There is a time and a place for every literary heroine to be pioneering.

Bridget Jones and her single successors

Sara-Ella Ozbek

Sara-Ella Ozbek says literature is finally learning that it’s okay to be by yourself

06 October 2018 11:52

Bridget Jones is back, older and woker, in Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and other lies), a book of essays curated by Scarlett Curtis. The evolved Bridget, thankfully still guzzling Chardonnay, rereads the diaries of her thirties, musing, ‘What did I put up with, without even knowing I had the right not to put up with it? Talk about #MeToo.’ The extract in last week’s Sunday Times Style read like Helen Fielding’s apology for the laissez-faire woman that we all fell in love with.

She need not apologise. Back in 1996, it felt as though Bridget was the most honest female character ever handed to us. She did something revelatory: show the world that flawed women could be just as lovable – or even more loveable – than upstanding ones. Of course, there are some people who disapprove of the self-obsessed, calorie-counting, chain-smoking boozer. But, personally, I belong in the Caitlin Moran camp. True equality is for women to have the freedom to be as imperfect and entertaining as men are.

But there was something that bugged me about Bridget, and it continued to bug me over the years. It bugged me about Sex and the City too, Candace Bushnell’s sort-of memoirs that were published in the same year. Both books are brilliant, but it’s precisely because of their brilliance that they inspired a whole literary subgenre – ‘single women literature’ – that simply doesn’t do what it says on the tin. So many of those books aren’t about single womanhood at all. It would be more honest to call them ‘conscious coupling literature’.

Just think of Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex and the City again. Both champion female friendship and career women, sure. But it’s also true that neither heroine is single for very long. Their calendars are crowded with tumultuous dates, kinky weekend getaways, lovers’ punch-ups, Mr. Rights, Mr. Wrongs and Mr. Bigs – far more action than the average single woman encounters in a lifetime – and both stories come to an end when our heroines find their one. It’s a template that many other books have followed since, with only very recent signs of departure.

So many of these books aren’t about single womanhood at all. It would be more honest to call them ‘conscious coupling literature’.

First, however, let’s spend a bit of time in 2014, when we’ve just entered something called ‘fourth-wave feminism’. Flying off the shelves of WHSmith and Waterstones is The Wrong Knickers, a memoir by Bryony Gordon, best known for her ‘Single Girl About Town’ column in The Telegraph. Chronicling her twenties, a self-proclaimed ‘decade of chaos’, the book is a recollection of drug-fueled one-night stands; an infatuation with cheap white wine and Malboro lights; the horror of wedding season; and bitter accounts of dinner parties with smug, almost-married Sensible Sallys.

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the rise of she who shuns traditional feminine behaviour in favour of recklessness, hedonism and independence. But Gordon seems to be unpicking this woman, even bringing her to shame. Rather than owning her unruliness, or embracing it, she blames her behaviour on low self-esteem, which is rooted in the fact that she has no boyfriend. Her success as a journalist is barely mentioned. It’s mostly a spiral of misery and embarrassment, until she is dumped by a married man and hits rock bottom. Then – lo and behold – she falls in love, moves to Clapham, and has her ‘happy’ ending.

I don’t hold any of this against Gordon. I only mention her to demonstrate that, in almost two decades, this subgenre barely moved an inch, compared to, say, ‘single man literature’. Oh, wait, that’s not a thing.

A few years after the success of The Wrong Knickers came Everything I Know About Love, by Dolly Alderton. Alderton’s twenties were no less chaotic than Gordon’s, but she claims them in their entirety, hurtling through the years with laughter and self-awareness, admitting: ‘Some of the memories I have are joyful, some of them are sad and that was the reality.’

The overall message of the book is far more uplifting, too. Despite the first chapter ending on the sentence, ‘When I have a boyfriend, little else will matter,’ Alderton’s journey brings her to the realisation that this is far from the truth and that her greatest relationship is with herself.

