Helen Fielding and Jane Austen are writing 200 years apart about the predicament women find themselves in thanks to their relationships with men. While the style of writing and social conditions of the pieces are different, do the characters and stories really reflect this 200-year gap?
In Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, character relationships are highly important. Helen Fielding based Bridget Jones's Diary loosely around Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, using the same incidents that happen to Elizabeth, but updating them into Bridget's 1990s lifestyle. This entry is going to look at these two young women who, despite their wit and independent thinking, share the same predicaments and assess whether 200 years of writing, feminism and increasing equality have really altered the heroines' situations and attitudes.
Our heroines, Bridget Jones and Elizabeth Bennet, share many similarities; they are both headstrong, outspoken and don't like to be told what to do, but they also have many differences and characteristics that reflect the two different eras in which their stories are told. Elizabeth is living in a pre-feminist society, although Austen gives the reader hints of feminist attitudes to come in the outspoken manner that Elizabeth uses.
I am no longer surprised at you knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder not at you knowing any.
Bridget however, says exactly what she wants, when she wants and in the most embarrassingly absurd manner, she graphically embodies every woman's idiosyncrasies standing open mouthed in front of the mirror, during mascara application. Although Elizabeth and Bridget are essentially the same character, Fielding is at liberty to allow Bridget complete freedom of expression as well as thought.
Relationships are the focus of each novel; our heroines are both looking for 'Mr Right', and the comment that, 'I think Mr Darcy improves on acquaintance' can be applied to both. Austen's Mr Darcy has become the archetypal 'Mr Right' despite all his problematic qualities. He begins the novel as the least likely person to fall in love with Lizzy as shown in his remark 'she is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me', which makes Lizzy in turn acquire one of Darcy's most unfavourable qualities; she judges him on first impressions. Through a twist in the plot Austen then allows both the heroine and the reader to see Darcy for what he truly is. Austen's proud, arrogant Darcy has been recreated by Fielding in the form of barrister Mark Darcy, who undergoes a similar transformation, initially making Bridget feel as though 'everyone stared at me, thinking "So that's why Bridget isn't married. She repulses men."'
The two fathers, Mr Bennet and Mr Jones, better reflect the changes of the last 200 years. Mr Bennet, though kind and understanding, is a patriarch who has ultimate control over Lizzy's life. Mr Jones has no such control, times have changed and it is not his daughter who runs away, it is his wife. This reflects the fact that family has become less important in our more mobile society. Lizzy's father could determine her actions to some extent, whereas Bridget's father is completely helpless as his women move around him.
Friends and family play an important part. Bridget's friends welcome Mark into their comfortable group happily and to Bridget his being accepted by her extended family is more important than acceptance from her actual family. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth's friends and family both dislike Mr Darcy, which makes the situation awkward for all the characters. Indeed families cause major problems for both Lizzy and Bridget, but they are also a device to allow the reader to see the feelings the heroines and the Darcy's have for each other. In Bridget Jones, Mark helps to deal with the 'criminal element' in Bridget's family prior to the start of their relationship, much like Mr Darcy handles the search for the eloping Wickham and Lydia and thus prevents the ruin of Lizzy's family. However, the two hundred year gap shows, as Mr Darcy uses Lizzy's family as a strong reason not to be with her - although his feelings of superiority will never be diminished, he will reluctantly put it behind him to be with her. Mark and Bridget's relationship is unaffected by her family connections, despite the somewhat ridiculous behaviour of her mother and Bridget's fears that he 'was obviously completely put off by culinary disaster and criminal element in family, but too polite to show it at time.'
Both novels use the device of a 'sounding board' to allow the heroines to air their feelings and thus allow the reader to know exactly how Lizzy and Bridget are feeling. In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy says to her beloved older sister,
If you were to give me 40 such men, I never could be so happy as you. 'Til I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness.
Austen uses Jane to demonstrate Elizabeth's sensible and compassionate side by showing how they interact and the love and affection they show for each other. Jane is the only person Lizzy tells everything to, which helps her to reconsider her view of Darcy. Fielding on the other hand, gives Bridget three devices; her diary to let her contemplate her own thoughts; her friends Shaz, Tom and Jude to give her (not always useful) advice and Self Help Books! These all allow her to find solace, but not necessarily the answers to her problems.
