June 30, 2023
Helen Fielding’s ditzy heroine was all the rage when she was introduced to American audiences in 1998. Today, her nuttiness and self-loathing read like a relic from another time.
By guest author Elisabeth Egan from the New York Times.
“Oh, why am I so unattractive? Why?”
“I feel ashamed and repulsive. I can actually feel the fat splurging out from my body.”
“Reduce circumference of thighs by 3 inches (i.e. 1½ inches each), using anti-cellulite diet.”
These aren’t notes from a therapist’s files or excerpts from a workbook for people battling insecurity. They’re lines from the opening chapter of “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” Helen Fielding’s best-selling novel, which celebrated its 25th anniversary on U.S. shelves this month. The book follows a year in the life of a single, 30-something London woman navigating personal and professional turmoil while attempting to lose weight and quit smoking. Each entry begins with Bridget’s meticulous tally of pounds shed or gained, alcohol units imbibed, calories consumed, cigarettes smoked and lottery tickets purchased.
Bridget never hit the jackpot, but Fielding did. Her juggernaut spawned three follow-up novels of decreasing quality, three movies starring Renée Zellweger (ditto re decreasing quality) and a new vocabulary for relationship status (“singleton,” “smug married”).
Before we tackle the question of whether “Bridget Jones’s Diary” is even remotely amusing in today’s post-Roe, #MeToo, politically polarized world, let’s turn the page back to the summer of 1998, when Publishers Weekly declared, “It’s hard to imagine a funnier book appearing anywhere this year.” Fielding’s British publisher told British Vogue, it’s “not just a book phenomenon, it’s a phenomenon. Like ‘Catch-22,’ it’s gone into the language.”
In her New York Times review, Elizabeth Gleick wrote, “People will be passing around copies of ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ for a reason: It captures neatly the way modern women teeter between ‘I am woman’ independence and a pathetic girlie desire to be all things to all men.”
“Bridget Jones” became shorthand for a certain type of single woman: professional, ambitious, fun-loving. You couldn’t pass a Borders or Barnes & Noble megastore without catching Bridget’s cool blue-green gaze. Her staccato delivery — “Cannot face the thought of going to work,” “Went to the chemist to discreetly buy a pregnancy test” — changed the rhythm of email, which was still new enough to be the domain of young people. Seemingly overnight, Bridget was to digital correspondence what Chandler Bing was to comic timing: a fresh metronome for the last gasp of the 20th century.
She was the toast of book clubs, the subject of editorials, a lightning rod for morning-show debate and fodder for late-night comedy. Some readers were charmed by Bridget Jones; others were disgusted.
“Bridget is such a sorry spectacle, wallowing in her man-crazed helplessness, that her foolishness cannot be excused,” Alex Kuczynski wrote in a Times column headlined “Dear Diary: Get Real.” She disliked that the book made “humor out of the premise that being neurotic is cute. That women eat too much. That we succumb to the lure of too many cocktails. That if we don’t enjoy our jobs, we just stick around and, heck, sleep with the boss (who never calls us back).”
Women who embraced Bridget were, more often than not, white, educated, privileged, independent, opinionated and empowered. They could hang with the guys. They could “have it all.” Choice was their birthright. They — fine, we — coasted into adulthood secure in the knowledge that mothers, grandmothers and women’s studies professors had won the hardest battles. Sure, we had a few things to iron out — racism, homophobia, equal pay, child care — but the scaffolding was in place. All we had to do was build a skyscraper to bear its weight.
“Bridget Jones helped start important conversations for women,” Carolyn Coleburn said in a phone interview. In 1998, when Viking published the novel, she was a 29-year-old associate director of publicity at the company; now she’s a vice president there. “What do you want out of life? What are your goals? Make sure you have fun while achieving them.”
The next few years saw a rash of novels that all contained echoes of Bridget’s breezy intelligence and Fielding’s playful subversion of form: “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing,” by Melissa Bank; “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” by Sophie Kinsella; “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” by Allison Pearson; “The Nanny Diaries,” by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus; “The Devil Wears Prada,” by Lauren Weisberger.
These books made light of a spectrum of subjects — loneliness, loss, parenthood, wealth, fashion — while nodding at the peculiar and particular contradictions women experienced within each one. They weren’t copycats, they were descendants. Fielding popped in the CD; subsequent authors cranked up the volume. The lyrics were a variation on “Are you seeing this?” and the refrain was a resounding “YES.”
“It kind of became a sisterhood,” Kris Kleindienst said in a phone interview. She worked at Left Bank Books in St. Louis in 1998, and now owns the store. “Despite that derogatory edge, chick lit made a positive space for women to write about everyday things.”
Contemporaries of Bridget’s may want to approach a silver-anniversary reunion equipped with reading glasses and a book light. The print in the paperback is, as its protagonist would say, v. v. small.
The first thing you’ll notice is Bridget’s obsession with weight and fat, and the casual cruelty of her friends, family and colleagues about her romantic prospects. It might have been depressingly funny 25 years ago; now it’s just depressing. Imagine what we could have done with the hours, weeks and years wasted on Entenmann’s fat-free poundcake and step aerobics. Imagine what a millennial would say to a casual acquaintance who had the audacity to broach the subject of the “biological clock.”
In happier news, the diary contains a boatload of fun anachronisms: answering machines, mix tapes, VCRs, “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” Fielding’s voice is clever and witty. She has a light touch and an effortless habit of winking at the reader without poking too much fun at Bridget or, for that matter, her mother — who, from a mature perspective, suddenly seems more relatable than ridiculous.
“I feel like the grasshopper who sang all summer,” she tells Bridget. “And now it’s the winter of my life and I haven’t stored up anything of my own.”
Also worth noting: Bridget is a solid friend, a loyal daughter and an adventurous cook.
But, heartwarming as her happily-ever-after turns out to be (oops, spoiler), Bridget’s professional life makes for a chilling, upsetting read. It’s hard to fathom being amused by her boss — played by Hugh Grant in the movie — who fires off a message saying, “PS. I like your tits in that top.” Or by a subsequent male employer whose “offer letter” consists of one line: “OK, my darling. You’re on.” No mention of salary, health insurance, vacation time or sick days.
Bridget deserved better. We all did.
“Those workplace things are dated,” Kleindienst said. “This may not be the exemplary novel of today, but it might show how far we’ve come — what has changed and what hasn’t.”
Still, would you recommend “Bridget Jones’s Diary” to your daughter who’s about to start her first full-time office job, having ironed out personal days and her 401(k) with the same laser focus she brought to spelling words and passing the driver’s test?
“I’m hesitating because obviously I understand the ways in which it’s anti-feminist,” said Gleick, who is now publisher and editorial director at Algonquin Books. “My daughters would see the context better than I would see it. They’re so much more evolved.”
Indeed, today’s young women know that neurotic isn’t cute. Cute isn’t cute. Neither is flustered, madcap, zany, flighty, flaky, harried or hapless — all adjectives that apply to Bridget.
Now more young women know what to do about a lewd boss, or a dismissive one. They know they have their work cut out for them; after all, the scaffolding collapsed and the skyscraper was built on quicksand. They grew up in the shadow of war, have been practicing for school shootings since kindergarten, and spent formative years isolating and quarantining for the good of humanity. They’ve watched their choices evaporate. They’ve raised their voices.
Let’s hope a new generation rebuilds what we lost using stories that celebrate progress.