Modern Language

Bridget Jones's Diary

Robert F. Scott


In this review I will discuss my experiences teaching one recent British novel that has made a highly successful transatlantic crossing, Helen Fielding's bestselling comedy of manners Bridget Jones's Diary. In addition, I will also outline how this rich and versatile text lends itself to a range of pedagogical approaches as a result of its addressing a series of issues central to contemporary life. Though I had read a great deal about Fielding's novel following its publication, it wasn't until after two former students had raved to me about the novel that I seriously considered incorporating it into my course on twentieth- century British literature. While I was admittedly somewhat apprehensive about teaching such a famous (or infamous) work and one that had recently been adapted into a heavily promoted film, I was certain that my students would enjoy reading Fielding's social satire and knew that they would benefit from the keen insight her novel offered into contemporary life in Britain. What I did not come to understand until later, though, were the varying and at times surprising ways in which my students responded to Bridget Jones's Diary.


For those who haven't read the novel, a bit of background information is in order. First published in the United Kingdom in 1996, Bridget Jones's Diary had its origins in a weekly column that appeared in the London newspaper The Independent. In this column, Fielding, a freelance journalist who had previously worked for the BBC as a television producer, chronicled the comic adventures of an attractive, thirty-something woman working in the publishing world and living in the fashionable neighborhood of Notting Hill. Though she periodically consulted her own diary entries while composing these pieces, Fielding chose to create a fictional persona for her column because, as she confessed in a 1997 interview: "If you write as yourself, you can't help but want people to like you. If you write as somebody else, you can be honest about the secret, stupid, shameful things."


Throughout Bridget Jones's Diary, the heroine is depicted as a chain-smoking, wine-drinking, calorie-counter who obsesses over her fluctuating physical appearance, her stalled career, and, most importantly, her tumultuous love life. The novel is structured around a year's worth of diary entries, each of which is prefaced by a listing of calories consumed, cigarettes smoked, alcohol units imbibed, phone calls logged to friends and lovers, and moments spent having negative thoughts. Although she endures a series of trials - including a pregnancy scare, the midlife crisis of her mother, and the apparent disappearance of one of her closest friends - Bridget eventually attains her stated goal of "inner poise" (however momentarily) and the novel closes with her looking back happily on what she deems "an excellent year's progress" (271).


While conducting my initial research on Fielding's novel, I soon discovered that a number of critics were concerned about how this decidedly "British" novel would be received by an American audience. More often than not, British reviewers asserted that American readers wouldn't find Bridget Jones's Diary as amusing as their English counterparts because, put simply, they fail to appreciate irony. A typical response came from's Arabella Clauson. After questioning whether American readers "could stomach [Fielding's] fine art of self-deprecation and irony," Clauson added, "Popular consensus in the U.K. insists that U.S. citizens lack some fundamental structural components of the humorous faculty (an understandable assumption, in my opinion, after watching someone like a googly-eyed [Jim] Carrey flapping around on screen for the past ten years)." Nor were British critics alone in their concern as American reviewers were also eager to see how, as Harper's Bazaar contributor Shane Watson put it, Fielding's heroine would be received in "a country where self-nurturing and the having-it-all philosophy are alive and kicking."


In spite of these reservations, the American edition in fact made few stylistic concessions outside of such minor alterations as converting "stones" to "pounds" and changing a "ladder" in Bridget's stocking to a "run." Of greater concern to me from a pedagogical standpoint was the fact that Fielding's novel remains a work that is thoroughly steeped in contemporary British culture. Not only is Bridget Jones's Diary peppered with British slang terms that are largely unfamiliar to my students (i.e., "bollocks" and "fags"), but it also contains numerous references to popular magazines such as Hello! as well as to political and cultural figures like Denis Healy, Kathleen Tynan, and the "Sloane Rangers." Yet, despite my trepidations, I quickly learned that, although I occasionally needed to gloss certain allusions, Bridget's references to Cosmo sex quizzes, feng shui, and John Grey's Mars and Venus books were all well within the cultural framework of my students. Familiar, too, were Bridget's everyday quandaries of choosing the appropriate clothing for a first date, proper flirting etiquette, and dealing with hangovers.