Both authors allow us insights into the heroines' lives, personalities and relationships through their style of writing. Fielding uses the first person narrative, telling the story with a one-sided view of life and giving a very immediate and intimate slant to the story. Bridget tells us her feelings directly through her diary, so we know her innermost thoughts, which she discloses to no one else.
Spent the weekend struggling to remain disdainfully buoyant after the Daniel g**kwittage débâcle. I kept saying the words, 'Self-respect' and 'Huh' over and over til I was dizzy, trying to barrage out, 'But I lurrrve him'.
Lizzy's story is also one-sided, despite being written in third person narrative. It is told through Lizzy's eyes but not in her own words, creating a barrier for the reader. Even when Lizzy is talking to herself, it is still not as direct or intimate as Bridget's diary entries.
Why is he so altered? From what can it proceed? It cannot be for me, it cannot be for my sake that his manners are thus softened. My reproofs at Hunsford could not work such a change as this. It is impossible that he should still love me.
Austen's characters are still very accessible 200 years on, although to a young female reader of the 21st Century, who has grown up around equal rights and opportunities, the idea of being someone's property is a disturbing thought. It is easier to identify with Bridget.
Helen Fielding has employed post-feminist attitudes in her novel and this allows the character of Bridget to be relaxed in male company, unlike Elizabeth who although being quick-tongued and forthright in her opinions, is still repressed by class and her status as a woman. Feminism gave 20th Century writing and female characters freer reign, in particular allowing them a say in their own lives. On the 2 July, 1928, women gained the vote on equal terms as men and the 'new woman' challenged patriarchy by not only demanding the vote, but also defying convention and choosing her own lifestyle. This is shown poignantly in Fielding's characters such as Shaz, who is an ardent feminist but still wants a conventional relationship,
Next thing, Shaz turned up in tears, which was really nice in a way because usually she does not show that she minds about anything.
'Bloodybloodys,' she got out eventually. 'It's just been an entire year of emotional f**k-ups, and I'm so confused.'
Although Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice years before feminism became a recognised movement, in Elizabeth it is possible to see distinct hints of the feminist revolt to come. Elizabeth is very outspoken and doesn't see why women should be forced into marriages of convenience or why property and fortune should be 'entailed away from' the female line, and this is something that Fielding has picked up in her writing. Bridget is very lucky, feminism has given her a voice of her own and she makes a well-enforced argument on the subject,
The point is you are meant to vote for the principle of the thing, not the itsy-bitsy detail about this percent and that percent. It's perfectly obvious that Labour stands for the principle of sharing, kindness, gays, singles mothers and Nelson Mandela...
Austen was writing in an age where women were considered lower class citizens. In the 1800s, money and estate were to be given to the next male of the family and women had to rely on being married off to stay in the lifestyle they were accustomed to. Women couldn't be self-sufficient without the aid of a man, they had to marry for money and leave love to luck. Money and men went hand in hand as Austen portrayed in her opening line 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.' Fielding however, writing in the late 1990s, has had almost 100 years to adapt to equality, women having the vote, owning property and having our own jobs. Bridget is living in a very liberal era compared to Elizabeth, who cannot pursue a man or her happiness as readily as Bridget, due to the rules and regulations of English manners of the 1800s.
Although the 200 years that has passed between these two authors have allowed women more say in their lives and freed them to go in search of 'Mr Right', the similarities in these books demonstrate that more freedom doesn't necessarily make this easier. The same situations and complications can occur to a 'thirty-something' woman working in publishing in 1997 as to a woman 'not one and twenty' in a comfortable but restricted lifestyle in 1813. Relationships still stay difficult and we all have the same worries and concerns. Elizabeth and Bridget both get their Mr Darcy and we all want to hide from our families from time to time, but in the 1800s women were objects, in the 1990s they are anything but. Miss Bennet has been transformed into the still confused, but liberated Ms Jones.