Poor Bridge. Since Helen Fielding published the third and final installment of Bridget Jones, Mad About the Boy, large sections of the British public have turned en masse against her. It would seem that Bridget, so long a fictional national treasure, is not ‘v.g.’ after all. Whether it’s fans expressing outrage at Fielding’s decision to kill off Mark Darcy, criticising the books for being antifeminist, or badly written, everyone is determined to take a potshot.
As an ardent Bridget Jones fan, my heart swelled with indignation at such disparaging treatment of one of my favourite comic fictional characters – what did Bridget do to deserve such vitriol? Here I must make the distinction between the book and the film versions, which are too often conflated; the books are much funnier and more socially observant than the films, where Fielding’s brilliant idiosyncratic writing style just doesn’t translate onto the screen. Her diary entry headings – ‘9st, alcohol units 4 (getting into mood), cigrarettes 27 (but last day before giving up), calories 2455’ – are lost, where in the books they are an important part of Bridget’s erratic stream-of-consciousness.
Generations of readers have loved Bridget Jones because she is hilarious. The Bridget of the first two books negotiates a mine-field of Smug Marrieds, sexist bosses and fuckwit boyfriends in a dysfunctional, alcohol-fueled, chain-smoking blitz. Her endearing ineptitude at life is something most of us have felt and cannot help recognising within ourselves. Suzanne Moore’s problem with Bridget, that she is ‘obsessed with three of the most boring things in the entire world: dieting, trying to get a bloke and drinking and feeling bad about it’ entirely misses the point that when it comes to booze, boys and food Bridget never sticks to the rules of what she is supposed to do and still has a great time. The ‘obsessive’ nature of Bridget’s musings on the above is merely an ironic comedic device to show us what Bridget may not realise herself – that she actually doesn’t give a shit. If she did, we would be reading a very different book.
Being a feminist and liking Bridget Jones doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. Fielding has no pretensions about what her novels are; we are not meant to approach the book expecting a serious exploration of the state of womanhood, nor are we supposed to feel that all women are as hopeless as she can be. Bridget was never intended to be a paradigm of female success, so we need to stop judging her for falling short of the feminist tick-list. Above all, Bridget is a comedic fictional character who we mustn’t take so seriously.
Unfortunately, Fielding’s wicked sense of humour that made the first novel such a pleasure to read fails to come through in Mad About the Boy. The new book reads like a cruel caricature of the former Bridge, in which her snort-inducing sexcapades and ineffective calorie counting are replaced by nit-checks and grieving over Darcy (who dies a suitably noble death by being killed on a humanitarian aid trip). It’s like Fielding has identified the secret formula that made the older books so readable and tried to impose it upon the new landscape of an older, sadder, widowed Bridget with two kids and a 29 year old toyboy called ‘Roxter’. This is the Bridget of the noughties; the delightfully old-school references to waiting around the landline for a call have been replaced by new obsessions with Twitter followers and online dating profiles. Fad diets turn into visits to the obesity clinic and awkward answer-phone messages to men now become over-zealous texts and emails.
This new, technologised Bridget seems alien to the Bridget we have come to know and love – the chirpy, abbreviated style comes across as strained, failing to reach the comedic sophistication of the previous books.
Unlike the first diary, Bridget’s fixation on men, and what the rules of texting back should be, is frustrating – surely an older wiser Bridge isn’t still panicking if someone she likes doesn’t text back immediately? It’s not about making judgements on how a fifty year old woman should behave – I love the idea that Bridget has a young toyboy – but some of the neuroticism that Bridget as a thirtyish-year old woman had, and many women identified with, doesn’t transfer convincingly to middle-age.
Call me ageist, but I think the story of Bridget-at-50 should never have been written. It’s the slurring, hapless yet pleasingly defiant woman of the nineties who I’ll remember fondly – and who deserves to be hailed as one of the most hilarious diarists in fiction.