by Carolyn Dineen
I mentioned in my previous installment of Chick/Lit, I am not a great reader of chick lit. Instead, I read Jane Austen. As such, I find it suitable that one of the genre’s most famous novels, Helen Fielding’s 1996 Bridget Jones’s Diary, would draw its inspiration from Pride and Prejudice. In my mind, Austen is very much the ancestor of modern-day chick lit, and certainly an influence on the work of many women writers.
So what earns Austen a seat in literary canon and on university course syllabi (and a six-hour long BBC miniseries), while Fielding is relegated to the categories of “fluff” and “rom com”? What exactly is the big difference between Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary? As I read, I felt as though there wasn’t much of a difference between the two heroines, their love interests, and the overall plot trajectory. But I wasn’t so sure that gave Fielding credibility as a master of women’s literature; and nor did I think Austen didn’t deserve her impressive accolades.
Both novels centre around the idea of the accomplished woman – more specifically, how each heroine does not live up to the expectations on women of their time and yet still manage to overcome such personal and situational flaws to find rich and handsome men. In 1813, the accomplished woman, according to Darcy, must “have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages [and] possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions [and] must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
Meanwhile, Bridget’s long list of New Year’s resolutions might give a hint at what is expected from the late 20th century accomplished woman: go to the gym, eat healthy, be thin, be clever, have a successful career, possess “inner poise,” and, of course, maintain a “functional relationship with [a] responsible adult.”
Both heroines are, in their eyes and those of their mothers, failures at being so-called accomplished. Elizabeth is only “tolerably” handsome, cannot play piano well, does not draw or speak any other languages, and cannot hold her tongue. Bridget’s weight escalates and crashes, she smokes and drinks excessively, and cannot hold her tongue.
Bridget Jones is meant to be a modern, urban reincarnation of Elizabeth Bennet in the late nineties, and so too should her definition of the accomplished woman reflect the shifting expectations on women over nearly two centuries; and yet, Bridget’s world – or at least her narration of it – isn’t terribly cosmopolitan or diverse either. Like Austen, Elizabeth’s class and gender limited her social circle to those very similar to her, excluding those of drastically different classes and ethnicities. On the other hand, Bridget, living in 1996 London, should, in theory, have a wider variety of people and versions of womanhood to draw on in dispelling the myth of the accomplished woman as being too strict a definition. Instead, readers get little representation of femininity besides a dichotomous set-up of cynical singletons versus smug wives. (Fielding’s perception of masculinity has perhaps evolved even less since Austen’s time, still pitting the Hugh Grant playboy type against the tough, cold-hearted Byronic hero who needs a quirky woman for redemption. Though there is, of course, Tom – Bridget’s utterly stereotypical gay best friend.)
Even in 1813, Elizabeth realized what Bridget could not: that the ideal accomplished woman does not actually exist. In response to Darcy’s long list of qualities a 19th-century woman needs to earn his admiration, Elizabeth says: “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.” Perhaps Elizabeth’s 19th-century dispute of this ideal is not based on an acceptance of women of all shapes, races, professions, and sexual identities, but we might consider it advanced for its time and 19th-century England setting. Bridget, meanwhile, seems to have taken a step backwards from Elizabeth’s proto-feminism. Her diary is essentially one long, self-loathing lament that she cannot conform to a stereotypical femininity that is disturbingly narrow and exclusionary for a single thirty-something living in one of the world’s most diverse cities in the late nineties.
So what is the difference between Elizabeth and Bridget, between Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary? In the end, not much. Both move in pretty homogenous peer groups and have lives that centre on the pursuits of boyfriends and superficial self-improvement. Both are in love with two stereotypical typecast men and end up with the richer of the two.
And perhaps the fact that they are the same is what makes them so different – what makes one literature and the other a light read that lacks real substance. For Elizabeth, her character and the tale of her using her cleverness and quirks, rather than her feminine wiles, to marry into wealth far surpassing her family’s, was perhaps unique and adventurous for its time. Her insight into the myth of the accomplished woman is advanced critical thinking that would not often be expressed by a woman in 1813, and certainly not directly to a man far above her in status. In the end, she marries the jerk who proposes to her by insulting her and her family, but maybe we can’t expect a complete disavowal of the values and environment Austen was raised in.
We can, however, expect that from Fielding, but she fails to deliver. Instead, she regurgitates Austen’s classic tale, using sex, cursing, binge drinking, self-help, and a stock gay character to bring it into the 20th century. The same things that readers admire Austen for writing in Elizabeth are not only muted down in Bridget, but in general less impressive in 1996. While she could have performed a unique interrogation of how Elizabeth really would have fared in in the late nineties, she fails to ask the pertinent questions about class, social expectations, and the education of women that Austen hints towards in the 19th century, or the myriad of other issues of race, ability, gender identity, class, or sexual orientation that many 20th century women are marginalized by.
Therein lies the difference: Austen belongs in literary canon and on university syllabi because though she is hardly without criticisms, in a historical context, she provided an alternative narrative to a literary stage heavily dominated by white men.
But if Bridget Jones is the stick by which to measure chick lit, then the genre is addressing a very narrow slice of chicks. And, perhaps unlike Austen’s readers in 1813, today we can and should expect more from writers writing about women.
Carolyn is a library worker and aspiring writer living in London, Ontario with her husband. She writes and rants at her blog, Cool Beans.