Keeping up with Ms Jones

Tomorrow, the nation's favourite neurotic, sozzled, singleton returns to 'The Independent'. In the meantime, John Walsh reveals how Bridget was born - and brings you up to date with the story so far

It was, amazingly, 10 years ago that Bridget Jones took her first public sip of Chardonnay and confided to a diary her doubts about her mother's matchmaking. In real-life, Bridget was born as a weekly column in The Independent in October 1995, the brainchild of Charles Leadbeater, then the paper's features editor.

"I was desperate to find a column that appealed to young women," he recalled in 2001. "I wanted something that reflected the eclectic mix of topics women in the office seemed to talk about when they arrived in the morning, as I strained to overhear them without appearing to eavesdrop. I wanted something that covered the topics men assume women talk about when they visit the toilet in groups: make-up, men, food, the outrage of global poverty." Leadbeater had been listening to the Radio 4 version of Sue Limb's Dulcie Domum column in The Guardian - a wacky farce of domestic stress and woe, starring a modern wife and mother - and wanted a variant of Dulcie, feistier and, crucially, single, to appeal to a younger audience.

Enter Helen Fielding, 37, a Leeds-born, Oxford-educated TV presenter (her career began, improbably, on Play School and John Craven's Newsround) then journalist, who was writing for The Independent on Sunday. Charles had read Fielding's first novel, Cause Celeb, a spoof about smug celebrities and African aid, and admired the sardonic but funny voice of the hack narrator.

Fielding was shown a two-page outline of Leadbeater's ideas for the column and its dramatis personae. The two agreed that the heroine should have a very ordinary name. "Like Bridget Jones," said Fielding at once. In the next 30 minutes, she came up with the daily recital of alcohol units, fags, scratch cards and calories that became part of Bridget's unique selling point. You'd have thought she'd nursed the character inside her for years...

The column was an instant hit. Women readers detected a wholly sympathetic voice - friendly, confiding and aspirational while simultaneously aghast with self-doubt. They liked the guilty daily notations of her fluctuating weight, her consumption of wine, chocolates and Silk Cut cigarettes, and her doomed attempts at self-improvement manuals. Male readers liked her for less subtle reasons. One fan wrote to the editor: "Dear sir, I would quite like to shag Bridget Jones. Would you be kind enough to let me have her address?" Fielding used to wrinkle her nose at the memory: "I was always a bit put out by the 'quite like to'."

The first year of Bridget's fictional life went into hard covers the following year, taking her story on its now-familiar trajectory from her mother's friend Una's turkey-curry buffet on 1 January to Christmas Day lunch at Hintlesham Hall with her beloved Mark, via chronic drinking bouts with her friends Shazzer and Jude, her job in publishing, her affair with her sharky boss Daniel, her doomed attempts to acquire poise, have serious opinions and finish Ben Okri's The Famished Road, and her mother's attempts, like Mrs Bennet, to marry her off.

It was published by Picador, the paperback arm of Macmillan, and, in the words of her publisher Peter Strauss, became "the fastest-selling book since the Authorised Version of the Bible".

Fielding, who always denied the foul suggestion that she and her creation were identical ("She's nothing like me," she would say, "I'm a non-smoking, teetotal virgin"), watched in amazement as sales of the book climbed towards a million. Then it was published in America. Would the Yanks fall for such a specifically British figure? Would they get the little single-girl references - like her endless dialling of 1471 to find out who has telephoned her without leaving a message? Would the Yanks disapprove of her drinking and smoking? Would they find her fecklessness at work more to be condemned than admired?

America lapped it up. Sales in the US and UK combined now stand at 5.6 million copies, 2 million of which were from the movie tie-in of 2001. If you include foreign translations, and sales in 30 countries, the total figure is edging perilously close to 10 million.

It wasn't until November 1999 that a sequel appeared - Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. The publishers wheedled and cajoled Fielding for more than a year, and, when it arrived, it was 71 weeks late. It had three years' worth of Bridget newspaper columns to fillet - her affairs, her attempt to be a successful media-tart, her grappling with current affairs and political right-thinking, her parents and friends and lovers - and was twice the size of its predecessor. At the launch party in the London Hilton's cheesy penthouse, famous facesjoined the slew of British comedians with whom Fielding had hung around at the start of her career, when she was making comedy documentaries in Canada. Like the the JK Rowling phenomenon, it was a rare sighting of a book launched with a guarantee that it simply could not fail. Everyone knew they had a runaway, transatlantic, trans-media hit on their hands. And they hadn't even thought about the film.

