Coming back from Oxford and looking for a relatively easy read, I was particularly interested in one item on my bookshelf. Few books could be further from the Joyce novels I slogged through in Hilary term than Bridget Jones’ Diary. Arguably Helen Fielding’s most famous work, the novel quickly became a staple of 90s and early millennium ‘chic fic’ culture after publication in 1996.
Bridget is a hapless thirty-something whom we follow over the course of a year as she juggles dating, dieting, and her career. Three movies, released in the ten years after the release of the first book, are a testament to the series’ immense popularity and longevity. To some, the life of the British rom-com may have now reached an end. The nearest recent example I can think of is December’s tepid offering, Last Christmas. I’m not a seasoned film critic, but I don’t think it will be entering the ranks alongside Bridget Jones’ Diary anytime soon.
But why do we view these books as a ‘guilty pleasure’? And should Bridget Jones still take up a place on our bookshelf?
We can’t enter into this discussion without considering the backlash against rom-com as a whole. The genre has often been derided as a ‘woman’s genre’ in the past, being trashy, unrealistic, and notably full of clichés. Stoic literary standards prescribe that it is nowhere near the classics of Austen, Dickens, or Shakespeare, making it a guilty read for anyone who claims to be interested in “good” literature.
Fielding also wrote Bridget Jones’ Diary within a different and arguably more toxic culture to that of today. Frequent references to her diet (or lack thereof) pepper the book, including one particular instance where she recites the exact amount of calories in a selection of food. These passages grate against the changing views of dieting and body image; what might have once been viewed as a norm for women who ‘look after’ their body is now often regarded as unhealthy behaviour. Yes, some of us might still be preoccupied with relationship self-help books and fad diets, but the mainstream media nowadays places more emphasis on accepting and feeling good in yourself. This isn’t without its problems, but it differs from being motivated by one stereotypical body type, weight and look.
Despite its issues, this book and others of the rom-com genre remain a firm favourite in many people’s feel-good lists. If we are going to read the book, we need to accept and consider the uncomfortable body policing and the various problems of representation within the genre. This book as a ‘guilty pleasure’ becomes more than just an opinion-based matter on the writing style and content. The guilt, in part, stems from the murkier side of consuming content created with outdated cultural views. For some, the movie Bridget Jones’ Baby, released in 2016, highlighted the disparity in attitudes towards narratives of single, pregnant women of a certain class and race. Perhaps this was a demonstration of the need for evolution in the rom-com genre.
Yet maybe the novel can move with the times. Bridget’s slightly unorthodox career path from a job in publishing to prime-time presenter on a TV show is arguably more representative of the modern-day employee – studies have shown that millennials may have up to 12 different job types in their lifetimes. In some ways, Bridget Jones could be forward-thinking. I certainly admire the part of her that refuses to budge in the face of people trying to micromanage her life.
Yet I, for one, did not reread Bridget Jones’ Diary for its foresight. I think what endures in Fielding’s novel is its essential humour, which is also treated very well within the films. An honest voice and well-humoured self-disparagement of the middle-class pokes fun at the genre in itself. Fielding had already undercut the clichés yet to come.
While I wouldn’t dare turn in a tutorial essay on this, I think Fielding’s writing is definitely self-aware of its position within a long line of romance fiction originating with the likes of Austen. While writing under extremely different circumstances, both take advantage of their fiction to demonstrate the issues facing women of the time, however trivial.
Yet Fielding certainly does not want us to produce a 2000 word essay on the use of allusion to the classics in Bridget Jones’ Diary to justify its worth as a piece of literature, however obvious the reference to Mr Darcy might be. Whether firm fans of fiction or casual readers, we should be able to shut off from the niggling voice that tells us good literature is always impenetrable language bound in musty leather. Especially at such an uncertain time, what we may need to comfort us is fiction that is funny, familiar, and, as Bridget would say, v. v. v. good.