The Marriage Mystique

Daphne Merkin

© The New Yorker 

IF Gloria Steinem had told the whole truth—while she stood around photogenically on podiums, her long striped hair tucked into tinted avi­ator glasses, issuing gnomic homilies like "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle"—she might have sounded like Bridget Jones. God knows, both women worry about the size of their thighs, although only one of them has gone public with that undig­nified anxiety. Bridget Jones, of course, is the inspired, panicky heroine of "Bridget Jones's Diary" (Viking; $22.95), the best-selling novel by Helen Field­ing. Bridget is in her thirties, and she works in the ostensibly glamorous media world—first in publishing, then in television. She has a degree in En­glish, discusses the Culture of Entitle­ment with her friends, and has a mother who has read Germaine Greer, but Bridget feels clueless. She ponders ev­erything, from the tattered state of her panty-hose supply ("Locate last pair of black opaque tights twisted into rope-like object speckled with bits of tis­sue") to the possibility of her being, unbeknownst to her, under official sur­veillance: "Open paper to read that convicted murderer in America is con­vinced the authorities have planted a microchip in his buttocks... Horri­fied by thought of similar microchip being in own buttocks, particularly in the mornings."


Most of all, though, Bridget ob­sesses about being one of the dreaded "Singletons"—i.e., unmarried—and about her lack of "inner poise." Field­ing's heroine is a true casualty of the high/low split in women's agitprop: one minute, she takes comfort in the "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus" approach; the next, she buoys herself by parroting her friend Sharon's self-congratulatory feminist claims ("We are a pioneer generation daring to refuse to compromise in love and relying on our own economic power"); and, in yet the next, she confesses en­dearingly that as "a child of Cosmo­politan culture" she has been "trauma­tized by supermodels and too many quizzes."


Fielding, a graduate of Oxford, is a former BBC producer and is herself a forty-year-old Singleton. Her novel, which began as an autobiographical column in the Independent, was a huge hit when it was published in Britain, in 1996, eventually selling more than a million copies. Since arriving here, in June, it has risen to No. 3 on the best­seller list; Fielding is also adapting it for the movies. Although its wry, self-deprecating tone and some of its allu­sions are very English (Bridget refers to her boss's "Sloaney arrogance"), "Bridget Jones's Diary" is the sort of cultural artifact that is recognizably larger than itself. As such, it has gener­ated instant strong opinions: you're ei­ther for it or agin it. Within nanosec­onds of its appearance on this shore, fans and detractors weighed in, and the responses were unusually visceral, as though the book had resounded on a level that went deeper than considered opinion or literary critique. Elizabeth Gleick wrote a short piece for the New York Times Book Review in which she gamely embraced Bridget's tribula­tions, ranging from the length of time it takes her to get dressed in the morn­ing (three hours and thirty-five min­utes) to her constant longing to be someone other than who she is: "Wish to be like Tina Brown, though not, ob­viously, quite so hard-working." Two weeks later, in the Sunday Styles sec­tion of the Times, Alex Kuczynski gave Bridget a tongue-lashing: she saw the novel as fit for "a 13-year-old girl," and assessed it in the prim jargon of the social sciences as being about "learned helplessness." She acknowledged that the book aimed to be "a sassy spoof of urban manners," but thought it merited pitying disdain rather than complicit laughter: "Bridget is such a sorry spectacle, wallowing in her man-crazed help­lessness, that her fool­ishness cannot be ex­cused." The one thing nobody accused Brid­get of being was bor­ing; even the irate Kuczynski admitted that she couldn't put the book down.


Maybe the best ex­ample of anti-Bridget backlash was a cover story in the June 29th issue of Time, entitled "Is Feminism Dead?" (Yawn.) Written by Ginia Bellafonte in the sort of fevered, culture-maven style that often passes for biting commentary, the essay implicated Fielding's heroine in the ongoing failure of the women's movement to live up to the glorious war-dance days of the sixties and seventies. It replayed a familiar and murky ar­gument: that the rigor­ous, socially conscious agenda of Old Guard feminists, like Betty Friedan, Steinem, and Kate Millett, has given way to the flighty, self-involved "Duh Feminism" of the nineties. Bellafonte trots out a tired lineup of culprits, including Ally McBeal, Elizabeth Wurtzel, and Katie Roiphe. (I love "Ally McBeal." To my mind, the show is one of the best writ­ten on TV, and actually manages to make prime-time entertainment out of the drama of the inner life.) Nancy Friday, of all people, is produced as a witness for the prosecution. "She is like a little animal," Friday, who unblushingly revealed her boudoir approach to men in a memoir, "The Power of Beauty," says about McBeal. "You want to put her on a leash." Having just in­voked the views of this "sex-positive feminist," the author turns around and bemoans the fact that "the concept of feminism is often misapplied": she blows off Alanis Morissette—too much introspection about bad moods and ex-boyfriends—as unworthy of girl-powerhood, while holding up Ginger Spice as a preferable model. Ginger Spice? My eight-year-old daughter would be delighted to hear it.


