Built on Facts

Normally you wouldn’t think of chick lit as experimental literature, but the interplay between the book and film versions of Bridget Jones’s Diary is so bizarre as to be practically science fiction.

The novel is itself a very loose retelling of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. That novel is of course the gold standard for pretty much all romantic fiction since then, and Bridget Jones is far from the first to try a more or less modern retelling. Pride and Prejudice itself features the now-legendary Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, who meet, instantly dislike each other, and inevitably fall in love as trying events unfold around them. Bridget Jones features the eponymous heroine, to whom precisely the same thing happens with, well, a Mr. Mark Darcy. (Fitzwilliam is presumably no longer common enough to be a plausible first name)

Call that level 1 of the metafiction – not only is it a retelling, it’s a retelling that’s very explicit about that fact. But that’s just the start; in fact Bridget meets him at a party wherein Mr. Darcy is standing around being standoffish, precisely as in Pride and Prejudice. And Bridget comments on this, pointing out to herself that if one is going to be named Darcy one shouldn’t be standing around standoffishly at parties.

So it’s metafictional, and it’s self-aware. Fair enough, if unusual for the genre. But wheels start to form within wheels when the novel made the transition to film. Bridget’s Darcy is played by Colin Firth. But Colin Firth also played the Jane Austen Mr. Darcy in the definitive BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Call that level 2 of metaficiton.

But in the novel, Bridget Jones is herself a tremendous fan of the BBC adaptation, and watches it with her friends as a salve for the pain of their occasional romantic disasters. At one point (in the book sequel) she actually embarrasses herself with a star-struck interview of Colin Firth about that BBC role. Level 3 in the metafictional onion.

The entire ouroboros comes full circle in the film adaptation of the sequel. Though it’s kept to a special feature, Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones, girlfriend of Mark Darcy (as played by Colin Firth), interviews Colin Firth (as Colin Firth) about his role as Mr. Darcy in the BBC film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, in the context of a story which is itself a retelling of Pride and Prejudice. The whole thing is head-spinning.

All this avoids the question of why in the world a red-blooded American male has read Pride and Prejudice, both Bridget Jones books, and seen their respective film adaptations. I have no good excuse, but my bad excuse is anthropological interest and a lovely and charming significant other who’s a fan. Either way it certainly turned out to be a rather more involved knot than I’d have expected.


  1. #1 Matty Smith
    December 6, 2009

    Well, anyone who can appreciate wonderfully nasty satire enjoys Austen, so you’re covered for excuses on that one at least. Katherine Mansfield and Lorrie Moore might also appeal to your tastes.

  2. #2 John Ellis
    December 6, 2009

    Ha! I take it you have yet to see Lost in Austen? http://www.itv.com/Drama/perioddrama/LostInAusten/default.html

    As a programmer, I appreciated the recursion!

  3. #3 Bardiac
    December 6, 2009

    I’m not sure if you’re joking about some of your comments. If you are, they don’t come across as jokes. Maybe use a stronger signal if that’s what you intended?

    Rather, I suspect, you just haven’t really thought about what you’ve written; you’ve just written from a perspective of male privilege.

    I almost didn’t bother responding, but then I thought, hey, this is a grad student, and he’s either teaching or going to be teaching. And if he’s teaching at some point, he’s going to be blithely and unwittingly subjecting his female students to this sexism. So I decided to respond.

    I bothered to respond because I think educating teachers and thinking about how we might fight our sexism and racism is important. I’m guessing you think of yourself as neither a sexist nor a racist. But after reflection, you might find that your tone wasn’t what you’d wish it had been. May I suggest that graduate school is an ideal time to avail yourself of opportunities to take advantage of whatever anti-sexist/anti-racist training your school makes available; that may mean you enroll in a women’s studies class. You may feel that you’re busy as a graduate student, but I assure you that your first years of teaching will be even busier and the stakes are higher. So before I go on, I want to wish you much success in your work and teaching.

    Rather than make general comments, I’d like to look closely at two comments. You start by saying that “you wouldn’t think of chick lit as experimental literature.” I’m guessing the “you” you’re thinking of is “privileged men who’ve never taken women’s art seriously”? You might want to rethink that assumption. There are actually women reading ScienceBlogs, and some men who work against sexism. Neither would necessarily make that assumption. (There’s been discussion of the woeful lack of women people of color writing for ScienceBlogs lately; read what your colleagues have to say.)

    Why don’t you expect women to write experimental lit? Have you read Sandra Cisneros? Virginia Woolf? Heck, Marie de France or Anne Locke? Women, like men, experiment and innovate in their work (even science!). Some do it more than others. Have you taken some women’s art or lit history classes? If not, it’s time. If you like film and metafiction, take a look at Sleepless in Seattle, directed by Nora Ephron. (I don’t think the chick lit thing is worth comment, though others might.)

