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.