One might counter this righteous policing of who is or isn't the correct incarnation of late-twentieth-century womankind by saying simply, to each her own version of liberation. Of course, the trouble with ideologies generally is that they traffic in rhetoric and burnished images rather than in mortifying truths. What's really bothering people about "Bridget Jones" is that it signals the return of what is referred to in English-lit classes as the Marriage Plot. Uh-oh. We were supposed to have fast-forwarded past that theme, weren't we? Or at least it's supposed to have receded discreetly, while we were focussing on more en­lightened variations— the Career Plot or the Looking for a Self Plot. So what's it do­ing back in the spot-tight? In her frantic search for a role model, Bridget considers at various moments Goldie Hawn, Susan Sarandon, Jane Seymour, and Kathleen Tynan (who, Bridget informs us, thanks to her end­less perusal of life­style magazines, "when writing, was to be found immaculately dressed, sitting at a small ta­ble in the center of the room sipping a glass of chilled white wine"). But underneath her black Lycra miniskirt and her clever e-mail messages Fielding's droll heroine bears more resemblance to Elizabeth Bennet than to Elizabeth Hurley: she's a Jane Austen kind of girl, whose story could just as well begin with the sen­tence "It is a truth uni­versally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of thirtysomething years must be in want of a husband." Bridget wishes more than anything to become one of the "Smug Marrieds," and she dreams of having a house like her friend Magda's, with "crisp sheets and many storage jars full of different kinds of pasta."


She is intent on finding a mate, you see, not because she is insufficiently evolved or because she has an unreal notion of what marriage entails. (She isn't, for instance, stuck on the burning contemporary topic of whether the sexes communicate with each other well enough; she knows that talking is what girlfriends are for.) No, Bridget wishes to hook Mr. Right because she fears the alternative: "dying alone and being found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian." To this end she is willing to drive for several hours to a New Year's Day buffet hosted by her parents' friends to which Mark Darcy (Darcy: ring any bells?), a divorced barrister with "masses of money," is in­vited. To this end she is also willing to overlook the "emotional fuckwittage" of men over thirty who, realizing that women over thirty are demographically challenged, feel free to sleep with them for months, all the while whining about their commitment problems. So she spends an entire Sunday primping for a date, because she knows that looks count even more now that preg­nancy has become photogenic: "Am starting to get carried away with idea of self as Calvin Klein-style mother fig­ure, poss. wearing crop-top or throw­ing baby in the air, laughing fulfilledly." And she scavenges in the vast dump­ing ground of self-help—"I read some­where that the best gift a woman can bring to a man is tranquility"—because she recognizes that the ultimate form of self-help just may be the companionship provided by a good marriage. "Totally alone," she notes at one in the morning, just pages before her luck changes and Darcy (whom she has mis­judged on the basis of a dorky, diamond-patterned sweater) declares himself. "En­tire year has been failure."


Fielding's novel sits so lightly on the reader that it is easy to overlook the skill with which it has been assembled. True, it has the feel more of a sustained stunt than of a full-blown fictional uni­verse, and an ornate subplot involving Bridget's mothers affair with a swin­dling Lothario is an irritating con­trivance. But Bridget's persona is lit by a spark of genius: she is both Everywoman and an implicitly ironic ob­server of Everywoman, as though Helen Gurley Brown and Nora Ephron had traded secrets over a low-calorie lunch. One of the pleasures of reading this book is sensing that you're privy to the gossip of the harem—what women talk about when they're not putting a bright face on things (and Gloria Steinem isn't within earshot). Without getting too high-flown, you could say that Bridget Jones is about the anxiety of self-presentation. Certainly her sen­sibility—half gullible consumer, half astute commentator—nicely illustrates the split between women's packaged and instinctual selves. I find it mystify­ing, in any case, that some readers have regarded Bridget's magpie-like nib­bling at glossy magazines—with their service pieces on reducing your pores and refashioning your personality—as a sorry symptom of the makeover cul­ture rather than a sly subversion of it.


