‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one part of your life starts going okay, another falls spectacularly to pieces.’ says Bridget Jones. Bridget’s diary began as a column in the Independent and went on to parody the classic novel Pride and Prejudice, and has since become a book, film and franchise. So, what do these fiction women embody for their readers?
Let’s start with Elizabeth Bennet. Intelligent, pretty but dependent on her family. Despite this, she goes against all social rules and refuses to marry Mr Collins. Perceived as headstrong by her parents, Elizabeth remains a spinster and eventually falls for Mr Darcy – a rich bachelor who proposes despite his family backgrounds.
When she was created and published in 1813, Elizabeth was a modern woman. But what message does she send to readers today? Perhaps ‘Wait for a rich, handsome man to sweep you off your feet’ might be a start. I’d like to hope that women can be more independent today, but Elizabeth’s troubles were partly caused because of her class. The daughter of a poor vicar, there was little money in her family, but it would not have been socially acceptable for any of the Bennet ladies to take in washing or take a position as a ladies’ maid. The women of Austen’s day had no choice but to hope for a good match, so its no surprise that the characters of her novels are obsessed with matchmaking.
In some ways, Bridget would have made Mrs Bennet the perfect daughter. Dutiful, hard-working and pursues the man her parents picked out for her. However, Bridget is a comical character. She is dropped into difficult and humorous situations, but is thoroughly modern. She is no longer dependant on her family. Bridget has a job and is financially stable. But unlike Elizabeth, she seems to need to be in a relationship – which leads her into the clutches of Daniel Clever and Mr Darcy. Is this a weakness in her character? I don’t think so. Poor judgement doesn’t make her any less of a role model. In fact, it makes her more like Elizabeth than ever, and a lesson for her readers.
All of Austen’s books contain lessons. If you know about Jane’s life, then you can see how those lessons were learned. At the age of twenty Jane met Thomas Lefroy and planned to elope, but the demands of their families prevented their marriage. She never saw him again, and never married. Jane’s sister, Cassandra was engaged to Thomas Fowle. In order to raise money for their wedding, Thomas went on a military expedition to the Caribbean but never returned. He died of yellow fever. You can see how the wealthy and healthy men of Austen’s novels are the fairy tale princes the sisters hoped for. Far from preaching to her readers, Jane took some of her father’s church teachings and fed morals into her stories. The good prosper, but beware charming men and look after your family.
We only know Austen’s stories thanks to the habit she shared with Bridget Jones and Helen Fielding (her creator.) They write. Their letters, diaries and books let us into the hidden worlds of these women, and warm us with their humour and flair. It is thanks to the form of Bridget’s dairy that we know her inner thoughts and miscalculations.
Both of these women were modern in their time, but society doesn’t seem to have changed much. The ageless theme of family runs through both books. We’re still plagued by the antics of our parents, their headstrong personalities, and strange ideas. Not only that, but the class structure remains, and there will always be people who believe they are worth more than we are. It’s up to independent individuals to take control of their lives. Not just in fiction.
Compared to Bridget, the fiery Elizabeth is much more forward thinking. Rather then Spurning the rules of society, I feel that the parody actually conforms to expectations. Women can seek role models from television, radio or books. They might revere singers or celebrities. But I hope that some readers look towards the Bennet family for a few life lessons. If all else fails, I have a copy of Bridget’s book on my shelf. It always makes me smile when I’m feeling down. Its just one way fictional women help me.