Bridget of Sighs
By Helen Fielding
Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
Once upon a time my grandmother — no shrinking violet herself, but a shrewd professional woman — warned me not to beat my then-boyfriend at Scrabble. As dating advice, “hide your light under a bushel” is hardly original: the message that brains are incompatible with allure comes at young women from all directions. For me, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels, with their beloved buffoon of a heroine, are among the most insidiously charming examples.
Bridget Jones’s Diary first introduced us to Bridget: insecure, ingenuous, prone to social and verbal faux pas, and, horror of horrors, in her thirties and still single. It is a truth universally acknowledged that such a woman must be painfully fixated on finding a man, but when Bridget first meets Mark Darcy he hardly seems like Mr. Right:
It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr. Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It’s like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting ‘Cathy’ and banging your head against a tree.
As is broadly hinted here, Pride and Prejudice provides the template for Bridget and Mark’s courtship, including a misguided flirtation (with the Wickham-like Daniel Cleaver) that nearly ruins everything and then the inevitable crisis and resolution of their romance. It adds to the intertextual fun that Bridget is obsessed with the BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth. (Firth — good humoredly, considering how he is gossiped about and salivated over in the novels — played Mark Darcy in the Bridget Jones films, thus neatly completing the circle of allusions.) The end of Bridget Jones’s Diary is not quite a happily every after, though: in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, (which, in its turn, is rich in allusions to Austen’s Persuasion — there’s even a character named Benwick!), they break up early on and Bridget endures a series of madcap misadventures before being once more united with her Mr. Darcy.
Both novels are genuinely funny. Bridget narrates with breathless immediacy and devastating candor, and she bumbles through one awkward scenario after another, from pretentious literary events to dinners with “Smug Marrieds,” from “Tarts and Vicars” parties at which (of course) she’s the only one to show up in costume to Thai prisons where she ends up singing “Like a Virgin” wearing a “Wonderbra and sarong and using a Tampax as a microphone.” But while I can’t help laughing at the comic mayhem that is Bridget’s life, I also get annoyed because Bridget’s undeniable charm is so inextricably bound up with her incompetence. The novels’ comedy is essentially slapstick: there’s no subtlety or wit, just farcical scenarios that turn on Bridget’s constant screw-ups. All the Jane Austen allusions in the world can’t disguise that these novels are the literary equivalent of watching someone slip repeatedly on a banana peel. Sure, we laugh. We may even sympathize: who hasn’t embarrassed herself occasionally, after all? But it’s one thing to chuckle at someone’s folly and another thing to celebrate it, and yet that’s precisely what we’re invited to do. “All the other girls I know are so lacquered over,” Mark Darcy tells her when he finally asks her out in Bridget Jones’s Diary; her friends’ birthday toast in the film version — “To Bridget, just as she is!” — is an apt keynote for the entire franchise. It’s heartwarming, I concede, but the blue soup Bridget has just served them also epitomizes their irritating conflation of authenticity and imbecility.
In contrast, as Fielding surely knows, Jane Austen never rewards her heroines for ineptitude. Elizabeth Bennet does not win her Mr. Darcy’s heart by being cute but trivial; she earns his respect with her brains and character, and delights him with her “fine eyes.” We know all along that Captain Wentworth would be a fool to marry silly Louisa Wentworth instead of smart, capable Anne Elliot. Emma Woodhouse and Marianne Dashwood achieve insight first and great marriages second. “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story,” Anne famously protests when confronted with literary “evidence” of women’s weak character; “Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.” Yet with the pen in her hands, Fielding betrays her predecessor’s conviction that intelligence is sexy — and her kewpie-doll revision sells, and sells, and sells, as if we’re all relieved to be let off the hook. Nothing to live up to here! We’re all just fine, just as we are.
The previous success in print and on film of Bridget Jones “just as she is” more than explains the existence of Mad About the Boy, as well as its attempt to replicate as closely as it can the screwball antics and zany fragmented voice of the first two books. So little has changed in the tone and style that it’s jarring to be reminded at intervals that Mad About the Boy tells a story shot through with heartbreak: its opening premise — Mark has died a sudden and shocking death, leaving Bridget a widow with two small children — could have supported a real novel, new in both form and gravitas, instead of a tasteless pastiche of Fielding’s earlier books. There’s some intermittent self-conscious irony about this difficulty (“Had the tragedy in my writing somehow inadvertently come out as comic?” Bridget wonders as a production team recasts her adaptation of Hedda Gabler as a “rom-com”) but there’s no serious attempt on Fielding’s part to make Mad About the Boy anything but another run at the same banana peels.
