I believe Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, first published in the UK 25 years ago this year, is one of the funniest books ever written. This isn’t exactly an unpopular opinion. As of 2016, the book—together with its (less-satisfying) sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason—had sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. It defined the oft-maligned chick-lit genre and spawned exactly one excellent romantic comedy. It’s not exactly underrated. Still, looking back on the early coverage of Bridget Jones is a lesson in just how condescending the literary world could be to women writing about relationships (we could all save ourselves a lot of Sally Rooney discourse if we just admitted that we like her books because she writes well about dating, but I digress). Take a trip with me back to the late 90s, when the bar for criticism of novels by and about women was as low as the jeans.
On the novel’s US publication in 1998, the New York Times gave it a positive review, calling it “hilarious and spot on.” Unfortunately, the praise is couched by this caveat: “O.K., James Joyce it may not be…” This reminds me of the scene in The Royal Tenenbaums where Eli Cash is talking to Margot on the phone and says, “Why would a reviewer make the point of saying someone’s not a genius?” But worse! I guess in the 90s it was accepted wisdom that everyone writing a novel was trying to be James Joyce?
Then there’s the blurb that Salman Rushdie (or as I like to call him, James Joyce Approximation MMMCCXLV) gave the book: “A brilliant comic creation. Even men will laugh.”
Rushdie and Fielding were friends, so presumably she was fine with this one, but I have to wonder if her first reaction to it was Thanks… I guess? I’m not sure this is the huge compliment that Rushdie (and Fielding’s publishers, given that the blurb remains on the book’s promotional materials) seem to think it is.
In a 1999 review of Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing (another book I love), Rebecca Mead compare’s Bank’s book to Fielding’s, calling the latter “a satirical, one-joke stunt,” which is absolutely incorrect but at least not wildly sexist. Okay, Rebecca Mead, you can stay.
Finally, we have one that’s not so much Bad as Deeply Weird: the Michiko Kakutani-penned letter from Ally McBeal to Bridget Jones. “I had heard from friends in London that you’re… well, that you’re the British version of me, and that your ‘Diary’ is as big a cult hit there as my show is here.”
“Like you,” McBeal/Kakutani writes, “I never asked to be turned into a representative figure. It was never my ambition in life to be voted Ms. Controversy at the local water cooler. I mean we’re just being us.” Aside from some pretty uncomfortable jokes about fatness vs. skinniness, the letter is mostly pretty wacky. Which, come to think of it, I think is a fitting tribute to this brilliant comic creation [full stop].