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Bridget Jones's Diary is a modern classic - that is, one of those books that everybody has either read or is about to read. It was a phenomenon when it was published in 1996, and since the release of the 2001 Miramax film starring Renée Zellweger as the eponymous heroine, it has become phenomenal all over again. The epitome of early-30s angst, Bridget Jones is a lovable character - all the more fun for her flaws - and Helen Fielding's book is a masterpiece of modern comedy.
It begins, as so many good books do, with a party. To be more precise, Una and Geoffrey Alconbury's New Year's Day turkey curry buffet in Grafton Underwood1. Unfortunately, it is not the most successful party for Bridget - or New Year - for that matter, as her parents' married friends continually ridicule her single status. To add insult to injury, her mother tries to match make her with Mark Darcy, a rich, aloof lawyer whom we first meet being rude and wearing a diamond-patterned sweater and bumblebee socks. Not a good sign.
The other man in Bridget's life is the delectable Daniel, her boss, who embodies everything that stuffy, badly dressed Mark doesn't. They begin their torrid affair over the internal email system of the publishing company for which Bridget works. Using all her feminine wiles and a pair of humongous tummy-tuck pants, Bridget scores, and catapults herself into a new dimension of emotional manipulation. Dashing, flirty and exciting, Daniel could well be rather more trouble than he's worth... but of course Bridget's in love. Or is she?
Supported by her hilarious mismatch of friends, Bridget stumbles through a year of love, heartache, self-discovery and alcoholic recrimination. And as her overbearing mother leaves our reluctant heroine's father and gets herself into increasing trouble, she needs to find out what her priorities really are. She begins to wonder if perhaps Mark Darcy isn't all he appears on the surface either.
The Important Things in Life
Apart from tragic singledom, and the possibility of being found dead, alone and eaten by Alsatians, Bridget's main preoccupation is with her size and health. At the beginning of every diary day Bridget charts her fluctuating weight, mental state and alcohol, calorie and cigarette consumption, with comic asides (eg 'suffocating sorrows with fat duvet') that help make Fielding's style so distinctive.
Equally stylistic is the fact that the sentences are occasionally bereft of all definite and indefinite articles, in order to mimic the writing of a lazy or time-strapped diarist. Accordingly, the book is peppered with abbreviations which have been mimicked in magazines and other formats ever since. For instance:
- g - good
- v - very
- vg - very good
- vv - very very
- vvg - very very good
- fag - cigarette
- ugh - that was unbelievably unpleasant
Of course, the most essential element of Fielding's writing is the witty, insightful humour, always inventive, and often to 'laugh out loud on the tube2' proportions.
Something about slightly overweight Bridget, constantly struggling with life, lard, love and lies, really touches a nerve with the British public and with audiences all over the world.
The book's initial triumph was immense, and could probably have been predicted by its initial success as a column in the London Independent newspaper. Everybody was talking about Bridget Jones and comparing themselves to her, spawning the fairly amusing Fast Show sketch where dinner party guests argued over who 'is' Bridget Jones to comic effect.
One of Bridget's most endearing characteristics is her total failure to be impossibly perfect. Like so many of her readers, she strives to be everything the Cosmopolitan girl should be - thin, beautiful, glowing and not dependent on any of the following: 'alcoholics, workaholics, commitment phobics, people with girlfriends or wives, misogynists, megalomaniacs, chauvinists, emotional f**kwits or freeloaders, perverts'.
But Bridget, as many of her fans no doubt empathise, finds life outside the pages of her favourite glossy rather less glamorous and rather more reliant on cigarettes, alcohol and - failing all - nervous humour. The universal appeal of a heroine who is led not always by her ideals - but by her emotional and biological urges - is obvious. It's easy to identify with. If you haven't been there, you certainly haven't done it.