It took about 12 months for me to really notice Bridget Jones. Before the internet that was how long it typically took for a trend to take hold. It didn't happen in a tweet. It took a year. Anyway, at the time I was also too busy living her life to care much about reading someone else's diary.
In 1996 I was living in a flat in north London with two girlfriends from university. It was to this flat that we brought bottles of white wine (yes, Chardonnay), £2 packets of Silk Cut (at one point around this time I was smoking 40 a day) and a stream of unsuitable men, including, on one not particularly memorable occasion, a pizza waiter who resembled Peter Andre. Alessandro was his name. Actually maybe he was not that forgettable after all.
Without thinking ourselves clichéd, we were living Bridget's life. We were all trying half- heartedly to lose weight by eating reduced-fat muffins and taking skimmed milk in our instant coffee. No one drank latte yet. We were desperate for people (ideally men who were not pizza waiters) to take us to cool parties and on mini-breaks. We bought scratchcards. We dreaded going home to visit our parents for Christmas. This was in the days when people left home and did not live with their parents until they were 35.
We were too young – in our mid-20s – to care properly about getting married. But we did care that we never seemed to find any boyfriends who were that great. And that the men we really liked were not interested in us. That was Bridget enough. We drank way too much (or I did, at least) and, in that embarrassed British way, we dealt with this by making a big joke of something that was actually quite sad. Alessandro never came back.
Basically, we were Bridget Jones fans waiting to happen, even though we were nearly 10 years younger than the "real" Bridget and 15 years younger than her creator, Helen Fielding, who had also almost certainly lived this sort of life for some time and, by all accounts, was still living it when she first started writing in Bridget's voice. At this point Fielding was a freelance journalist who had got into her late thirties without a big career break and with the by-now-irritatingly-successful Richard Curtis as her best friend. (They briefly dated each other when they were at Oxford.)
Bridget Jones was born in 1995, aged 32. The first column – "9st. The irreversible slide into obesity" – appeared in The Independent on 28 February, the week that Barings Bank collapsed. John Major had been prime minister for half a decade and would be there for another two years to come. The expression "New Labour" was yet to be used on a Labour Party draft manifesto. Later that year Pierce Brosnan played Bond in GoldenEye and the Princess of Wales played herself in the Martin Bashir documentary watched by 22.78 million people. The novel of the year? Nick Hornby's High Fidelity.
The most significant event in British cultural life at this time, though, was not connected to any of these things. It wasn't even anything to do with Bridget Jones's Diary, which was initially just another newspaper column, among many (including, incidentally, a very good one by Zoë Heller), about the trials of single-girl life in London. No, what everyone was talking about that year was the unprecedented popularity of the BBC's adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, a six-part period drama which would be shown that autumn. In our flat in Finsbury Park, of course, this completely passed us by, until the video boxset at least, because we were too busy going out and being Bridget.
The TV series featured the infamous "lake scene" where Mr Darcy (Colin Firth) emerged from a bracing swim in a wet white shirt. The New York Times likened the moment to Marlon Brando shouting "Stella!" in his vest in A Streetcar Named Desire. The novelist Joanna Briscoe wrote that the adaptation was "so dominant, so universally adored, [that] it has lingered in the public consciousness as a cinematic standard". Bridget-Jones-the-column was the touchpaper. The all-consuming lust for Darcy was the fuse. The combination of the two led to the novel Bridget Jones's Diary, published in 1996, which became one of the most successful British fiction exports of the 20th century, setting aside JK Rowling.
Over the next 10 years, thanks to Renée Zellweger's willingness to put on two stone in order to look authentically, chubbily British, Bridget went global: 40 countries, 15 million copies sold, two Hollywood blockbuster films which each took over £150m at the box office. Fielding has been open about the debt to Jane Austen – and to Colin Firth's portrayal of Darcy, which he reprised in the films. But she also acknowledges that Bridget owes her success to something older than time and something that has nothing to do with being a woman in love with a man she can't have (although that is 99.9 per cent of Bridget's appeal). She has often hinted that what Bridget is really about is about the idiocy of being human. Fielding calls her "the original banana-skin girl". She's what we all fear we are, man or woman: an accident waiting to happen. Women are just more open about it.
The cover of Fielding's new book, Mad About the Boy, shows Bridget in silhouette, but this time instead of a fag and a wine glass, the things closest to her are a toy dinosaur and a teddy bear. It would be v v unsporting to spoilerise. Suffice to say the latest instalment tackles "the challenges of maintaining sex appeal as the years roll by and the nightmare of drunken texting, the skinny jean, the disastrous email cc, total lack of Twitter followers, and TVs that need 90 buttons and three remotes to simply turn on". So Bridget is still us. Fielding has confirmed that Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy, Bridget's warring suitors, still feature. But we also know that the new story shows Bridget older, a mother and back on the (internet) dating scene as a singleton.
