The problem with Bridget Jones

I have a humiliating confession to make: I like reading romances. I got turned on to Georgette Heyer in the late 1970s, and have spent the subsequent decades looking for the current reincarnation of that wonderful and witty writer. For those of you who may not know, Georgette Heyer began writing romances (and very good murder mysteries) in the 1920s, and continued publishing until shortly before her death in 1974. Georgette Heyer took Jane Austen as her model: her books are set in the Regency period (early 19th Century England), and focus on the upper classes and the upper middle classes. More importantly, just as in Jane Austen's books, her main characters are always intelligent and charming. The books' complications arise because of believable misunderstandings and prejudices. I always read one of her books wishing I could enter her world and actually interact with her characters. (By the way, if you want to read books by a writer who has imagined a world where fiction and reality intersect, you must check out Jasper Fforde's books. They are marvelous.)

Frankly, Georgette Heyer is a tough act to follow. Nourished as I was on her romances, I want intelligent and funny characters, and believable plot complications. I've been lucky enough to find two writers who satisfy these requirements: Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Jennifer Crusie. Both of these writers are genuinely funny women. You'll never see in their books one of my least favorite writing techniques: this is the situation in which a writer has a character voice a flat, humorless line, and then writes immediately after "Bob was stunned by her wit." If you have to tell the readers the line was witty, you've already failed.

In the mold of Austen and Heyers, Phillips and Crusie both have female characters who are competent, intelligent, and charming. They may also be misunderstood (they're often charmingly eccentric) or hampered by family or work complications, but they're usually people whose company you'd enjoy. The same can be said for the men they write about: they're physically attractive (a prerequisite for romantic novels), but their real attraction lies in their personalities (something Georgette Heyer also understood). Another woman who succeeds pretty well in this area is Jayne Anne Krentz, although she isn't quite as good, or as funny, a writer as Phillips or Crusie. Although all these writers use sex in their books (this is, after all, the 21st Century), none of the books are about sex, they're about relationships.

There's another type of romance book out on the market right now, and it's called chick-lit (or, chik-lit). As far as I can tell, these are books that draw inspiration from Helen Fielding's witty Bridget Jones book. What none of these chick-lit writers realize, though, is that Bridget Jones itself relies on Pride & Prejudice for inspiration. That is, its success almost certainly derives from the fact that it is a wacky rehash of the P&P plot, with the main characters' relationship towards each other shaped by their biases and misunderstandings, complicated by a villianous male character.

Since Fielding's would-be imitators don't recognize her plot's origins, in their books they focus on Bridget's personal failings: her drinking and weight obsessions. Bridget, of course, was a charming enough character to make these seem interesting, not depressing — which is a testament to Fielding's skill as a writer. It's a bad precedent, though, for those less skillful, and the market has been inundated with romances aimed at young women, mostly coming out of England, in which the lead characters are overweight slobs who drink and smoke too much. Most of them have a network of equally screwed up friends who validate their own self-destructive behavior (and most of them usually have at least one intelligent, self-aware gay male friend).

The plots are always the same: these messy, self-destructive women nevertheless manage to attract the coolest, hippest, and often richest man around. In this category fall books by Sophie Kinsella and Marian Keyes, two of the best chick-lit writers. I say "best" because, even though their books follow this depressing and unrealistic template, they're good writers and carry it off. Most chick-lit, though, is appalling and the message it sends to young women is horrifying: you can be an incompetent, self-indulgent, smoking and drinking slacker, and you will nevertheless attract someone that everyone else admires. Please note that I don't say that you'll attract someone charming and intelligent — the men in these books aren't. Their attractions are measured by how valuable a commodity they are in the heroine's marketplace of people.

By the way, as a romance reader (and someone who wishes she had the narrative skills to write such a book and cash in on the market) I've been thinking a lot about what women want in a man — not something that's easy to figure out nowadays, with women all over the board on that one. I've concluded, based on books and conversations with friends (married and unmarried alike) that women want a manly man who cherishes them.

The manly part means that women don't want a girlfriend in men's clothes. They do want someone who is truly a man, with a man's view of the world. That manly view, however, has to include a belief that this specific woman is the most wonderful person in the world, someone whose company the man wants to enjoy and whose well-being matters deeply to the man.

It's with regard to this last bit — focusing on the woman's well-being — that I think men have the most problems. Some, tamed by women's lib, abandon entirely any sense of responsibility for a woman's well-being. It seems to me that this passivity abrogates a fundamental male role and that feminine women resent this. Some men, though, go in another direction entirely: they confuse caring for her well-being with dominance, which involves power, not love. That is, their impulse towards the woman isn't to care for her, but to control her in the way they think best. This is insulting, demeaning and, in extreme cases, scary.

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12 Responses

  1. What I always found amusing, in a sort of deja vu way, was there is always this same plotline in romance novels. Specifically, I am refering to when everything is going all right with the couple, and suddenly (Beatles) there comes a problem attended by a perceived betrayal by one of the characters, the hero or the heroine.

    It usually goes like, the hero is too ashamed of something he is keeping secret, therefore because of this moral cowardice he allows events to dictate how the heroine will hear about the “secret”. And whenever this happens, we all know that the heroine will get it wrong, either because she was told by enemies or she isn’t getting the whole story.

