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Bridget Jones: older, yes, but still mad about the boys | Observer profile

Helen Fielding’s calorie-counting singleton was the chick-lit success of the late 20th century. Now a long-awaited third novel takes her into the era of Twitter and  internet dating

The extract was tantalisingly brief. “11.27pm. Just presss d SEND. Iss fineisn’t it?… DATING RULE NO. 1. DO NOT TEXT WHEN DRUNK.”

Bridget Jones is back. And this time she’s got a mobile phone and a Twitter account.

Last week, the title of a long-awaited (and assumed non-existent) third novel, to be published on 10 October, was announced: Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy. Bridget’s creator, Helen Fielding, revealed on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour that Bridget is still trying to kick the booze and the fags and is still on a diet. That’s a relief. Or is it?

Would Bridget still be counting calories and units in her 40s? (In theory, she should be at least 50. In the novel, she is likely to be quite a bit younger.) And does that make her out of step with her contemporaries? Her fans’ reactions were mixed on Mumsnet: “Will be Zimmer fighting and creaking bones during the sex scenes”; “Bridget should be left in the 1990s”; “The first book captured a particular time for a particular group of women … the second book/film was just terrible”; “I would like some trash like this … bring it on.”

In 2007, Bridget Jones’s Diary was named as one of the 10 novels that best defined the 20th century. But does Bridget Jones still speak for a generation, especially when her multimillionaire creator mostly lives in LA? In the London Evening Standard, Melanie McDonagh argued yes, she does: “Someone to represent the fag end of the babyboomers is no bad thing.”

Fielding’s publisher at Jonathan Cape, Dan Franklin, said: “As a comic writer, Helen is without equal. Over 15 years ago, she gave a voice to a generation of young women with the original Bridget book. Now they’ve grown up and she’s doing it again, this time with all the joys and complications of social media.”

The original novel, based on the Independent column Fielding wrote from 1995, was published in 1996 and was an international bestseller. Then came Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason three years later. Together, the books sold 15m copies in 40 countries and spawned two Hollywood films starring Renée Zellweger as Bridget and Colin Firth and Hugh Grant as her warring paramours.

According to the Hollywood Reporter last week, the original movie, released in 2001, and its 2004 sequel, grossed $281m (£185m) and $262m (£172) worldwide, respectively: “The US appeal of both films was softer, with Diary grossing just $71m and Edge of Reason taking in only $41m.”

Fielding has called Bridget “the girl who’s the embodiment of the banana skin joke. Optimistic – with grand aspirations: ‘I’m not going to sleep with him.’ Cut to her in bed with him.”

Fielding was born and raised in Morley, West Yorkshire, where her father was managing director of a textile factory that made the fabric for miners’ donkey jackets. One of four children, she attended Wakefield girls high school and studied English at St Anne’s College, Oxford, before working as a production manager for the BBC.

She went on to work as a journalist and columnist; the Bridget Jones columns were first published in the Independent, and then moved to the Daily Telegraph. She now lives between London and Los Angeles and has two children, aged 10 and six, by Kevin Curran, executive producer of The Simpsons (the two are now separated).

Bridget was born when Fielding was asked to write a diary about her life as a thirtysomething single woman. Deciding this would be “too embarrassing”, she created an over-the-top avatar to take the flak. Bridget’s combination of self-loathing, enthusiasm and hope against the odds struck a chord. As did her passion for scratchcards, bad karaoke (signature song: All By Myself) and “just one more bottle of pinot grigio”.

The awkwardness that created Bridget in the first place has also led to there being almost 15 years between this book and the last one. Of her success, Helen Fielding has said: “It was very easy to write and be honest. Then I got all self-conscious.”

The latest story will show Bridget more “grown up” but she is “never going to change really”. It will be interesting to see if there are any more Jane Austen references: part of the success of the original book came on the coat-tails of the BBC’s 1995 mini-series of Pride and Prejudice. Fielding has admitted that the original source for the plot came from Austen, as did the on-page and on-screen casting of “successful barrister Mark Darcy” (played by Colin Firth in both Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones).

Bridget-watchers could be forgiven for being confused about this third instalment. At the end of The Edge of Reason, she was engaged to be married to Mark Darcy. A third film – not connected to this novel – is already in development. Based on some columns Fielding wrote in the Independent seven years ago (when she had seemingly given up on the idea of writing a third novel), the film is called, ominously, Bridget Jones’s Baby and is about her having a son with Daniel Cleaver, the Hugh Grant character.

It’s debatable whether the success of the films has eclipsed the original diaries. Zellweger is firmly fixed in people’s minds as “Bridget”. Interestingly, several news outlets reported last week’s news as “Renée Zellweger to sign up for third Bridget Jones movie”, not as a publishing story:

Although Firth and Zellweger are both said to be keen to continue the franchise, Bridget Jones’s Baby has had multiple delays. Last year, Firth said: “I wouldn’t say it’s completely dead in the water. But the way it’s going you might be seeing Bridget Jones’s granddaughter’s story being told by the time we get there.”

Last week, Tim Bevan, co-chairman of Working Title Films, the production company behind the first two Bridget movies, said: “Bridget Jones’s Baby is like herding cats but they’re beginning to fall into line.” There were other reports last week, though, that the “third film
” would now be Mad About the Boy. Film rights have sold for a reported £3m. Let’s wait and see.

Whatever happens, Bridget has built up so much goodwill over the years that readers are unlikely to fall out of love with her. (Many remained loyal when the novel The Edge of Reason was universally panned.)

It doesn’t hurt that Zellweger’s portrayal of Bridget is the stuff of legend, turning herself from a svelte Hollywood goddess into a “chubby” London PR girl, gaining 30lb by eating doughnuts and going method for the role when she went undercover as secretary “Bridget Cavendish” at the offices of the Picador publishing house in Victoria for three weeks. Only one colleague rumbled her – “Don’t you think she looks just like that girl from Jerry Maguire?” – and had to be taken to one side for an explanation.

In the mid 1990s, Bridget was famed for many sayings – “note to self”, “smug married”, “singleton” – and many habits: repeatedly dialling 1471 to see if “he” had called, wearing granny “control” pants, the counting of units and calories and fags. It would seem odd if she were still doing all that 10 years on. Or maybe it would be stranger if she weren’t.

One way or another, Bridget seems to have survived any accusations of being “unfeminist”. As Fielding explains: “I think that if you’re not a fan of irony as a form of expression, then a book that contains the line, ‘There’s nothing so unattractive to a man as strident feminism’ is going to make you cross. I also think that if we can’t have a comic female character, if we can’t laugh at ourselves without having a panic attack about what it says about women, we haven’t got very far with our equality.”

Far from being a force for conservatism, perhaps Bridget was more radical in her time than we give her credit for. Fielding says: “I’d like to think Bridget has allowed people, particularly women, to think it’s all right just to be all right. It’s all right just to be a person and sort of muddle through the complicated, overstuffed world that we live in … You don’t have to be an airbrushed picture in a magazine.”

Fielding says the new book is about “a whole new idea for a phase of her life that I can’t jinx by describing it”. Whatever happens next with Bridget Jones, at the moment (most of) her fans are v v happy.

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