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Anglo Pop

Tuesday 3 January

130 lbs. (terrifying slide into obesity - why? why?), alcohol units 6 (excellent), cigarettes 23 (v.g.), calories 2472 . . .
-Bridget Jones's Diary

In a recent cover story administering hopelessly premature last rites to feminism, Time magazine blasted pop culture for serving up images of '90s women as ditsy neurotics with nothing on their tiny minds but mooning over unavailable men. Among the chief culprits, according to the magazine, are Ally McBeal (couldn't agree more - this annoyingly sappy figment of the male imagination should be retired forever to hiatus hell) and a hyped new English novel, Bridget Jones's Diary, that passed from hand to eager female hand the moment the galleys hit New York publishers' in-trays. Time's writer seems not to have noticed that this falling-about-funny novel of the single life in London is a satire which, so far from underwriting the pop images that drive women to tame or contort their otherwise bright and natural selves, skewers those images firmly into the ground. Written by British journalist and former television producer Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary is also a sly remake of Pride and Prejudice, in which the eligible swain-about-town ends up falling for the heroine on account of her independence and forthright smarts. Not even Time would have the gall to finger Jane Austen for a lousy female role model.

Like Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones's Diary comes fully equipped with a spirited single filly; a flibbertigibbet mum and loving but passive dad; a Wickham-style bad boy who promises the world and delivers heartbreak; and a snooty rich guy (last name, Darcy) who improves upon acquaintance. At first blush Bridget Jones, a 30-plus publishing drone and "singleton" as defiant as she is unwilling, has little in common with Austen's Elizabeth Bennet, a wench blessed with the inner poise that Bridget longs for almost as much as she craves a boyfriend. Bridget is a gifted klutz and one-woman burlesque show whose coolest shoes come garnished with mashed potato, and whose efforts at haute cuisine culminate in a dinner party where the elaborately planned menu emerges as blue soup, omelets and marmalade. Like the screwed-up but valiant women in early Jane Campion films, Bridget is at once bedazzled and befuddled by pop culture, much of it continental drift from this side of the Atlantic. She's tried it all, from feng shui to Men Are From Mars to Yogacise, and her journal is a comic nightmare of unfulfilled resolutions, crossed romantic wires and failed experiments in self-improvement.

Even without her imperfections, Bridget dwells in a universe that hardly lends itself to calm or dignity. Easy for Elizabeth Bennet, safely strapped into the straitjacket of Austen's rural England, where the norms of received behavior were as clear as they were confining and a woman's only task in life was to hook a spouse rich enough to keep her in the style to which she would like to become accustomed. Mr. Bennet's favorite daughter didn't have to make her way in a world as scarily rudderless as Bridget Jones', where the only rules for living come from the sage counsel of her inebriate friends or the nutso how-to manuals she consults in her endless, fruitless quest for self-betterment. Here is Bridget, foggy with hangover, seeking balm during a rough patch when work, love and family have failed her on an operatic scale:

6 p.m. As luck would have it, Jude had just been reading brilliant book called Goddesses in Everywoman . . . The book . . . says that coping with difficult times is like being in a conical shell-shaped spiral and there is a point at each turn that is very painful and difficult . . . When you are at the narrow, pointy end of the spiral you come back to that situation very often as the rotations are quite small. As you go round, you will go through the troubled time less and less frequently but still you must come back to it, so you shouldn't feel when it happens that you are back to square one.

Trouble is now I have sobered up not sure I am 100 percent sure what she was talking about.

Bridget divides her generation into Singletons like herself and her friends - gay, witty Tom, Jude (in a dead-end relationship with a two-timing boyfriend affectionately known as Vile Richard) and Shazzer (an unrepentant feminist whose rule of thumb is that all men are bastards) - and Smug Marrieds (subset: Power Mothers, who measure their babies' superiority by number and quality of turds delivered). Not that the female halves of the Smug Marrieds have much to smirk about, for they have to deal with droopy milk boobs, careers shot to hell, and glamorous Singletons lining up to devour husbands at the office. Even the elders are going to pieces: Bridget's suburban mum, having decided that 35 years of indentured conjugal servitude are quite enough, waltzes off for an affair with a Latin lover named Julio and a job as anchor of the TV talk show Suddenly Single, interspersing this with phone calls to her daughter in which she insists that all romantic problems will melt away if only she will rush off to get her colors done at Color Me Beautiful.

How little, in some ways, has changed since the Bennet girls, hell-bent on marriage, dressed to kill for a visit from a herd of dashing soldiery. Like Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones's Diary addresses the radical instability of the single life as observed by a woman trapped between her instinctive feminism and the cultural pressures that play upon her insecurities at every turn. With all the hectoring from Smug Marrieds and her parents' friends, Bridget worries incessantly about being over the hill. Marriage would be nice, sex is a matter of some urgency - which leaves poor Bridget wide-open to the e-mailed blandishments of Daniel Cleaver, the office Lothario whose slick charm can be switched on and off at will, along with his constancy to Bridget. Daniel is every thinking feminist's nightmare - and wet dream. Bridget's attraction to him is a candid acknowledgment of the eternal female attraction to the leader of the pack. In all her excesses of booze, calorie counting and wrong-headed love, Bridget is a blessed release from the dull, compulsory sanity urged upon us by a thousand recipes for self-help. Her daily struggles are also a frank acknowledgment of the tricky point where feminist first principles butt heads with trying to find a mate in a romantic climate from which all rules and expectations have fled.

What sets Bridget apart from that woolly-headed gnat Ally McBeal is the fierce clarity of her voice and her refusal to buckle at the knees every time the world looks at her sideways. In the end, fortified like her good twin, Elizabeth Bennet, by a grade-A bullshit detector and a sharply jaundiced eye for the lunacy around her, Bridget can tell the difference between crap and a good proposition. When Darcy, a high-profile human-rights lawyer whom Bridget early on dismissed for his dweebery, at last puts in his bid, he pleads with Bridget, "All the other girls I know are so lacquered over." Like her creator, Bridget understands that Pride and Prejudice is the ultimate girls' own story because the heroine spends the entire novel growing a mind of her own, and gets the richest, handsomest, most eligible guy not by reducing her thigh circumference or brushing up on her cocktail prattle, but by being her candid, smart, adorable, ineluctably English self. God bless Bridget - and if they who are making a movie out of her fabulous diary so much as lift a finger to cast Calista Flockhart in the lead, I'll have their guts for garters.