THERE is something immensely con­soling about Bridget's acknowl­edgment of her fears—specifically, the primal female fear of ending up man-less and alone. The novel provokes you to reconsider the question of whether marriage remains the defining experi­ence, if not the signal accomplishment, of a woman's life. Marcelle Clements suggests that it is not in her recent book, "The Improvised Woman: Single Women Reinventing Single Life" (Nor­ton; $26.95). This is harem gossip of another sort, conceived with altogether different intentions. I'm probably the ideal reader for this book: divorced, in my early forties. But while Bridget's constant exhortations to herself to "stop being so neurotic and stop dreading things" made me feel less lonely, I came away from reading Clements with the odd sense that there was nothing wrong with me that couldn't be ex­plained away. Now that made me lonely. Clements has interviewed about a hun­dred single women, ranging in age from their twenties to their nineties. They include widows, divorcees, young women who are wary of the tender trap (like one who, when asked whether she feels envious of her married peers, an­swers that "most of the people who are married I look at and say, 'Thank God I'm not in that'"), as well as the never-to-be-married types who used to be called spinsters or old maids. They are an exceptionally engaging lot, and many struck me as being not only can­did but fairly self-aware; it's hard to imagine a similar group of men talking about themselves with such a lack of bravura or posturing.


Clements has loosely organized her material along thematic lines into eight chapters (some with gratingly cute titles, such as "No Cat Food, Thank You—The Poor Old Thing vs. The Ball Buster"). Among the subjects discussed are the notorious man short­age, which is attributed to either an in­tangible but site-specific deficiency ("The men are hopeless in New York") or the general prevalence of gay men; one woman hadn't been on a date in six years, and many haven't gone out since their last serious relationship ended. Some of them confess to har­boring poignant wedding fantasies, like the unmarried Ellen P., who says, "Even now, I religiously read the sec­tion of the Times about weddings. I'm completely haunted by the idea of this configuration." Others take a cooler view of the institution: "The only thing a husband gets you is a dining room." We discover that one of the advantages of living alone is that "you can leave three bitten chocolates in the box," while a woman who says she's heavily into Tantric sex admits, "It's very hard to do alone. I can't seem to find my own G-spot." Aside from these occasional graphic flashes, there is remarkably little direct discussion of the sexual cost of being single. Perhaps women are better able than men to shut down the apparatus of arousal. Phillipa C., a thrice-married fifty-year-old, believes that chasteness and motherhood go together: "A mother turns off her sex so she can have sexy physical contact with her children." A few of the women have stepped back from the whole fraught arena of de­siring or being desired, preferring to concentrate on cucumbers or Shabbas candles; Regina M. describes her vi­brator as "a sort of commitment to self-sufficiency." But it's clear that this approach has its limits: "I am not sure what to do about the cuddle thing," Mary Ann B. muses. "Because nobody cud­dles with their vibrators." There is much talk about home decor, especially bedrooms (enormous attention is paid to sheets and their thread count), and the difficulty single women of any age have in setting up the house they've always wanted without a man in the picture. "I'm trying to figure out if home is still my father's house," Camille O. says.


The interviews are absorb­ing, although the women's comments rapidly begin to seem disembodied. (Clements's characterizations, alternately coy and generic, don't help. How is Monica V., "48, di­vorced, midwestern entrepreneur... bemused by the course her life had as­sumed," supposed to take on a distinctive life in one's mind? Or Gallic S., a "real estate agent who has raised her youngest daughter as a single mother"? This weak­ness may be endemic to the form, but the book would have been greatly helped by some straightforward cap­sule biographies at the be­ginning.) Clements has written a prefatory essay to each chapter which is filled with factoids (she places the official homosexuality rate among American men at a whopping fifteen per cent), stimulating conjectures ("An ability to break up with some­one... has become no less a sign of self-esteem than the capacity to attract a mate"), and an easy use of psycho­analytic concepts ("phallic mothers" and "female geni­tal anxiety").