One key point I stressed to my students early on was the phenomenal impact that Bridget Jones's Diay had on cultural life in England. After pointing out that Fielding's second novel won the 1997 British Book of the Year Award and stood atop the bestseller list for over six months, I explained how, as a cultural phenomenon, Bridget Jones's Diary quickly insinuated itself into British popular culture, not only by introducing the terms "singleton," "smug marrieds," and "emotional fuckwittage" into the vernacular but also in the ways in which the novel's heroine came to assume the status of a cultural icon. As Tamsin Todd noted in an early review of the novel: "Your name's an adjective, verb and noun, all at once. ('That's very Bridget Jones'; 'I pulled a Bridget Jones last night')." I also told my students that the Bridget Jones syndrome was so prevalent in late 1990s England that it generated a barrage of television documentaries and magazine articles while also spawning a slew of knockoff books, including the memorably entitled Does My Bum Look Big in This? by Asabella Weir.


The two aspects of Bridget Jones's Diary that were central to our class discussions were the novel's satirical tone and its use of the diary format. I was eager to explore these aspects in depth because I wanted my students to appreciate the fact that, beneath its humorous façade, Bridget's chatty, first-person account delivers a stinging attack on the various ways in which movies, books, and fashion magazines have negatively permeated the daily lives of all women, "singletons" and "smug marrieds" alike. However, based in part on the reservations cited earlier, I was at first concerned that my students would fail to pick up on Fielding's satirical intentions. While confident that they would enjoy such farcical scenes as Bridget's awkward introduction to Mark Darcy, her foolish appearance at a tarts and vicars party, and her disastrous dinner party near the close of the novel, I wondered whether they would be able to discern the more subtle ways in which Fielding uses her heroine's obsessive behavior to expose the undue influence that today's mass media has had in shaping women's attitudes toward physical beauty, self-fulfillment, and romantic love. Ultimately, I wanted them to see the way in which Bridget Jones is, in the words of Daphne Merkin, "both Everywoman and an implicitly ironic observer of Everywoman."


To do so, we took as our starting point the revealing passage in which Bridget, after completing the arduous ritual of preparing herself for a date, muses: "My back hurts, my head aches and my legs are bright red and covered in lumps of wax. Wise people will say Daniel should like me just as I am, but I am a child of Cosmopolitan culture, have been traumatized by supermodels and too many quizzes and know that neither my personality nor my body is up to it if left to its own devices" (52). Such a passage is characteristic of Fielding's satirical method in that, though filled with pop culture references and delivered in Bridget's blithe, self-deprecating voice, it nonetheless highlights the physical and emotional difficulties inherent in meeting the demands of an image-conscious society that privileges youth and beauty. By getting them to acknowledge how easily Bridget has co-opted such views, my students were better able to see how Fielding's heroine functions as a vehicle for spoofing social mores. One of the most difficult tasks involved in analyzing Bridget Jones's Diary was recognizing the complexity with which Fielding uses the diary format. Part of the problem with such an analysis is that, as even the novel's detractors admit, Bridget Jones's Diary is able to draw readers in quickly because it is a funny book and a very fast read. In fact, a number of my students admitted that they actually felt guilty because they had enjoyed reading the novel so much - a sentiment that, unfortunately, speaks volumes about student reading habits as well as their perceptions about what constitutes "literature." Moreover, because of its confessional tone and intimate revelations, the novel makes it difficult for readers not to sympathize with Bridget's viewpoint. As one of my students remarked, though she frequently makes dubious decisions and often appears ridiculous, we tend to laugh with Bridget, rather than at her. However, because readers are voyeuristically drawn into the heroine's self-absorption, it is difficult to step back and evaluate whether the diary form serves as a viable vehicle for self-awareness. Indeed, one of the questions I posed to my students was whether Bridget's diary was more than simply a ledger of her actions (as some critics have maintained) or if such a format truly allowed for reflection and personal growth. Based on our discussion of these points, the consensus seemed to be that, although she alters her outward behavior little during the course of the novel, by the close of her account Bridget has become more focused on what she must do in order to achieve both professional success and personal happiness.


While examining the novel's satirical tone and diary format enabled the class to address important stylistic and thematic concerns, our most lively sessions involved discussing the book's controversial depiction of gender politics. Before soliciting their views on whether or not they considered Bridget Jones's Diary to be a "feminist" work, I first detailed to my students how deeply divided reviewers were regarding such an issue. To demonstrate my point, I culled together passages from a series of reviews of Fielding's novel, ranging from popular magazines and literary reviews to more specialized publications, and then passed them out to the class. As these excerpts revealed, one could roughly divide the critical response to Bridget Jones's Diary into two distinct camps.


