Authenticity, Convention, and Bridget Jones's Diary

Alison Case

© 2001 Ohio State University Press

In this paper, I would like to explore the relationships among three things: 1. the narrative technique of the recent popular novel, Bridget Jones's Diary; 2. that novel's claim to "authenticity" as the voice of women of a particular generation and situation and 3. the convention of "feminine narration" I have argued operated in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British novel. I will suggest, in short, that 1 and 2 are linked by 3: that is, that the novel's "authenticity-effect" is in part produced by its adherence to a venerable novelistic convention of narrative femininity.


In Plotting Women, I argued that a literary convention I labelled "feminine narration" governed the use of female narrators in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century British novel. Feminine narration is characterized by the exclusion of the narrator from the activity of shaping her experience into a coherent and meaningful story-or from what I term "plotting" and "preaching." Instead, the feminine narrator is constituted as a "witness" who presents experience in a more or less "raw" and unmediated way, which is then typically given shape and meaning by a male "master-narrator" either within the narrative or in a pseudoeditorial frame. Feminine narrators, then, characteristically know less than the reader about the shape and meaning of their story, and indeed this is part of their narrative function: they tend to be "more interesting for what they do not know... than for what they know" (16).


I want to stress that I use "feminine" here in the sense of "conforming to the gender code for women of a specific culture." Feminine narration is a literary convention, not an essential or inevitable feature of the way real women actually tell stories. And as a convention, it can be violated: not all female narrators in this period are consistently feminine, nor are all feminine narrators female. Conventionality is partly a matter of frequency or likelihood, but it is most significantly a question of "marking" narrators that fit conventional gender norms of narration tend to be unobtrusive, "unmarked," in their role as narrators; those that do not, call attention to themselves via their violation of the convention, and that violation will generally be evident through other kinds of textual markings as well. Hence women seeking narrative authority may also be tagged as unfeminine, dangerous, or evil - or significant textual energies may be devoted to defending them against such charges - while feminine narration by men tends to be associated with other conspicuous indicators of a crisis of masculinity. One of the most intriguing forms of such marking I found was a persistent association or analogy between a first-person narrator's capacity for retrospective plotting (the mapping of cause and effect into a shapely and meaningful narrative) in narration, and his or her capacity for projective plotting within the story-for planning out patterns of cause and effect in the future.


I ended my discussion of female narrators in 1899, with Dracula. With Modernism, I felt, a whole different set of literary values and ideas came into play, not just about men and women, but about narrative authority and narrative control, and the extent to which anyone, male or female, could or ought to achieve them. Nonetheless, I didn't and don't believe that gendered conventions of narration specifically, a generalized opposition between female narrative credibility and evidence of active narrative shaping-simply disappeared in 1900, nor did the broader if more inchoate cultural resistance to perceiving women as active meaning-makers (rather than as carriers or embodiments of meaning) that helped give rise to it though both have undoubtedly been complicated and qualified since then.


So it was with the sense of a possible connection that I became interested last year in the much-talked-about popular novel Bridget Jones's Diary, by Helen Fielding. Much of the publicity for the novel focused on the "authenticity" of the fictional female voice it offered, with the back cover, for example, citing a reviewer's praise of it for "channeling something so universal and (horrifyingly) familiar that readers will giggle and sigh with collective delight." This claim was loudly reinforced by the large numbers of women who confessed that Bridget's voice "hit home" for them, as well as by a strong tendency to conflate Bridget with Fielding herself. In fact, by far the most common response I got at the Narrative conference to a short excerpt from the novel was from women who expressed delight and a kind of rueful identification with Bridget's voice. What I want to suggest here, though, is that what feels right and convincing and appealing to readers about this voice has as much to do with gendered literary convention as it does with any kind of verisimilitude to contemporary women's lives.


To what extent is Bridget Jones's Diary still infomed by the gendering of narrative voice in earlier novels: specifically, their linkage of acceptable femininity with the lack of narrative and material agency, their founding of readerly pleasure on the experience of reading against or beyond the narrator's perceptions, and, most broadly, their resistance to representing female figures as the "authors" of whatever meaning emerges in their lives or their narratives? The diary form in itself is one link. Diary and epistolary narration are in fact the most typical forms for feminine narration, since by their nature these forms tend to deprive the narrator of the interpretive advantage of hindsight with which to shape a narrative. This is not to say that there is an inevitable relationship between these narrative modes and the defining features of feminine narration. The feminizing of a diary or epistolary narrative voice comes about through the contrast between what the writer understands, expects to happen, or intends to make happen and both our own sense of likely narrative trajectories and actual subsequent developments in the story. In a case where subsequent developments consistently affirm the interpretive skills and plotting aspirations of the narrator - as is the case with Lovelace for much of Clarissa, for example - diary or epistolary narration may actually underscore the authority of the narrator. But this is a rarer phenomenon, and there is in fact a fairly close overlap between feminine narrators and diary or epistolary narration in this period.