    You end with a comment which indicates that you think you’re unusual because you’ve read a few pieces of women’s lit. Step back and think about the implied assumption that men don’t need to read women’s art. The assumption is that women’s art speaks only to women. The corollary assumption is that men’s art speaks to all humanity.

    If you think back to how you were taught to read and what you read in school (mostly white male authors, if you were raised in the US; make a list), you’ll see that you’ve been taught to believe that men’s art is “universal” and important. So it’s no wonder that you believe it. It’s time to question that learning, and to think about how men’s art is no more or less meaningful than women’s art. Again, if you haven’t had the opportunity to balance what you were taught in primary and secondary school, you should think about taking some women’s studies and women’s art courses. Further, if you find in your analysis that you weren’t taught to read or look at the art of people of color (true for most US students), then find some opportunities to do so. You might be surprised to find that men and women of color also experiment in their art.

    (You might want to rethink the sort of desperate sexual comment about your significant other.)

    Wishing you fruitful studies and happy teaching. B.

  4. #4 Jr
    December 6, 2009

    Bardiac, brilliant parody.

  5. #5 Privileged male
    December 6, 2009

    Feminists should learn to be proper women, and shut their cakeholes, unless they’re giving head.


  6. #6 Katherine
    December 6, 2009

    I recommend you read Mr Darcy’s Diary, or if I can’t convince you, find a copy and read the end-note, and see if that makes you think it is worth reading.

    Gotta see that special feature.

    Also I agree with most of what Bardiac said, and would like to add that I know plenty of men that have read Pride and Prejudice, and have watched the BBC adaptation and Bridget Jones’ Diary, and their penises didn’t fall off. Women have to watch tons of “man stuff”, and you don’t find us making excuses for having watched something that was intended for men.

  7. #7 Paul Murray
    December 6, 2009

    Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, who meet, instantly dislike each other, and inevitably fall in love as trying events unfold around them.

    Not quite. P&P is a rather nasty satire. Elizabeth falls in love with Mr Darcy when she visits his estate and discovers how very, very rich he actually is. All of her self-talk is directed towards concealing this obvious fact from herself, but her father sees right through it. Mr Darcy is a complete cypher – a boring prig, the kind of man who can spend an evening with friends doing nothing but monitoring the conversation for impropriety.

    Anyway. /rant

  8. #8 Joshua Zelinsky
    December 6, 2009

    That made my head hurt.

  9. #9 Matt Springer
    December 6, 2009

    Yes, the last paragraph is not meant to be taken entirely seriously. I don’t judge books by their covers, or authors by their sex and skin color. Good reading is good reading – in fact my favorite author of all time was an obese mixed-race Frenchman.

    Bardiac, assuming you’re serious about the rest, I think your objection is a result of a misunderstanding of what chick lit actually is. It is emphatically not a blanket term for literature that happens to have been written by a person with an XX chromosome set. It is a well-defined term for a very specific subgenre of lightweight modern literature principally marketed at 20-40 year old professional middle-class women. (Austen’s corpus is certainly not chick lit, for instance.) Not all of it is written by women, and only a very small fraction of the total published work of women authors falls into that genre. Conversely, “serious” highbrow literature (and experimental literature) has numerous highly skilled authors who happen to be female.

    In short, being a male or female author is entirely orthogonal to the quality of work produced. For that matter, I’d certainly designate Bridget Jones as high-quality work. If you disapprove of “chick lit” as a genre designation you have my sympathy, but for better or worse that’s what it’s actually called.

    If you disapprove of the statement of objective fact that my significant other is charming and lovely, I’m not sure what to tell you. It is simply a statement of truth.

  10. #10 Bardiac
    December 6, 2009

    I’m guessing I have a pretty good sense of “chick lit” as a modern genre.

    You do realize that Austen was basically the “chick lit” of her time (along with the Brontes and lots of others). She was widely read among middle and upper middle class women between the ages of 20-40 (though, of course, they weren’t “professional” then). She makes fun of the way women’s writing was mocked in Northanger Abby. (There’s a rollicking good read, by the way.)

    Literature doesn’t have to be “high brow” to be experimental; it didn’t have to be in the 12th century, and it sure doesn’t have to be now. Look at graphic novels, for example. Not high brow, but highly experimental.

    Nonetheless, I’m glad to hear you didn’t mean the last paragraph entirely seriously. That wasn’t as well marked as you probably thought it was.

  11. #11 Jr
    December 7, 2009

    Bardiac, I think it was perfectly clear to everyone that the last paragraph was not meant to be taken completely seriously.

    You are of course entitled to view chick lit as highly experimental literature. But it seems a bit bizarre to view other views as a deep moral failure and cause for reeducation.

    I do not like it when people say negative things about science fiction but I do not call them racist or sexist because of it.