The frenzy on the Bridget Facebook page (121,000 Likes – v good) in the run-up to publication gives some indication of why her appeal has lasted. It's because her fans believe she's real. And they believe she stands for them. A teaser ad asks readers to share their dating rules, while revealing Bridget's new rules for 2013: "Do not text when drunk. Be classy not crazy. Don't come on too obviously strong. But do do sensual things like stroking stem of wine glass up and down." (This reads like a PR's voice not like Helen Fielding's. Which worries me. But when you have made over £30m out of a brand, you can't control every status update.)
Some people respond to this stuff by clicking through to the pre-order link or enthusiastically typing "Can't wait!!!!!!!" But there is also a frenzy of semi-serious answers: "Never drive a man home after first date." "Never continue to date a man whose idea of a good first date involves going to the cinema." "Don't wear shoes you can't walk in." (Too late for Bridget judging by the platform stilettoes on the book's cover.) This is why Bridget has had a long shelf life: because as long as she still has the same problems, enough women will identify.
It's weird, though, that this product of the mid-1990s has endured. Arguably it's because Fielding, almost inadvertently, spotted trends before their time and gave a name to them. The uncomfortable relationship between "singletons" and "smug marrieds". The power of "emotional fuckwittage" (people messing each other around while dating). The consumerist tendency to list and catalogue food items, calories and purchases. The tension between being an organic-loving, hedonist foodie and being a self-depriving, obsessive dieter.
Most of all, she was a blogger before blogs existed. Probably if the whole business was played out again now Bridget would be lost in the cacophony of the internet. She was a bridge between the old world, where we were raised on Pride and Prejudice and Adrian Mole's diary, and the new, where readers are now more likely to follow the Twitter account, "Like" the Facebook page and Kindle the book but never actually read it. This new book, then, feels like her swan song.
Plans for a third film have stalled, with Richard Curtis announcing this week that he won't be involved and Hugh Grant saying, "I've seen some scripts. They haven't quite hit the nail yet, but they will. They're working on it." Truthfully, Bridget Jones is now more synonymous with Renée Zellweger than she is with the book and the whole future of the brand rests on whether Zellweger can be bothered to hit the doughnuts again. If she does, there's no reason we couldn't go on until Bridget's a granny. But without her, this really is the last hurrah.
Bridget has always been more of a political creature than her creator intended (and more political than her fans care about). Thirty years after Betty Friedan wrote about "the problem that has no name", describing the empty lives of women with no life outside the home, Bridget Jones saw herself as living "in a state of nameless dread", with no life outside her obsession with being single. Camille Paglia and Julie Burchill bemoaned Bridget's lack of backbone but Fielding defended herself: "Nobody worries about what Bertie Wooster is saying about masculinity."
In real life, author Helen Fielding has come full circle, which is perhaps another reason for the launch of this book now. She's Bridget again, sort of. Having re-located in Los Angeles, she recently moved back to north London as a single parent. (She has two children with Kevin Curran, a TV exec on The Simpsons.) The life of her readers, meanwhile, has moved on too.
I've always been fond of Bridget and I'm happy to see her again. It's like catching up with an old friend who never quite moved on. When I first met her I was a veteran smoker, a big drinker and a confirmed singleton. I truly believed I would never meet a man. In fact, within two years of reading the book, at the age of 26, I was married and within a decade I had three children. I haven't smoked a cigarette in over 15 years and am in trouble if I drink more than half a white-wine spritzer. One thing is left over from that era: the big pants. Not so much of a joke now. More a necessity.
'Mad About the Boy' is published on 10 October by Jonathan Cape, priced £18.99
What Bridget would really be like now
Comic characters are tricky. Because they need to grow but they mustn't age. This is a massive challenge for Bridget Jones. Her entire appeal once hung, Jane Austen-style, on the fact, that she was over 30 and unmarried. Now, in the new book, she's in her forties and a single mother.
This is a gamble: it assumes that her fans have moved on and are also in that part of their lives – and don't want to see Bridget in her old life. But they also don't want to see her totally changed: so the situation is the same (she's drunk, hopeless with men and still dieting), but the circumstances are different (she needs to get a babysitter so she can go internet dating).
The strange thing, though, is that the original Bridgets are way beyond this stage and virtually staring grandmotherhood in the face. The date of birth of the character Bridget Jones is 9 November 1962: she's nearly 51. Her creator, Helen Fielding, is in her mid-fifties.
If Bridget were really around now, she'd be on HRT, be a member of the newly emergent Women's Institute and have a subscription to 'Woman and Home' magazine. It seems unlikely that she'd be on Twitter. But, yes, granted, she would be doing the 5:2 fast diet. Who isn't?