On the one hand were those reviewers who praised Fielding's heroine as a "poster child for the confused woman of the 1990" and who argued that her farcical adventures accurately depicted the personal and professional trials faced by many contemporary women. In her review of the novel in the New York Times Book Review, for instance, Elizabeth Gleick asserted, "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." Similarly, in her Times Literary Supplement review, Nicola Shulman wrote that Fielding's novel: "rings with the unmistakable tone of something that is true to the marrow; it defines what it describes. I know for certain that if I were a young, single, urban woman, I would finish this book crying, 'Bridget Jones, c'est moi.'" Conversely, there were a number of critics who found Fielding's novel to be superficial and who viewed Bridget Jones as a vulgar caricature of a helpless, marriage-obsessed single woman. For example, writing in the New York Times, Alex Kuczynski, though conceding that "Bridget Jones is satire, a sassy spoof of urban manners," nonetheless felt that "Bridget is such a sorry spectacle, wallowing in her man-crazed helplessness, that her foolishness cannot be excused."


At the close of one class period, I had students respond in writing to these differing interpretations. However, tackling the book's ideological underpinnings was somewhat problematical because, for the majority of my students, male and female, the term "feminism" tends to have largely pejorative connotations. In fact, when commenting upon gender-related issues in the novel, many female students would preface their remarks with the following caveat, "Though I don't consider myself a 'feminist,"' as if this were an inherently derogatory term. Given such attitudes, it was at times difficult getting them to see how Fielding's novel, while readily adopting the terminology of contemporary feminism, nonetheless pokes fun at how Bridget and her friends routinely view themselves as empowered "Sex Goddesses" when experiencing romantic difficulties and how quickly they threaten to release their "inner bitches" on those men who they feel have mistreated them. In a pedagogical phenomenon that seemingly echoed the divided critical reaction to Bridget Jones's Diary, my own class displayed radically opposing responses to Fielding's novel. I began our treatment of Bridget Jones's Diary by first going over a chronology of the author's life and works and then by soliciting what I call "gut reactions" to the novel from all eighteen members of the class. Almost immediately, it became clear that their responses to Bridget Jones's Diary were divided almost exclusively along gender lines. Several of my female students responded with unbridled enthusiasm. After prefacing their remarks with "This is by far the best book we read all term," many of these initial responders spoke of how funny the novel was - a number even mentioned that they had called up friends and family members in order to read them passages over the phone. The majority also noted that they found Fielding's depiction of the trials Bridget undergoes to be, in the words of one student, "Totally true."


In contrast to such a positive (though not unanimous) reaction to the novel among female members of the class, my half-dozen male students responded to the text in a much more lukewarm manner. "It's OK for a chick book," remarked one student, a comment that met with a nodding of heads among other males in the class. While conceding that Fielding's work was humorous in parts, several of my male students candidly admitted that they "couldn't see what was so great about the novel." The one aspect of Bridget Jones's Diary that seemed to bother these students the most were the lists of calories, cigarettes, and alcohol units that precede each entry. While recognizing how these listings serve as an accurate gauge of Bridget's level of happiness, they nonetheless quickly grew tired of such litanies. Interestingly, several male students also thought that Bridget was too self-absorbed - a charge they had not leveled at previous first-person accounts such as Margaret Drabble's The Millstone and David Lodge's Therapy. That the novel's portrait of male-female relations had struck a chord with my female students was most evident in the fact that, when it came time to select a topic for their oral presentations, over two-thirds of them chose to integrate aspects of Fielding's novel into their reports. Conversely, only one male student even alluded to Bridget Jones's Diary during his presentation.


