Next week the much anticipated third Bridget Jones novel will be available in bookstores and yet again internet and newspapers are infected by a true Bridget-frenzy. Just like in the 1990s, journalists all over the world try to answer the one question: Is Bridget Jones a feminist or the incarnation of a conservative, pre-women’s-rights-movement image of a woman?
The Guardian’s Suzanne Moore told her readers today why she hates Bridget Jones and explains that Bridget Jones is post-feminist and that post-feminism advocates a fiction that argues that feminism is a thing of the past: women celebrate their femininity and their independence by doing what they want, be it drinking, shopping or having sex with strangers. The problem with post-feminism, however, is that it stresses a self-obsessed image of the individual woman. Structural problems such as everyday sexism or rape culture are eclipsed by the individual woman’s right to buy Manolo Blahniks and drink Cosmopolitans.
This view is shared by many critics of the Bridget Jones phenomenon. Nevertheless, they often overlook a crucial feature of Helen Fielding’s novels: In fact, Bridget is not a modern, post-feminist, everyday woman – she is a Victorian.
Bridget Jones has more in common with Jane Austen’s 19th century novel Pride and Prejudice than Mr. Darcy. Bridget struggles with many of the problems of a Victorian twenty-something, the most important one being the hunt for a husband. Although Bridget and her friends established the term “singleton” to refer to the freedom and satisfaction that can be obtained from being single, they also make clear that “singletondom” in fact is a fiction. After all, in her new year’s resolutions, Bridget decides:
“I will not sulk about having no boyfriend, but develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without a boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend.” (Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary, 2)
While Bridget has probably learned this credo from one of her many self-help books (most likely, The Rules), it could just as likely come from one of the many Victorian conduct manuals for young women, that were available to Jane Austen, her heroines, and her readers. In 1766, John Fordyce wrote in Sermons for Young Women, a book that is explicitly mentioned in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
“I know nothing that renders a woman more despicable, than her thinking it essential to happiness to be married. Besides the gross indelicacy of the sentiment, it is a false one, as thousands of women have experienced. But if it was true, the belief that it is so, and the consequent impatience to be married, is the most effectual way to prevent it.” (Fordyce, Sermons to Young Women)
Bridget Jones’s idea of the singleton is not too far away from the Victorian nightmare of spinsterhood. When a Victorian woman could not find a husband, there were basically two options: she could either live off her relatives’ money or she could become a governess (like Jane Eyre). Either way, her status as unmarried woman would suffice to make her an inappropriate member of society. Spinsters were frequently made the object of ridicule and social alienation just as Austen’s Miss Bates, a woman who is repeatedly referred to as old maid and who is described as enjoying “a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman not married” (Austen, Emma, chapter 3).
I am fully aware that things have changed: an unmarried woman today is granted ownership of money and other possessions and the state of “unmarriedness” over the age of 30 is much more common. However, is it more acceptable? I am fairly sure that many single women have experienced similar situations as Bridget Jones: coming to a family gathering and being asked about the still non-existent boyfriend? Having been in a relationship and being asked when it was finally time to get married? Having been married and being asked when it was finally time to have children?
Many Victorian values are still upheld in our contemporary society, which is why feminism is not an issue of the past. While Bridget might be neurotic, self-obsessed, self-destructive in her attempt to balance out her “feminist” values and her want for love and commitment, and sometimes even slightly annoying, I think that many modern critics are too harsh on her. Bridget Jones’s Diary by no means represents a post-feminist manifesto that argues that women now “have it all” and can lead fulfilled lives filled with consumerism and narcissism. To me, the novels are a kind of warning: If a Victorian woman like Bridget Jones can walk the streets of 21th century London without being recognized as such, feminism is still to be called for. If so many readers can identify with a woman who struggles with Victorian gender issues, without realizing the character’s sense of “pastness” and instead mistaking her for “one of them”, a post-feminist society is still a long way to go.
Beware: Major Spoiler!
Although critics and fans alike already seem to condemn the main plot twist of the third novel, I only see it fit that Bridget has to face another Victorian dilemma: widowhood! (Yes… Mr. Darcy is going to die!)