Keeping a diary, though, is also a slightly different kind of narrative act from writing letters. Since a diary is written to oneself about things one necessarily already knows, the writing of a diary almost by definition serves a purpose beyond the purely informational. It represents an effort to process experience, to order it and make sense of it, and in that sense, to narrativize it. This is, of course, not an absolute distinction: fictional letters may perform a similar function for their writers, and (more rarely) fictional diaries may not, but in general the emphasis in a diary is necessarily more on efforts of interpretation, on the search for patterns and trajectories. Female diarists are hence more likely than letter writers to at least aspire to transgressive roles as narrative or material "plotters," though their aspirations may be thwarted by actual plot developments.


In keeping with this pattern, the diary form in Bridget Jones also acts to call attention both to the desire for control and to its failures. Fielding calls attention to the narrative's status as a written diary through a number of devices - Bridget's habit of keeping records on behaviors she'd like to control better (eating, drinking, smoking) her use of abbreviations ("v. good") and a telegraphic style to condense her writing, and at times the use of misspellings and rambling language to suggest entries written while drunk. The fact that Bridget keeps a diary, and keeps it the way she does, is an important aspect of her character - an indicator of her desire to take control of her life, get some perspective on her more obsessive behaviors, and confide in someone or something. It opens with a long list of New Year's Resolutions, and the diary itself is full of plans. Bridget is always plotting her future, with varying degrees of detail and commitment, and because of the diary format, we get to see, over and over again, how those plans work out - which is, almost invariably, not remotely in the way Bridget hopes or expects. In fact, one need not read far before future plot developments become highly predictable to a reader, if not to Bridget, since we can be certain any time she makes a statement like "expect to become known as brilliant cook and hostess" (72) that disaster and humiliation are on the way. This pattern actually structures the novel as a whole, since the list of New Year's Resolutions at the start acts as a foreshadowing of all the things Bridget will conspicuously fail to do, with the crucial exception of the only one – "Form functional relationship with responsible adult" (3) - that is not and could not be solely in Bridget's own control to accomplish.


It also, frequently, structures individual entries, through minute-by-minute ac counts of Bridget's efforts to get something done - and, interestingly, these accounts sometimes violate the mimetic logic of the diary form. The entry I want to focus on, for "Tuesday 21 March: Birthday," tracks her preparations for a birthday dinner party in which she plans to serve shepherd's pie to nineteen people, with the addition, as an afterthought, of "Char-Grilled Belgian Endive Salad, Roquefort Lardons and Frizzled Chorizo" and "individual Grand Marnier souffles" for a "fashionable touch" (72).


The entry proper opens with the 6:30 notation: "Cannot go on. Have just stepped in a pan of mashed potato in new kitten-heel black suede shoes from Pied a terre (Pied-a-pomme-de-terre, more like), forgetting that kitchen floor and surfaces were covered in pans of mince and mashed potato" (72). Bridget responds, apparently, by sitting down with her diary and preparing a "Schedule" that will (supposedly) allow her to accomplish everything needed before the guests arrive at 8:00. This highly optimistic schedule (five minutes are allotted for preparing nineteen individual souffles, and ten for the "frisse lardon frizzled chorizo thing") is then followed by a minute-by-minute account of what actually happens, which finds her, for example, at 7:35 with "Shit, shit, shit. The shepherd's pie is still in pans all over the kitchen floor and have not yet washed hair," and finally, at 7:55, with souffles and "frizzy salad thing" abandoned: "Aargh. Doorbell. Am in bra and panties with wet hair. Pie is all over floor. Suddenly hate the guests. Have had to slave for two days, and now they will all swarm in, demanding food like cuckoos. Feel like opening door and shouting, 'Oh, go fuck yourselves'" (73). While it is just plausible, with the first schedule, that Bridget might have sat down with her diary and mapped out how she was going to get everything done in the time left, it seems inconceivable that in the midst of the increasingly panicked rush to the deadline that follows, she would have stopped periodically to write down how badly she was doing. This seems, in other words, like a point at which the textual verisimilitude of the diary is breached. To what end?


If it were important to us to retain the fiction of Bridget as actually writing the diary (that is, the mimetic verisimilitude of the narration), we might conclude that Bridget actually writes all of this stuff after the fact. Such a conclusion would put Bridget in full control of the irony of this situation - she would not only be retrospectively recording the absurdity of her effort to get the dinner prepared, she would be selecting, with some rhetorical self-consciousness, a method of recording it that effaced her own retrospectivity for maximum comic effect - she would, in other words, be writing this particular entry (or this kind of entry) with the same degree of rhetorical self-consciousness that her author has in selecting the diary form in the first place. The difficulty with this option is that it would put Bridget in full self-conscious control on an occasional and local basis of effects that on a larger scale - i.e., between entries, and over the diary as a whole - are clearly out of her control, and need to be out of her control for the humor of the novel to work.