Looking back on my experiences teaching Bridget Jones's Diary, I realize that, when I teach the novel again, I will make several key changes. First, I will explore more fully Fielding's use of irony in her depiction of the novel's heroine. That is, although my students were able to recognize that Bridget's neurotic actions are often exaggerated for comic effect, they nonetheless appeared to lack the critical sophistication to discern the subtle ways in which Fielding uses her heroine as a vehicle for social satire. Part of the reason for such a phenomenon can be traced to the fact that so many of my female students clearly identified closely with the social and interpersonal dilemmas faced by Bridget Jones. In addition, I will also press my male students more on why they responded to the text less enthusiastically than their female counterparts. In particular, I will ask them whether one has to be a woman to appreciate fully Bridget's experiences and to what extent the novel's depiction of most men as "fuckwits" (as Bridget and her friends frequently call them) factored into their tepid response. While considering these issues, I will also seek to bridge the gender gap by asking all of my students to consider the following questions: Aren't the personal goals that Bridget Jones strives for universal in nature? Who doesn't want to get the perfect job, attract the perfect mate, and behave properly in all social situations? Isn't it true that almost everyone feels that he or she should exercise more, eat less, and give more money to charitable organizations? In effect, don't we all aspire to become, in Bridget's words, the "perfect saint-style person"?


These strategical changes aside, however, I realize that many of my high expectations regarding teaching Bridget Jones's Diary were indeed well founded. As I had hoped, the students (for the most part) relished the humor of Fielding's novel and appreciated the insight into contemporary British life it provided. Moreover, I was especially pleased to see that, once my students began to recognize that the world Bridget Jones inhabits is not so different from their own, they were able to look more critically at the pivotal role mass media has in shaping how they lead their lives. As a result, far from seeing Bridget as a "sorry spectacle," the majority of my students were able to empathize easily with her self-absorption and obsessiveness. In so doing, they ultimately came to appreciate how cleverly Fielding's "sassy spoof" captures both the comic and semitragic aspects of single life in the 1990s.


Although public discussion of the novel has died down since I last taught it, Bridget Jones's Diary still remains a vital and highly adaptable text to teach for a host of reasons. In fact, while initially considering how best to integrate Fielding's novel into my own seminar, I came across a wide range of courses that featured the text. Among the dozens of schools that have taught Bridget Jones's Diary in both undergraduate and graduate courses are the University of Kansas, Western Michigan University, Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, Ohio University, Kansas State University, Miami University, and Northwestern University.


Tellingly, Fielding's satire has not been relegated solely to literature departments; the novel has appeared on the syllabi of film courses, cultural studies courses, and women's studies courses. Indeed, several of the latter taught Bridget Jones's Diary in conjunction with canonical texts that explore the socio-political dilemmas women have faced throughout the ages. One such course, "Women in the Literary Imagination," utilized Bridget Jones's Diary in its investigation of how women's marital choices, sexual practices, and economic rights in England have changed over the last two hundred years. Another course, "Truth[s] Universally Acknowledged: Jane Austen in Her Time and in Ours," examined Fielding's novel, whose overall narrative structure strongly parallels Pride and Prejudice, within the context of the recent literary phenomenon known as Austenmania."


Whereas I taught the work in an upper-level course on twentieth-century British literature, Fielding's novel has figured prominently in introductory courses that chart the development of the British novel from its inception to the present day as well as in more narrowly focused seminars such as "The Confessionalist Manifesto: Consumer Behaviour and Self-Construction in High Fidelity and Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Lights, Camera, London: Versions of England in Fiction and Film." With its highly popular film adaptation, Bridget Jones's Diary is ideally suited to film and literature courses, particularly those that examine the codes and conventions of the romantic comedy.


One area where teaching Fielding's novel would be especially fruitful would be in a course devoted to bestsellers or popular fiction. As I noted earlier, many of the students in my seminar felt guilty reading Bridget Jones's Diary and even wondered whether this highly readable novel should be considered real "literature." The following catalog entry from A. Baird-Baidinger's Cornell University course, entitled "True Romance," captures well the provocative literary and cultural issues inherent in a course that draws together Pride and Prejudice, The Philadelphia Story, When Harry Met Sally, and Bridget Jones's Diary: "This course will pay close attention to texts that aren't always taken together or taken seriously: fictional and 'real life' romantic narratives delivered to us by cinema, TV, advertising, and print media. How 'true' are they - and true to what? What do they tell us about the cultural meanings assigned to 'romance' and 'love,' and how can they help us understand gender, identity, and desire in contemporary culture?" As such a description illustrates, Bridget Jones's Diary is not only an important text to teach because it is a commercially successful novel that skewers such relevant issues as contemporary culture's obsession with physical appearance, it is also a work that offers valuable insight into the current zeitgeist regarding feminism, marriage, romantic love, and what Bridget Jones herself, in the novel's closing entry, calls "the secret of happiness" (267).