What's most striking about these essays, however, is not their style but their programmatic purpose, which is to dispel the unsettling atmosphere that has been gradually clouding over the feminist reconstruction of the world. Whether it was the famous 1986 study stat­ing that if a woman hadn't married by thirty-five her chances of doing so fell to five per cent or the gloomy news that the better educated a woman was the less chance she had of finding a mate, various cultural indices have suggested that bras might be burned and con­sciousnesses might be raised but hu­man nature was irrevocably conserva­tive. If you tried to rechoreograph the dance of the sexes, in other words, you might end up a wallflower. The demo­graphics are undeniable: there are nearly forty-two million single women in this country, up by three million since the beginning of the nineties. And for every woman Clements interviews who boasts about the "privilege of sin­gleness" there are several who observe that the "whole world is in twos" or who seem bewildered by their situa­tion. "It s so difficult to be single in this society," blurts Martha H., who is suc­cessful, very attractive, and has never married, "that no one in her right mind would choose to be single if she could do otherwise." With the exception of a few career loners or embittered divor­cees, not many of the author's subjects appear to have chosen singleness vol­untarily. Rather, they are making the best of the situation that they find themselves in, which is surely more valiant than drowning in self-pity. But Clements ignores the tentative accommodations and brute social truths that are offered up in the interviews in favor of making cheerful assertions about "the romance of independence" and the perfectly "reasonable option" of singleness. She concedes in her intro­duction that "feminism did not replace marriage as a source of definition," but as the book proceeds her tone becomes increasingly messianic. Toward the end, you can almost hear the trumpets blare: "Because what has really hap­pened is that women now can indeed have it all: the phallus, the womb, the sperm, the baby, the job, the home, the works. Or none of it, and still be a woman."


Once you establish an agenda, anything can be massaged to fit into it. The spectre of loneliness which haunts these pages gets transmuted by Clements into something warm and cozy called "creative solitude." (The very phrase makes me want to run screaming in the other direction, into the arms of one of those hopeless male specimens.) In this creative soli­tude, as Clements envisions it, women don't give themselves pedicures or watch gobs of late-night television or, heaven knows, plot to call matchmak­ers or answer personal ads. No, they have become "reluctant mystics," at­tuned to the ineffable—when they're not meditating on the crucial matter of thread count, that is. The wackiest of the authors theories is that "bed linen chitchat is not a sign of a regres­sion in women's discourse, but rather a paradoxical proof of how much prog­ress has been made." Although the only person I have ever passionately discussed my sheets with is a gay dec­orator, Clements believes that sin­gle women have a special connection to sheets, on account of "their inti­macy with solitude." These women no longer accept their "sexual wallflower" status, she says, "exemplified by rough sheets, hard pillows, and a creaky mat­tress of old worn out springs." Nowa­days, they have a consumer's paradise of bed linen to choose from—"matelassé, piqué, dotted Swiss, Porthault, Egyptian cotton, English linen, che­nille..." The list goes on and on, for the truly discriminating. One might just as well argue that these sheets are less a luxurious symbol of autonomy than a form of compensation for a lack of body warmth—for sleeping alone. "You don't have to have sex to rate a 208-threads-per-inch count," Clements solemnly notes. "All you need is a Visa card." True, but a lit­tle sex wouldn't hurt those nice new sheets, either.


"WHEN my daughter was still young enough for bedtime lullabies, I used to sing her a lugubrious tune I had learned many years earlier, when I took a short-lived series of guitar les­sons. I loved the limpid, minor-key sound of the music, but I think I responded to the mournful lyrics even more: "I never will marry / I'll be no man's wife /I intend to stay single / all the rest of my life. / Some say that love is a splendid thing / it only has caused me pain / and the only boy I ever loved / has gone on that midnight train." The longing and resignation spoke to my brooding teen-age soul, but I think the song has stayed with me all these years because it is a cau­tionary tale, connecting the fate of a single woman with opportunities missed. "This is all choice," insists Monica V., who earlier says that the reason she went to college was to meet "a better type" of husband. "And there's nothing pathetic about it." The truth of the matter is probably a shade less didactic: it's not all choice, but that doesn't make being a single woman any the more pathetic.


Still, there's something wishful—if not disingenuous—at the core of Cle-ments's argument, beginning with the selective presentation of her own life. We learn little about her: that she came to America from France when she was ten, and that she acquired a collection of something called Pony-tail desk accessories. She tells us that she was briefly married and then, "after the nasty and protracted breakup of an eleven-year relationship," found her­self alone at the beginning of the nineties. She refers to a pre-school-age son, but never specifies whether she's his birth or adoptive mother (I assume the latter). I mention these autobio­graphical details because, sparse as they are, they don't suggest the trajec­tory of a woman who intended to re­main alone—and who, I might add, could meet someone tomorrow. In fact, since my own mother has taken to musing that I may not be, after all, the kind of woman who was meant to be a Smug Married, I'm a little nervous. Is this a sign of open-mindedness on her part, or has she just given up? Cle­ments states that "the desperate single belongs to the past," but that's like say­ing the Marriage Plot is dead and gone. I wonder whether any of the women in her brave new world, looking at their daughters, would choose for them the pleasures of creative solitude over the less creative and sometimes monotonous intimacy of marriage. As Felicia C., the forty-four-year-old mother of Anna, an eleven-year-old girl, puts it, "How would I feel if Anna turned out to be single? Sad."