12.07 a.m. Went to kids’ room, still holding Mabel, plus diarrhoea ensemble, to find Billy out of bed, hair all hot and messy, looking up as if I was benign God with answer to all things. Billy held my gaze, whilst belching sick in manner of Exorcist except head remained in forward stationary position instead of spinning round and round.
Fielding also deftly brings the maladroit Bridget into the 21st century: she texts incessantly, of course (often while drunk), and the chronicle of her first hours on Twitter perfectly captures the strange blend of vulnerability and self-aggrandizement the medium inspires:
Monday 23 April 2012
76 lb (oh God), Twitter followers 0.
9.15 p.m. Cannot figure out how to put up photo. Is just empty egg-shaped graphic. Is fine! Can be photo of self before was conceived.
9.45 p.m. Right. Will wait for followers.
9.47 p.m. No followers.
9.50 p.m. Actually will not wait for followers. A watched pot never boils.
10 p.m. Wonder if I’ve got any followers.
10.02 p.m. No followers.
10.12 p.m. Still no followers. Humph. Whole point of Twitter is you are supposed to talk to people but there isn’t anyone to talk to.
10.15 p.m. Followers 0. Feel lurching sense of shame and fear: maybe they are all Twittering to each other, and ignoring me because I’m unpopular.
10.16 p.m. Maybe even Twittering to each other about how unpopular I am, behind my back.
10.30 p.m. Great. Not only am I isolated and alone but also, now clearly, unpopular.
Inevitably, Bridget ends up “twunking” (drunk-tweeting) (“Oh God. Everyone is ridiculing me and retweeting my drunken birds tweet. Must try and do damage control”) but there’s no cautionary tale here: her “twunking” advances her online flirtation with “@_Roxter” which then proceeds through various stages of courtship (bad puns, sexual innuendoes, and fart jokes) until they meet IRL. Bridget’s no better at dating than she was before:
6.45 p.m. Shit shit, have put waterproof mascara on lips as same Laura Mercia package as lip gloss and will not come off. Oh God. Am going to be late with black lips.
She manages to scrub off the black mascara in time, only to choke on her wine laughing at Roxter’s first fart joke of the evening until “sick started coming up my throat,” which at least adds vomit jokes to their repertoire.
If I sound impatient, it’s because this is the juvenile level at which their entire romance is carried on. At one point Roxter distracts Bridget on a visit to her mother by texting her repeatedly about barnacle penises (“<It’s 20 ft when flaccid, 40 when erect>”) — which is hilarious stuff . . . when you’re 13. But Bridget is a widow with two children who’s teetering awkwardly on the brink of middle age (“Mummy’th fifty-one!” lisps adorable little Mabel) and Roxter, at 29, is also well past the threshold of adulthood, even in this era of protracted adolescence. “We both agreed our mental ages were very low and have been demonstrating it in text form ever since,” Bridget reports happily, but that kind of thing is not nearly as cute from the outside.
Thankfully, Roxter is only the “boy toy” interlude on the way to the real thing. While I wish I could say that’s because Bridget (like her Austen predecessors) matures across the novel before settling into an adult relationship, remember that the premise of the series is that Bridget doesn’t — shouldn’t — need to change. The only character development the series supports is for those who don’t appreciate her “just as she is”: they need to learn how to love her, as Mark Darcy once did. And there’s a Darcy figure here too, Mr. Wallaker, similarly aloof and judgmental to start but won over by, among other things, the spectacle of Bridget caught in a tree, jeans “slipping below my bottom cleavage, my black lacy thong on full display.” Like her drunk tweeting, this undignified exposure somehow only furthers Bridget’s romantic success: Mr. Wallaker later explains that seeing her up a tree “show[ing] off her thong” makes him think “life could possibly be a bit more fun.” Because after all, nothing’s more fun than someone who is, as he adoringly describes her, “such a mess!” And she, in return, loves that he is “so masterful,” “such a MAN.” When they are together, she feels “safe and not lonely, and cared for.”