    Trouble, then occurs. This in effect, validated my personal dislike of lying and dishonesty. It is also why I study propaganda and psychology as an aside. I’m not a person that likes lying for personal benefit, but I have no problem if it is for something other than personal benefit or if the person I am lying to is an enemy, a dishonorable enemy that is. Oh what a web we weave, when we first practice to deceive. Some of those webs are pretty complex and can go on for years at a time.

    One story had the hero taking spankings and licks for his adopted foster brother (younger). The hero did it cause he really loved his younger brother and he did not want the younger brother to be sent out, even though the younger brother was pulling pranks left and right. Of course the plot twist was that the woman heroine married the younger brother, and was unhappy, because she disliked the pranks and wildness of the older brother.

    So this being what it was, the younger brother got more wild, fooled around with married women, got into a duel on the battlefield, and was shot by the older brother.

    I wish also I could have jumped in and told the characters, “if you want to keep secrets, then you have to trust the most important person in your world with them, because secrets are one of the ways in which any enemy can sow dissension and conflict”. First lesson in propaganda warfare for me. Tell the truth, because if you don’t, someone gets the chance to tell his version of events first.

    The plotline I mentioned isn’t just for romances. I also see it in other kinds of novels, like the Vorkosigan series and The Praxis series by Walther William. In those cases, they are like science fiction melded with the main character falling into love.

    The other thing I learned about why lying is problematic, is from the Sword of Truth series. People will believe a lie either because they want to believe it or they fear it is true. That bit of psychological explanation, got me thinking on how lies are derived from psychological fears and beliefs.

  2. Bookie,

    If you say Georgette Heyer carries on in Austen’s tradition, I’ll have to check her out. (A copy of My Lord John has been in one of my book shelves for about 30 years; maybe it’s time I read it.)

    But “Romance?” I can’t speak for Heyer, but surely you don’t characterize Austen as an author of romances. Jane’s heroines are far too level-headed to be romantics. I typically assign “the R-word” to the Bronte sisters and all the derivative ripped-bodice wannabes. As an aside, I’ve always taken great pleasure in reading Charlotte Bronte’s attack on Austen’s works — it serves to separate them quite neatly, IMHO.

  3. John:

    I’d classify as a romance any book the ultimate purpose of which is for boy and girl to end together.

    If you’re going to check out Heyer’s books, my favorite is Frederica, with The Nonesuch coming in a close second. You’d do well to check out The Black Sheep and Venetia too. All involve intelligent, mature lead characters, so it’s nice to spend time with them.

  4. I’ll try and check it out as well. Since usually the blogs I like to read, also give good recommendations in terms of movies, shows, and books. (That is how I heard of Firefly)

  5. “…women don’t want a girlfriend in men’s clothes.”

    Very well stated and very true as far as I am concerned. The differences between men and women are what make it all so very interesting. I do not want to be married to my clone. I want to have the experience of seeing things though different eyes and hearing another point of view on the world.

    One of the last novels I read was “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which I enjoyed very much. But for the most part, I don’t seem to have the patience or liking for novels that I once did. I respect your opinion however, Bookworm, and will look for books by the authors you mentioned to see if they can draw me back in.

  6. By the way, if you’re going for Susan Elizabeth Phillips, go for her later stuff. Her very first books are so-so — they work if you already like her writing. She bean to hit her stride in the mid-1990s, and has been getting progressively better.

  7. Bookworm, did you ever check out Diana Gabaldon? Throw in some time-traveling and put a Scottish accent on the manly man :)

  8. I gobbled up the Gabaldon books years ago, and loved them (although I found her obsession with breast milk a bit weird).

  9. Oh, Wow….Lissa — are you “hosed”?

    Gail got started on these a number of years ago. She had mentioned she was reading about someone who was time-traveling – I yawned. But, when we spent three weeks driving around Scotland in 2001, I heard more and more as we tried to find the special spots……

    When we got home, we read them all aloud…..and they ARE very good books, even from this male’s point of view. I’m looking forward to the next one, but it won’t coming right away. Gail feeds her addiction at the Ladies of Lallybroch website – I just distract myself with other stuff.

    Our daughter wasn’t allowed to start these until she was 18. She says that reading them again now that she is married, and particularly during her pregnancy, has been a whole new experience….. Our son has been told that he is not to read them until he’s married — I cannot imagine an unmarried male finding much to like in them.

    Those of you who haven’t read any of the Outlander series have a treat in store. I suppose that some folk don’t like them, but I’m not sure why not. Gabaldon does extensive research, so the level of historicity and realism is high. She can draw characters wonderfully and make you care about them as well. Highly recommended — especially for reading out loud together!
    Very nice.

  10. By the way, BW….your counter seems to be missing the first comment.

    And as a P.S. to the previous post, now we live just west of the very mountains where Jamie and Claire lived here in the States, so there are plans afoot for a pilgrimage to see if we can find any sites recognizable from the books……suggesstions welcome from anyone with the same level of obsession! :-)

  11. Bookworm, if you like Heyer check out Carla Kelly. Her books are out of print and kind of hard to find, but she is one of the best writers. Her characters are wry and self deprecating and simply wonderful. My favorite is Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand but all of her books are good.

  12. I read the Heyer books first in high school and was hooked, my favorites are The Grand Sophia and Venetia. She’s the only romance writer who graces my never give up shelf (well they’re actually shelves).

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