This seems like a good point to invoke James Phelan's observation that mimetic consistency in narration may legitimately not be the highest priority even in a work of fiction that in other respects clearly aspires to producing a believably mimetic narrative voice (110). In other words, most readers would not be disturbed by - or perhaps even notice - the apparent violations of mimetic consistency in the diary form here. Instead, they would tacitly accept - again, perhaps without even thinking about it-that at these points in the novel we are getting a kind of direct feed from Bridget's consciousness, rather than a self-consciously produced written record, and that we are to accept them as such. But note that this technique - the silent shift to a direct representation of Bridget's consciousness - makes Bridget more of a feminine narrator, more of an unmediated, unprocessing "witness" to the events of her life, than even the diary form itself.


I call attention to this particular narrative anomaly not because I think it should pose any serious problems for a reader but because the interpretive options it presents to us (whether or not we are conscious of them in reading the novel casually) seems to me to crystallize the larger question of how to understand Bridget's relationship to the comedy of the novel as a whole. And to get at that issue, I'd like to think about the novel in relation to a comic epistolary novel of the eighteenth century - Smollet's Humphrey Clinker.


Humphrey Clinker is composed of letters from both men and women, and they are all funny - but in radically different ways. The men's are self-consciously humorous - they relate scenes and events they themselves find funny, and even when the humor is at their expense, they know it, and the reader is asked to laugh with them. The women's letters, by contrast, are without exception unconsciously funny - funny in part because they're intended to be perfectly serious. To laugh at Matthew and Jery's letters is to feel akin to them, grateful to them for sharing the humor of their lives, even admiring of them for their ability to laugh at themselves - and that is one kind of narrative pleasure. To laugh at Tabitha's, Win's, and Lydia's letters, though, is to feel superior to them, to feel that we understand their lives and characters in ways that they cannot. And that is another kind of narrative - pleasure a kind of pleasure I have suggested is closely associated with feminine narration.


Which kind of pleasure is Bridget Jones offering? The obvious answer would be "some of each" - lines like "pied-a-pomme-de-terre," for example, are clearly self-consciously witty, and the novel has many such moments, though unconscious comedy predominates. But on the whole the question of Bridget's relationship to her own comedy seems more like an uneasy "both at once." What, for example, are we to make of a New Year's Resolution like this one: "I WILL NOT... Sulk about having no boyfriend, but develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend" (2)? Does Bridget recognize how absurdly contradictory this aim is? It seems to me that the answer is both "How can she not, being as self-conscious about her own absurdities as she (often) is?" and "How can she, and have the novel progress as it does?" A similar tension emerges in the numerous instances where Bridget appears to be able to predict in advance events that nonetheless surprise her when they arrive. A week before the disastrous birthday dinner, for example, she actually rules out the dinner party option on the grounds that she "would have to spend birthday slaving and would hate all guests on arrival" (68), and she herself draws attention to the parallels between Mark Darcy and Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, though by the time the detailed plot parallels have been worked through to their romantic conclusion, it appears to take her completely by surprise. That this unexpected and largely unworked-for romance should at the same time be construed as the keeping of a New Year's resolution exemplifies the novel's ambivalent relationship toward female narrative and material agency. It is as if Fielding wants to grant Bridget some of the trappings of agency and self-awareness without really challenging the conventional opposition between female "control" and feminine virtue or desirability. I am struck by the way the plot appears routinely to punish Bridget for attempts to manage her life, while rewarding her for being out of control - the genuineness that apparently wins Darcy's heart, after all, is the product of Bridget's persistent failure to carry through her plans to remake herself in another image, as thinner, more cool and poised, more intellectual - in short, more like the "laquered over" women Darcy rejects (207). My suspicion is that women readers are willing to identify with her because of those trappings - her wit and (intermittent) self-knowledge - but that a large part of her appeal is the reassurance that our own failures of control are not only loveable, they may be the most loveable, because the most feminine, things about us.

We often think of authenticity in fiction as the opposite of conventionality. In placing Bridget Jones in the context of the gendered narrative conventions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I want to suggest that the "authenticity" of a fictional voice is in part a textual effect reliant upon literary conventions and expectations. This is not to deny the undeniable-that many women did in fact experience Bridget Jones as "like" themselves in a variety of comic or painful (or comically painful) ways. It is rather to suggest that at least a part of what makes Bridget seem familiar, and therefore convincing, is that her relationship to her story and her life, and our relationship to her as narrator, mirrors the lack of narrative and material agency we have come to expect from fictional women.



Alison Case is an Associate Professor of English at Williams College, where she teaches Victorian literature, the novel, and gender studies. She has recently published Plotting Women: Gender and Narration in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century British Novel. Her work has also appeared in Narrative, Victorian Poetry, and Clio.