  12. #12 Vic
    December 7, 2009

    I’m always fascinated when a commentor’s insights take up more space than the actual post itself. Having been a feminist longer than Bardiac has been alive (or so I suspect), I suggest she lighten up and show how excellent we females are by example and keep on working to break those male/female barriers by DOING. Don’t expend your precious energy lecturing others about the error of their ways. You simply turn people off. I frankly thought Matt’s post was funny and refreshing, and will showcase it on my blog.

    I am what is known as a Janeite and my blog is devoted to Jane Austen. I loved this post. After 200 years, lil’ ol’ spinsterish Jane from Hampshire is still keeping us talking. It’s a fact that the majority of her readers are women. Some of us return to her scant six novels all through our lives. As you point out, Matt, Jane did not write chick lit, and an impressive number of serious male writers find nothing unserious about her novels: Harold Bloom, E.M. Forster, Brian Southam, the Prince Regent (future George IV), Lionel Trilling, W. Somerset Maugham. Even Mark Twain, who purported to hate her, read her novels over and over again.

    One more observation about someone else’s comment: Jane’s novels must be read in the context of the age she lived in. We can cynically assume that Elizabeth falls in love with Darcy after she sees Pemberley, but my interpretation of her reaction is this: When she walks through the magnificence that is Pemberley, she realizes in a visceral way what a wide social gulf exists between her and Darcy. It is at that moment that she understands precisely what his proposal meant. “Of this house I could have been mistress.” She is in awe and she sees clearly for the first time why he proposed against his better judgment, for in 19th century Britain the divisions between social classes were strict. Darcy could have any lady of the land, except the most royal, and he fell in love with Lizzie from Longbourn, the daughter of a gentleman, but someone far beneath his social standing. As for Darcy’s being a stiff prig, yes he was, except towards those he trusted and loved. That’s the point. Wickham, whom the ladies loved and who more closely fits our concept of the life of the party, turned out to be a cad of the highest order.

    Matt, if you have not seen Lost in Austen, do. You will find such a convoluted mess of associations (Amanda travels back in time to live with characters who populate a novel), and visual gags relating to other movie adaptations, that your head will spin from the absurdity of it all.

  13. #13 Jodi
    December 7, 2009

    Brilliant and insightful comment by Vic as opposed to the exceptionally long and tiresome rant by that “other” poster. And great post Matt. Really enjoyed it.

  14. #14 JR
    December 7, 2009

    I agree by the way that Austen is an excellent writer. Northanger Abbey in particular is hilarious. Good for the feminists that Vic showed up and illustrated the sane side.

    Bardiac, you clearly are not completely wrong when it comes to how women have been viewed. (Ie men write for everyone, women for women.) But your attac on Matt was neither accurate nor a very productive way of advancing feminism.

    As you apparently knew chick lit is not a synonym for literature written by women. Viewing it as unserious is thus not the same as viewing all female writers as unserious.

    You are of course entitled to speculate that Matt’s opinion about chick lit represent sexist bias. However you can not just state it as a fact without any evidence, since it is not true by definition and it is not the only possible explanation. As a comparison most people do not view the type of stereotypical male literature that Tom Clancy writes as serious literature. I do not think this is all because anti-male bias.

    You need to realize the distinction between systematic patterns and individual behavior. Perhaps chick lit is taken less seriously because it is written by women for women. That does not mean that every dismissive remark about it is motivated by sexism or that people are not entitled to their views on its merits and demerits.

  15. #15 Laura
    December 7, 2009

    I think Bardiac has some good general points. Matt, you KNOW you need to read more women authors, and I applaud the fact that you’re doing something about it. In fact, I’ve got an Octavia Butler novel for you to read over Christmas break (woman of color, science fiction writer, very cool). That is – unless you decided to spend your recreational reading time with Stephenie Meyer… 😉

    Vic, I never thought I’d see a Janeite on here! SWEET. I almost went to Chawton this summer, but opted for Haworth instead. Never really understood Charlotte’s distaste for Austen, but I suppose we can’t *all* get along.

  16. #16 Vic
    December 8, 2009

    Laura: Before becoming obsessed with Jane, I took biology and worked in research labs (with the hope of becoming a medical illustrator.) Somewhere along the way, my path took another turn, but I never lost interest in Science.

  17. #17 Kaleberg
    December 25, 2009

    Jane Austen had a pretty wide audience. The Prince Regent was one of her fans. Her books hold up very well today. After all, people still fall in love unexpectedly. As for the Bridget Jones books, they are probably not going to become classics, but they’re perfectly good rainy day reading.

    Interestingly, Jane Austen was chronicling a vanishing society. Even as she was using entailed wills as a plot device, the courts were overturning them. More seriously, she wrote of the agricultural land owning class even as the industrial revolution introduced a new source of wealth. I always think of her as the Sholom Alechem of the British pre-industrial aristocracy.

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