Why did the creation hit such a nerve with the reading public? Earnest commentators insisted on seeing Bridget as the spirit of the age, the voice of a generation, a paradigm of late-20th-century womankind struggling with patriarchal complacency, unable to become a heroine to herself because of the pressures the world weighs upon her to conform. Some said that, although she might seem pathetic, accident-prone, air-headed and the absolute opposite of what a smart, independent, young modern woman should be, she gave comfort to women by implicitly allowing them to be self-deluding, self-centred and bone idle. She made female obsessions with make-up, underwear, gossip and self-analysis seem rather sweet, likeable and funny. She allowed single urban women noisily approaching their prime to feel that they weren't so much freaks as pioneers of a new social order, a gang, a band of sisters, an extended urban family.

Others hated her. Camille Paglia thought she was a dithery bore. Julie Burchill vowed to slap Fielding's face if she ever saw her again. It was said that she had put the feminist cause back a generation, as a yapping coven of Bridget wannabes ("Jones clones") were brought to life by rival thirty-something writers - Jane Green, Marian Keyes, Arabella Weir, and so on. Without meaning to, Fielding spawned a genre of novels about binge-drinking, chronically self-pitying urban female neurotics, who stayed in at night waiting for the phone to ring, worried about cellulite and the cost of Voyage cardigans and desperately looked for Mr Right (they'd know that he was the Real Thing because he'd take them to the Cotswolds rather than just staying for the night).

The Edge of Reason starts four weeks after the Diary finished. Bridget is happily shacked up with Mark Darcy, her long-term favourite, but their happiness cannot last. He reveals that he votes Tory (anathema to a committed socialist such as Bridget) and fails to fight off the advances of a man-eating newcomer called Rebecca ("with thighs like a baby giraffe"), so Bridget chucks him. The unspeakable Daniel Cleaver, her former boss, now working in television, comes a-calling, and they go to Thailand together. After being fooled into smuggling a bag of cocaine through customs, she is flung in a Thai jail but is saved by Mark, whom she spends most of the book trying to win back.

Though it features much the same cast of characters, it is an advance on the Diary - a little more sober, more political, more conscious of the desperation underlying Bridget's frantic caucus-race of courtship. Set in 1997, it includes the Labour election victory and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Bridget interviews the actor Colin Firth, who played Mr Darcy in the the TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and lusts after a young Prince William. She has fewer drunken nights, doesn't need to dial 1471 so frequently (she has a mobile phone) and calls the builders in to renovate her flat. But, by the end, she is still unmarried, unsettled, unpregnant and still stuck on the carousel called Dating Hell.

This is unlike Fielding herself. Still single girl when The Edge of Reason was published, the much-courted, much-fancied (and now million-quid-spinning) author moved to Los Angeles, where, in a hotel lobby one evening, she met Kevin Curran, one of the writers of The Simpsons. They moved in together and had a baby. While waiting for her first-born to arrive, Fielding busied herself with another novel. Electing to remove the stigma of writing only "chick-lit," she wrote a three-generation family-saga book set in the industrial north, but realised one day that "it just wasn't any fun". So she switched genres and wrote "the sort of book I might take on holiday and read on the beach". It was called Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination, and was set in a world of suave playboys, leggy supermodels and a French perfumier called Feramo who may secretly be Osama bin Laden with a $200 haircut and shave. It displayed some bewildering shifts of tone, from ditzy to decisive, racy to reflective, as though its author was wrestling with a hunger to be more serious.

But now she's back with the creation with which she will always be identified. It's hard not to feel a thrill of pleasure at the prospect of catching up with Bridget Jones, as if one were able to sit her down in Starbucks, buy her a mocha-ccino and pump her for information. Where has she been since 1997? Is she shacked up with Mark at last? Is she married? Has she had a baby? Has she visited California and laughed at rehab culture? What does she think should be the correct attitude to Iraq? Has she bought a peasant skirt this summer? Has she gone off Jude Law? Does she think the Duchess of Cornwall looks rather beautiful since she's gone legit?

Bridget Jones returns tomorrow, indomitable, wise, yearning, optimistic, poised and just a teeny bit sloshed. Praise the Lord.

Arts and Entertainment
Above the hat of the toy gibbon, artist Mark Roscoe included a ‘ghost of a bird’ and a hidden message
art
Arts and Entertainment
Alien: Resurrection, Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder
film
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable