The eternal promise of Bridget Jones

Her version of adulthood may not have quite come true for most millenials, but twenty-five years on, Helen Fielding’s creation is as funny and compelling as ever argues Lauren O'Neill

Lauren O'Neill

Picture the wretched scene: you have been stood up on a date. Crying, you go home to lie on the sofa, think about dying alone, and listen to Céline Dion. Amid the dejection, it’s possible that one thought at least may raise a smile.

'Quite Bridget Jones of me, really.'

Many millennials weren’t around when Bridget Jones first turned up, twenty-five years ago this week, as the fag-smoking, self-help guide-reading, thirty-something creation of the writer Helen Fielding. I was born almost exactly one year before, and so grew up with Bridget as an eternal touchstone, her name shorthand for a frothy sort of abjection that inevitably afflicts young women navigating romance, relationships and early adulthood.

Initially materialising through a series of newspaper articles, Bridget Jones was concocted after The Independent asked Fielding to write a column about contemporary life for women in the 1990s. Not wanting readers to think she was chronicling her own failed new year’s resolutions and dating mishaps, Fielding conceived of her character as a means of discussing and – crucially – lampooning the many trials and tribulations of being a young woman at the time (in 2005, Fielding captured the spirit of the Bridget Jones columns, describing them as an exploration of 'why it takes three hours between waking up in the morning and leaving the house’). The weekly column took the form of Bridget’s diary, and in 1996, the entries were published as a novel, with a sequel released three years later.

For the girls who grew up reading and watching Bridget, she was an emblem of adulthood

You probably know all of this, though. Because Bridget Jones was – and still is – a phenomenon. In 2013 there was a third book, and its film adaptation followed in 2016.

Bridget’s impact can be best explained by the fact that many still link her with any sort of behaviour we might privately file in our brains under ‘tragic’, and have done for over two decades.

The rise of the internet and fourth wave feminism have contributed to a modern era where ‘messy’ women abound in media – Girls, Bridesmaids, Broad City and Girls’ Trip are just a few examples from TV and film from the past few years – but with Bridget Jones, Fielding set a precedent twenty-five years ago. She began to clear the way so that the Fleabags and Queenies of the present could be the flawed, multi-dimensional female protagonists that we now expect (though it’s important to add that Bridget broke through in the 1990s because she was a straight, white, middle-class heroine; by contrast, it’s only really now that we’re starting to hear from ‘messy women’ from marginalised groups on a much-needed mainstream level).

Bridget Jones’ relationship with millennials, however, and her legacy as a whole, is more complex than the fact that she remains the light-hearted face of smoking a 20 deck in 90 minutes and ringing one’s ex-boyfriend in an unfortunate state of wine-inebriation. For the girls and young women who grew up reading and watching her, she was also an emblem of adulthood. And the future she promised would turn out to be an unfeasible one for most.

Bridget, after all, is an idea – and one which is to a significant degree satirical (much of the bite of the original texts didn’t make its way into the films, which served to popularise the more relatable aspects of the character). Insulated from most serious political concerns by nepotism and her habitation of a Richard Curtis-version of Nineties London that is more ‘dinner parties and publishing events’ than ‘the encroachment of gentrification and financialisation’, she does not quite belong to the real world – despite the fact that her inner monologue and emotional life are so richly rendered, and the universality of some of her concerns.

It doesn’t help that the millennials who grew up with her have come of age in a post-recession landscape defined by a housing crisis, an underfunded NHS, and austerity, all of which have made some of the promises of Bridget’s story – for example: that you can buy and live alone in a flat right by Borough Market on a publishing assistant’s salary – feel laughable.

But at the same time, these harsh realities make it easy to see why many millennials are attracted to the nostalgia of Bridget Jones. Financial comfort and general optimism feel like the stuff of cosy escapism, not least because the mid-Nineties are a time that most of us don’t properly remember (which also helps to explain why other cultural products from the 1990s, such as Friends, continue to enjoy such popularity among young people).

Fielding’s writing is just masterfully good

It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that the main reason for Bridget’s enduring appeal is that Fielding’s writing is just masterfully good. Her comic timing is perfect (there are hundreds to choose from, but one aptly Nineties musing of Bridget’s reads: 'Apparently there is a character in the new Martin Amis novel who is so crazily addicted that he starts wanting a cigarette even when he is smoking one. That is me.'), and the balance of rom-com tone with sharp observations about what it is like to be silly, hopeless, in love, under societal pressure, self-sabotaging and many things in between still makes for intoxicating reading.

Relatability shouldn’t necessarily be the hallmark of good writing, but there is something undeniably satisfying about reading the same stupid, banal things you have done and thought through Bridget’s dippy lens, especially when Fielding so deftly crafts them into something worth reading about. It’s for that reason, twenty-five years and an entire lifetime on, that despite the impossibility of her outer world, there’s still much to love about Bridget Jones’ inner life. I imagine she’d be ‘v. v. honoured’.

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