(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Like her literary forebear Jane Austen, Fielding’s literary genius lies in the realm of the comedy of manners, and, like Austen, Fielding’s primary subject is the relationship between men and women. While Austen’s writing gave birth to the modern romance novel and Fielding’s to “chick lit,” it would be fair to say that neither writer is really an innovator in plot and structure but rather both shine in their representation of character: Austen, for heroes who pulse with carefully restrained emotions, and Fielding, for a protagonist who alternately wallows and exults in the same emotions Austen’s characters so carefully control. It is the modern woman’s ability to appreciate Fielding’s roller coaster of emotion that has made Bridget Jones so popular.

Unlike the readers of Austen, who may find themselves identifying with a variety of characters, Fielding’s readers are left with only one imaginatively satisfying option, Bridget herself, and in reading her diary, the reader temporarily takes on the limitations of Bridget’s own vision.

The first of these limitations is the business of the weight/alcohol-unit/calorie catalog at the beginning of each diary entry. Never merely scientific data, these statistics always tell a story themselves, offering hints of what has happened during the day and giving the reader the pleasure of guessing what that happening was. Rarely has fiction given readers such systematic information on the connection between a character’s mind and her body. Though there is a comprehensive summary of consumption at the end of the book, because the novel is written as a diary, and truly for an audience of one, there is no equally comprehensive physical detail regarding the people and places in Bridget’s world because she obviously already knows quite well what they look like. This lack of physical detail—aside from the persistent presence of consumer products, like Silk Cuts, Salon Selectives, and Milk Tray—is another significant limitation on the reader’s vision, and it serves to accentuate and make more palpable the range of emotions Bridget experiences. The decisive limitation, however, is Bridget herself, who, in addition to being generally ignorant of the affairs of the world around her (she does not know the geographical location of Germany or the basic details of the television stories she herself is covering), also spends the bulk of her time thinking and worrying about two topics: her circle of friends and the men that are romantically interested in her. Granting these limitations to be necessary to the form Fielding uses, readers must ask themselves a question: What is the significance of this diary of Bridget Jones?

Having already written a score of newspaper columns in the voice of Bridget and now being asked to make these columns into a novel, Fielding found herself asking this very question. How could she give meaning to the disparate experiences of Bridget’s life? She did so by using the plots from Austen’s novels, first Pride and Prejudice and then Persuasion. By choosing these two novels to serve as the basis for her own plots, Fielding was, in essence, deciding the fate of Bridget Jones’s life. Despite the fact that the novels celebrate Bridget’s off-the-wall single antics, the events and people in Bridget’s life reveal that her happiness comes through sharing love with one man, Mark Darcy. While Fielding, unlike Austen, does not insist on marriage as a symbol or sacrament of this love, she does, like Austen, give first place to the theme of romantic love.

Fielding has taken heavy criticism from writers who maintain that this vision of romance is falsely conceived and not true to the experience of the modern woman. In addition, some argue that this representation of romance—and of Bridget’s almost-permanent emotional angst regarding it—perpetuates the stereotype that single women are single because there is something wrong with them, not because they desire that way of life.

There are no easy answers to these and other related criticisms arising from Fielding’s reenvisioning of Austen, but it is helpful for the first-time reader of the Bridget Jones books to remember that, above all, Bridget Jones is a comic figure. Whatever the cultural effects of Bridget’s adventures, it is important to remember her original reason for being, as Fielding has said in interviews, was to make people laugh at her in order that they might then be able to laugh at themselves. If this principle of comedy is remembered, Fielding’s books, in addition to being enjoyable, may also give readers the added benefit of wisdom.

Bridget Jones’s Diary

First published: 1996

Type of work: Novel

Bridget falls for the wrong man but then learns to love the right one.

Bridget Jones’s diary starts the new year the way many diaries do—with a bundle of resolutions, which in order to be followed would necessitate either the joining of a religious community or the complete obliteration of the personality of the diarist in question. As neither of these are options for Bridget, she does one of the very things she vowed not to do in her resolutions: fall for a man who is completely commitment-phobic, her boss at the publishing house, Daniel Cleaver.

This romance, the main event of the first half of the novel (a novel that covers each month of the calendar year), is constantly framed by Bridget’s interactions with her friends. No action of Daniel is too small to be analyzed by Bridget’s loyal trio of pals: the explosively opinionated Shazzer, the delicate Jude, and appearance-obsessed Tom, a homosexual. At least once a week the four get together, and the meetings, in addition to being a forum for discussing Bridget’s problems, also involve Shazzer proclaiming stridently her vision of feminism; Jude complaining and worrying about her own commitment-phobic boyfriend, Vile Richard; and Tom alternately offering advice to all and...

(The entire section is 2464 words.)