Tomorrow the latest exploits of Bridget Jones will be released in cinemas all over Britain and America. A disproportionate amount of media coverage has focused on the poundage gained and lost by its star, Renee Zelwegger. At the premiere in London on Tuesday, thousands of women waited for hours to see their heroine - now as thin as a stick - in the flesh. But forget the undeniably talented Renee and the size of her breasts for a moment - what is it about the character of Bridget Jones that appeals to ordinary women all over the world?
The transition from the printed page to the screen has been effortless. The fan club of millions of happy readers has been swelled by millions more contented filmgoers. Bridget Jones has become more than a character, she's become a shorthand note for a certain kind of lifestyle.
The book spawned a whole genre, chick lit, inspired advertisements, websites, and a fresh style of marketing strategy directed at single working women in their thirties.
When Helen Fielding started her column in this very paper, it was read avidly by the middle classes. But gradually something extraordinary happened - women from Bombay to Bolivia, Canada to Germany, Brazil to Australia latched onto the concept of Bridget Jones. Recognising her as a kindred spirit they formed fanzines and internet clubs to talk to each other.
The notion of being a single woman, on a permanent diet and hopelessly looking for Mr 60 per cent, was something that crossed all frontiers, survived translation into any language and resonated in all sorts of social milieu. Fielding could truly claim to have invented the one original heroine since Wonderwoman that appeals to all social classes and all ethnic groups - the one thing they hold in common is their gender. In Bridget they found an instant friend.
For a long time Bridget Jones was a book the literati pretended they hadn't read, just as the first movie was one they only ever claimed to have seen on a plane - as I did, spending several hours on a flight to Singapore convulsed with laughter. Quite simply, it was a joy from start to finish.
The second movie, directed by Beeban Kidron, achieved the enviable result of making a cinema full of po-faced film critics howl with laughter first thing on a Monday morning. There is no doubt that it will become one of the most successful British films ever.
The critics may sneer at the broad comedy, the set-piece gags and the slightly rose-tinted view of the world inhabited by Bridget and friends, and I predict some carping over the tastelessness of scenes set in a Thai jail when our heroine is arrested for drug smuggling. Lesbians too may be unhappy with Bridget's reaction to a declaration of love from a member of her own sex - is it politically correct enough? But at the end of the day, this is not a gritty piece of kitchen sink realism, but a frothy confection designed to let you leave the cinema with a smile on your face feeling a bit of a warm glow.
In many ways, Bridget has become an iconic figurehead for women precisely because she is a mass of contradictions, of unrealised ambitions and good intentions.
Deep down Bridget is fairly conventional - she wants to be happy and that means getting married to Mr Right. She has surrounded herself with friends rather than relatives because her own family is dysfunctional and her mother such an embarrassment. Although she loves her father, there is no hint of affection for her ghastly self-centred mother.
Bridget also enjoys sex, smoking, and drinking far more units than some dreary government health initiative would recommend. But Bridget is well-balanced and happy in her world, unlike her male peers.
Edinburgh University recently published a survey which reveals that single men in their thirties and forties have fewer friends, a poorer diet and more depression than their married counterparts.
Single women, on the other hand, have a far better time of it, earning higher wages than a generation ago, and spending a large amount of their money on having a good time.
And the Bridget Jones phenomenon isn't just confined to the thirty-somethings, according to market research conducted by a leading bank. A soaring divorce rate has produced a new generation of female singletons in their fifties, who drink, smoke, hang out with their surrogate family of friends and go to bars and clubs looking for partners. Unlike their mothers' generation they embrace new technology from the internet to mobile phones, and one third, exactly the same proportion as the thirty-somethings, claim to be on a permanent diet, Bridget-style.
Interestingly, 49 per cent of these 50-year-old Bridgets don't want to get married again, compared to 39 per cent of the younger group.
Above all else, BJ is a marketing dream - Google Bridget Jones and you find that Marks & Spencer are in a prime spot flogging their "magic" knickers as worn by our heroine and eulogised by Trinny and Susannah as the answer to a flabby midriff in What Not to Wear.
Travel agencies expect The Edge of Reason to bring hordes of tourists to London to follow Bridget's footsteps from her Southwark mansion flat by the railway line through the Borough vegetable market and over London Bridge, stopping in M & S en route to pick up some big pants.
I have no doubt that Helen Fielding will pen a third volume of Bridget's life in search of that perfect man and that the film of it will be a huge success.
Feminists in the Sixties had to shout long and loud to make their voices heard, campaigning for equal pay and women's rights.
That battle has come a long way, but it is still nowhere near won. We have a pitifully small number of female MPs, company directors, and millionairesses.
Twenty years ago we were asked by high-profile feminists to become superwomen, to combine work and home, family and the office. In the Eighties we networked like mad, we worked every hour God sent, and then we realised at the end of the day, life can be very lonely by yourself.
To acknowledge that life can be more enjoyable with a partner does not necessarily mean you are a spineless traitor to the cause. Now high-achievers like Nicola Horlicks and Barbara Cassini have recanted - telling us that some goals have to be dropped for us to be happy, and we have to make tough choices between success in the boardroom or a fulfilling life at home.
So Bridget remains a good and appropriate role model for all women, whether they are 35 or 55, because she reflects the confusing demands on our priorities as we juggle our way through every day.
Just as John Bunyan wrote A Pilgrim's Progress to assist fellow believers to chart a passage through life's trials and tribulations in the 17th century, we need Bridget to age with us in the 21st century and comfort us with her shortcomings.
And she inhabits a world where there is always a place for men, with all their ghastly little ways, not as objects of ridicule, but as equals.Reuse content