If you don’t think too hard about this model of a happy ending, this is a perfectly satisfying conclusion: after all, it’s what the characters themselves want (though it’s not clear to me why Mr. Wallaker, or Mark Darcy, for that matter, would choose Bridget, whereas it’s perfectly obvious why the original Mr. Darcy is won over by Elizabeth Bennet). The style of the books largely keeps deeper reflection at bay, not just because we see everything from Bridget’s point of view but because the diary form — at least as practised by Bridget, in sentence fragments and rapid-patter narrative — makes it both inappropriate and infeasible to sustain a complex or self-critical thought.
The memories are a blur. Friends, family, surrounding me like a womb. Mark’s lawyer friends sorting everything, the will, the death duties, unbelievable, like a film that was going to stop. The dreams, with Mark still in them. The mornings, waking at 5 a.m., washed clean by sleep for a split second, thinking everything was the same, then remembering . . . A mother, a widow, putting one foot in front of the other. But inside I was an empty shell, devastated, no longer me.
Fielding is wise not to try to make Bridget’s grief in any way comical, and indeed there are some sincerely heart-wrenching moments (“11 p.m. In tears, now, sitting on the floor, surrounded by cuttings, photographs . . . 11.45 p.m. Sobbing now, the box, the cuttings and photos fallen on the floor, memories, sucking me down”). Juxtaposing these moments of raw pain with “twunking” and fart jokes, however, has the effect of making the book’s humor seem tawdry, while showing Bridget in the depths of despair merely highlights how superficial her characterization usually is. Similarly, her occasional, presumably accidental, lapse into profundity (“It was as though there had been a seismic timeshift and my life was happening years behind theirs, in the wrong way”) grates because a more typical utterance is “Gaah!” The sense of incongruity mounts if we dare to wonder how the Bridget we’re used to even knows about Hedda Gabler (though she does misspell its title and think it’s by Chekhov, not Ibsen), or can imagine “an updating of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, only with a bit more structure.” These must be the bruised fruits of her “English Literature finals at Bangor University, which unfortunately resulted in a Third.”
Bridget’s gaffes, literary and otherwise, supply the humor of Mad About the Boy just as they did in the first two books, and now as then, the characters who don’t find them endearing — who even, Heaven forbid, know better and correct her – are set up as pompous gits. Confronted with her mistakes about Hedda Gabler, Bridget “muttered something about anti-intellectualist irony,” and anti-intellectual is exactly how both she and her books come across. It’s more important, we’re shown over and over, to be sincere than successful, cute than competent, loving than knowing. Bridget is an innocent, a naif, and as such deserves our affection and protection, not our criticism. As Dickens tells us in David Copperfield, “a loving heart is better and stronger than wisdom.”
Yet even Dickens himself, for all his sentimentality, did not really believe that: loving but undisciplined hearts cause inestimable damage in David Copperfield, and the novel demolishes the ideal of the “child-wife” whose incapacity for adult life makes her a burdensome spouse and an unfit mother. It’s unexpected to find Dickens taking a more stringent stand on sexual equality than a 21st-century novelist, but David’s hard-learned lesson that “There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose” would have a radical effect on the Bridget Jones universe. Mind you, Fielding’s heroes seem happy enough to dedicate themselves to cleaning up after Bridget. Perhaps even now it’s just easier to imagine romance on these terms than to figure out how to make it accommodate a different balance of power. What we’d need to do it is not more Austen but a little Charlotte Brontë.
It’s unreasonable, really, for me to feel disappointed in Mad About the Boy. It’s a perfectly fine sequel, assuming that what readers want is more of the same; those who don’t will already know to read something else. It will also make another breezily entertaining film, which is surely part of the plan. (Presumably it won’t star Colin Firth, though, which may hurt ticket sales, unless the description of Mr. Wallaker as “rather like Daniel Craig” is anticipatory product placement.) I’ll watch it, and I’ll laugh, because sometimes it’s a relief to let down my critical guard and just play along. I might even cry a little, because I love Mr. Darcy too, and I can see that losing him — or his stand-in — would be pretty tough. But when it’s done, I’ll sigh, and think of my grandmother’s advice, and be glad I didn’t take it. My self-respect would have been too high a price to pay for a date, and I could never be mad about a boy who thought blue soup was the best I could do.
Rohan Maitzen teaches at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings, where she aired earlier versions of these complaints about Bridget Jones.