Bridget? Austen would probably be appalled by the immaturity, lewdness, and general lack of self-control exhibited by Bridget and her friends, but it is not far-fetched to imagine this kind of character in one of Austen’s novels. Lydia Bennet, for example, would fit right in with Bridget’s group of women who are desperate to be married. And Austen would probably appreciate Fielding’s astute characterizations, if not her language.
Shrewd, biting, and at times hilarious, the language of Bridget’s diaries conveys the frankness and urgency that separates our time from Austen’s. Bridget keeps a record of her vices—alcohol and tobacco consumption, weight gained—and expresses herself in a peculiar vernacular of abbreviations, missing articles and pronouns, and slightly warped syntax. The effect gives Bridget—and her words—a reality that a more carefully cadenced text would not.
In Bridget Jones’s Diary, for example, Mark Darcy predictably finds himself in a position to rectify a scandalous affair of the utmost embarrassment to Bridget. “He started to pace around the room,” Bridget writes, “firing questions like a top barrister. . . . [I]t was pretty damn sexy, I can tell you” (238-39). Her reaction is modern and visceral. In contrast, Elizabeth Bennet’s reaction to precisely the same circumstance is summarized demurely by a narrator who tells us that “never had she so honestly felt that she could have loved him, as now, when all love must be in vain” (PP 278).
In Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Bridget and Mark gradually transform into Persuasion’s Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth, lovers who find their relationship strained by misunderstandings, miscommunication, and outside interference. Here again, we find the contrast in the blunt, inelegant first-person narration: “[I]f we love someone it’s pretty hard to get them out of our system when they bugger off,” Bridget remarks “ruefully” (Edge 233). Bridget echoes Anne Elliot’s sentiments, though not exactly her manner: ‘“We certainly do not forget you, so soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves ’” (P 232).
By maintaining Bridget’s voice throughout, the diary format allows readers to judge the characters and their predicaments for themselves. The omniscient narrator of Austen’s novels is replaced by an unreliable, solipsistic voice that creates its own sense of reality and coherence. As readers, we have the opportunity to accept or dismiss Bridget’s subjective assessments and point of view, but we also respond to the humor of the first-person narration of a self-absorbed young singleton as she begins to get to know herself.
Few readers will see Fielding’s books as great literature. The “excursion” to Thailand in the sequel is a bit over the top, for instance. Yet, while the Bridget Jones books may not be read two hundred years hence, they do provide us with recognizable portraits of Austen’s women as modern singletons relating to “fin-de-millennium males” (Edge 286). They show the tenuous position of women who accept the fact that they must be married to achieve social acceptance. As an observer of contemporary mores, Fielding shows how the problems of a socially mobile youth culture have not really changed in two hundred years. Finding mates in a world where single women outnumber available men is just as important for Bridget’s coterie as it was for Elizabeth Bennet’s sisters, friends, and acquaintances.
The Bridget Jones novels are essentially palimpsests upon which both Fielding’s texts and Austen’s co-exist. Their ultimate value may lie in the insights they provide into Austen’s work. By “modernizing” Austen, Fielding not only honors her model, but also validates her perceptions in a new century.
Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-1969.
Fielding, Helen. Bridget Jones’s Diary. New York: Viking, 1998.
_____. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. New York: Viking, 2000.
Mcdaid, Carol. “There's no Escaping Mr. Darcy. . . .” The Independent 9 June 2000: 11.
“News Review: Are You Bridget Jones?” Daily Telegraph 20 Nov. 1999: 20.