That said, she doesn’t quite dispel the single woman cliché. Whilst her tales of a two-hundred-pound taxi ride for a snog and disastrous Tinder dates are amusing, they still conjure up that old image of the single woman as someone to laugh, sigh and roll your eyes at.

‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ (Sharon Maguire, 2001)

A few days after finishing Alderton’s memoir, as I was charging through central London, I tripped into a bookshop and landed by Jami Attenberg’s latest novel, All Grown Up. I’d love to say that I almost walked away, but, alas, I’m forever drawn to the partnerless heroine. This time, however, I had found an elevated portrayal of one.

Attenberg goes about writing the single woman novel on her own terms, just as her narrator, Andrea, goes about single life on hers. It is not a memoir or a diary, but a series of vignettes jumping back and forth in time, each focussing on someone who has affected the internal development of our multilayered heroine, be it a parent, a friend of a parent, a mentor, colleague, or sexual partner. Andrea is riddled with issues. Of herself, she says: ‘I’m alone. I’m a drinker. I’m a former artist. I’m a shrieker in bed. I’m the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.’ But the difference between Andrea and her literary predecessors is that her complexities have nothing to do with her relationship status, and romance is by no means a panacea.

Andrea’s journey, like Alderton’s, is about growing up, which Attenberg makes clear has nothing to do with marriage, babies or mortgages. Andrea is looking for many things: creative outlet, a sense of connection, a place in the world – but she is not looking for a boyfriend. Of marriage and babies, she writes, elegantly in the second person: ‘It’s not that you want a baby, or want to get married, or any of it. It’s not your bag. You just feel (…) Tired of the world. Tired of trying to fit in where you don’t (…) There are men also, in your bed, but you are less interested in them than in muffling the voice in your head that says you are doing nothing with your life.’ She recognises there is something missing, but never is there a moment of ‘All would be fixed if I had a boyfriend’. Instead, her spiritual regeneration comes when she forgives her parents and takes responsibility for herself.

The novel does not completely deviate from the conventions of its genre. It’s set in New York. Andrea uses drugs and alcohol to ‘scratch the itch’. She loses a best female friend to marriage and parenthood. But she’s not a victim of bourgeois suburban dissatisfaction, nor a calorie-counter, nor a class clown, nor a nice girl who just keeps picking the wrong guy. Rather, she’s a product of 1980s New York City bohemian parenting, whose personal anguish is that she stopped making art.

A lot of women whom I’ve forced ‘All Grown Up’ upon really dislike Andrea. For them, she is – dare I say it? – too human.

And she’s not an easy character to swallow. Andrea is incapable of emotionally supporting her brother and sister-in-law, whose baby is dying. When her mother moves from the city to help them, Andrea’s first thought is, ‘what about me?’ She hates children. She engages in self-destructive, self-serving and often vulgar sex, without apology.

In fact, a lot of women whom I’ve forced All Grown Up upon really dislike Andrea. For them, she is – dare I say it? – too human. Chapter by chapter, we piece together the puzzle of Andrea’s emotional makeup and understand, along with her, how she came to be the way she is. She’s a woman who watched her father die by heroin overdose to jazz music. She suffered a sexual assault, in her own home, at the hands of her female rights activist mother’s male friend. Her niece is dying of a congenital heart disease. So, you forgive her for not being perfect.

There is a time and a place for every literary heroine to be pioneering. Bridget Jones had hers back in the Nineties, and – from ‘fuckwittage’ to big knickers – its effects continue today. But whether there’s a need for post-#MeToo Bridget to make judgments on, and excuses for, her former self, I’m not so sure. Fielding should have more faith in her readers. We already knew it was a ‘multi-layered ironic joke’ when Bridget told Shazzer that ‘here is nothing so unattractive to a man as strident feminism’.

Besides, there are new literary heroines now. As Andrea says to her therapist in All Grown Up, ‘Why is being single the only thing people think when they think of me? I’m other things too.’ We all are.

There is a time and a place for every literary heroine to be pioneering.