It is a truth universally acknowledged that the procurement of a husband is a far more compelling literary device than the maintenance of one. So it shouldn’t come as a complete shock that the third instalment of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones juggernaut, Mad About the Boy, arrives this week after a 15-year hiatus minus Mark Darcy, the husband the beloved protagonist laboured so assiduously to land. As the British press naughtily revealed—in a spoiler that went viral—the charming, earnest barrister Mark Darcy has been killed off, leaving our heroine a 51-year-old widow with two young Darcys to raise.
Mr. Darcy had to die, of course, so Fielding could maintain the formula that made the 1995 Bridget Jones’s Diary a literary sensation that spawned countless imitators. Based loosely on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the novel ended with Darcy and Bridget snogging; its sequel, the 1999 Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, concluded with his marriage proposal. The novels’ humour stemmed from the gaffe-prone, unsinkable singleton seeking, but not securing, a man. Fielding likely deduced, shrewdly, that “Bridget Jones, divorcee” would alienate readers who’d rooted for the heroine’s inevitable union with Darcy. His demise reboots her as “Bridget Jones, widow,” a sympathetic character entering the ripe-for-mockery mid-life dating pool at a time when many Bridget fans are doing the same.
Now the familiar diary format (in which Bridget obsesses over smoking and her alcohol and caloric intake) has been updated to include 21st-century anxieties such as number of Twitter followers and texts received versus texts sent. Her new focus is navigating the new rules of dating, among them meticulous waxing and never texting while drunk.
With the launch of the new book, Fielding faces challenges similar to her heroine’s. She’s writing for a market transformed since she left it in the 1990s—paradoxically due to the seismic effect of Bridget Jones’s Diary, which was voted one of the 10 books that defined the 20th century, alongside George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in a Guardian poll. It’s credited with ushering in “chick lit,” a dismissive term for a genre focused on single, white, affluent women obsessed with dating, dieting, shopping and marriage. Chick-lit spawned “mom-lit,” a terrain crammed with novels and memoirs about mom angst with such titles as Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay. Now, ironically, the sequel to Bridget Jones’s Diary, a book that presaged the popularity of confessional blogging, will be assessed by mommy bloggers, a tribe harsher in its judgment than Nuremberg.
Fielding’s apparent strategy is to position Bridget as an accessible fantasy Everymom—a woman who doesn’t have to work but still shops at Zara. Darcy left the family well off; a nanny tends to the children; Bridget flits about, trying to finish her air-head adaptation of Hedda Gabbler [sic], a work she believes was written by Anton Chekhov, a mistake that doesn’t prevent her from landing a film deal. Hovering in the background, as always, is Daniel Cleaver, now a louche caricature.
Of course, our Bridget, with all her foibles, prevails. She sheds 40 lb. (from a high of 178) at an obesity clinic (she cheers up when she realizes she’s the skinniest one there). That paves the way to “boy toy” entanglements before inevitable complications. Fielding’s challenge, a big one, is to age Bridget while not losing her madcap incompetence—or inviting involvement of child protection services. The result is a dithering but loving parent who frets more over her school-run outfit (“skinny jeans, ballet pumps and shirt buttoned up to the collar, and blazer . . . plus enormous handbag and sunglasses in manner of a celebrity at airport”) than being on time.
In maternalizing Bridget and ditching Darcy, Fielding is toying with a beloved blueprint to extend the franchise. What she doesn’t mess with, wisely, is Bridget’s female Peter Pan-like status as the girly id of a generation. Whether that will resonate with her older audience remains to be seen. What’s certain, though, is that it’s going to be mightily pissed at the prospect of no Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the movie, already in the works.