It's been 20 years since the world was first introduced to Bridget Jones: a wine-quaffing, calorie-counting heroine with a penchant for bad boys and an excellent vocabulary ("emotional fuckwittage", "drinkies" and "wanton sex goddess" are just a few highlights).
Now, after starring in three bestselling books and three blockbuster films, Bridget is back with a bump in author Helen Fielding's latest novel, Bridget Jones's Baby: The Diaries.
A laugh-out-loud novel that will make you choke on your Ben and Jerry's, The Diaries follows Bridget's discovery that she is pregnant and the ensuing hilarity when she realises she doesn't know who the father is: the ever-reliable Mark Darcy or the ever-irrepressible Daniel Cleaver.
Here, Helen Fielding tells Stylist.co.uk what she has learnt from 20 years of writing about Bridget, from the importance of friendships to the enduring appeal of cleaning out a fridge.
What was your writing routine for the Bridget Jones books?
I long to be one of those writers who rises at 6am to a lightly boiled egg, writes for four hours then bounces off to play tennis, or perhaps spear-fish a barracuda.
But for me, writing is chaotic and unpredictable. I don’t like working at a desk, I need to be somewhere cosy and comforting, like on a sofa. Sometimes I go to a café – there’s just the right level of distraction, lots of comfort food, and I love listening to bits of people’s conversation. I love the way people talk.
There are different phases with a novel. First I go through the compulsive phase where I’m just blurting out the whole emotional story with no regard to any form of grammar, spelling, punctuation or sense. At this point I’m in a feral, wild-haired state where I suddenly remember I’ve forgotten to pick up the children.
Then there’s an insecure phase, when I think the whole project’s pointless, and am trying to knock it into some sort of readable form to see what it’s like. That’s when I’m at my most distractable – working on a sentence, then looking at Net a Porter, working on a paragraph, then Googling holidays I will never go on, writing a page, then eating the contents of the fridge or deciding to give myself a 'smoky eye'.
My favourite stage is the weaving stage. That’s when I’ve got the material down, and I’m crafting it, working on all the threads which tie in together under the surface, and making the jokes tie in with the themes. At this point, when I didn’t have children, I’d work for 12-18 hours a day. You can’t do that with a family, but they’re very sweet, and will creep down in their PJs and sleep next to me on the sofa while I’m writing.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
My favourite advice was from – I think – Iris Murdoch. “Write as if you’re writing a letter to a friend”: that’s how you get your voice.
My novelist friend Maile Meloy had some great advice about the main character: “What is the purpose of their life and what is at stake?” Characters have to really matter and be at a key point in their lives, so that people can relate to their story.
Then a very obvious one: the reader has to want to know, all the way through, “what’s going to happen next?” That’s why they want to turn the page.
Finally, do not be afraid to Google pointless things when writing. It might seem time wasting, but some bit of you is creating. Better still – clean out the fridge. Fridge-cleaning never seems more interesting than when you’re supposed to be writing instead, so why not kill two birds with one stone?
How true to your life are the books?
Bridget was originally written as an anonymous column because I’m quite a private person. When the character became successful I realised I’d created the opposite effect to that intended, and in a state of exposed embarrassment, tried to pretend that I didn’t drink or smoke and was a virgin.
But deep down a part of Bridget is very much a part of me, and unexpectedly, I discovered, a part of many other people. It’s the part which sees a big gap between how you feel you ought to be a how you actually are. I’m constantly drawing a line under the past and deciding to be just…. just… better! And I’ve been trying to lose half a stone since I was 17.
In terms of the events in the books, I draw a little bit from my own life and a lot from what I see happening around me. I tend to take something that nearly happened, or might have happened, and then exaggerate it to make it funny and to make it tie into the themes.
Though, with Bridget Jones’s Baby: The Diaries, I’d like to make it clear that I did not ever get pregnant by two men.
Do you prefer life as an anonymous columnist, or an internationally renowned bestselling author?
I’m lucky in that people very rarely recognise my face, which is great because as a writer I really need to be able to observe everyday life without anyone noticing.
But I’ll be honest, now I’ve got used to it, I REALLY like being a bestselling novelist, and get a real kick when people are introduced to me and start telling me their “Bridget Jones moments”. It’s very bonding.
It’s pretty wonderful, to start off as a struggling freelance journalist, and then write something almost by accident, which so many people identify with. As the sort of pretentious person I like to parody would say: “I feel humbled.”
Is Bridget still just as relatable to 20- and 30-something singletons today as she was 20 years ago?
Interestingly, there does now seem to be a big Bridget audience amongst late teens and twenty-something’s.
I think the pressure to be perfect has amped up massively in the last 20 years with social media. Young people now are entering an unchartered sea, where there is huge pressure to judge yourself on how many likes or followers you get on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, rather than the important things, which are being kind, honest, resilient, funny and a good friend.
On social media, people tend to show off, and post their prettiest picture, and moments that are most likely to give everyone else FOMO. They rarely share the moments when they feel down, or when things have gone wrong and they need support.
How do you think Bridget would have coped as a millennial growing up with the social-media pressure to be perfect?
Insecurely. She would be in a permanent state of FOMO. But she’d love face-timing her besties.
What do you think it is about the character of Bridget that makes her so universally loveable?
Bridget talks in the way that women talk in real life to their best friends.
When we talk to our friends in real life, we don’t show off or try to make each other feel small, we share our problems and embarrassments, shore each other up, have a glass of wine and laugh and go away feeling warm, supported and as though there’s a whole world of women around, sharing in it all.
What have you learnt about life and love from 20 years of writing about Bridget?
I’ve learned that however ridiculous, bungling, fat, lonely, wildly puffed-up then knocked-down, or romantically disastrous or disorganised I might sometimes feel, or how ever much I wish I didn’t just pointlessly eat half a pound of not-very-nice cheese, there’s a lot of women out there feeling just the same inside.
I’ve learned through talking to so many women on book tours, that however perfect someone looks on the outside, however brilliantly they seem to have got it all together, we are all tender, and vulnerable, and need the warmth and support of our friends. We need the ability to laugh and remember that what is important is not being perfect, but being a good and kind person.
In the new novel Bridget has a lot on her plate. Can women ever have it all?
No one can have it all. Life is tough, and increasingly complicated in the digital age. There are good times and bad and we all have to deal with both. As Bridget’s dad says, "The trick is to play with the cards you are dealt, be resilient, and cope with what comes your way with courage and humour".
If Bridget Jones is about the gap between how we’re all expected to be and how we actually are, then Bridget Jones’s Baby is about the gap between how we expect our lives to turn out and how they actually do.
As Bridget says at the start of this new novel, in her letter to her son: “If you just keep calm and keep your spirits up, things have a habit of turning out all right, just as they did for me”.
And finally… what’s next for Bridget?
I honestly don’t know. One thing I can say for sure is that all of these books have been an honest, instinctive expression of something I felt or observed at the time. I would never cynically think, “Oh that would sell well next”.
If the books don’t come from the inside out, then Bridget is not being true to herself and it’s very important to me that she stays that way.
Bridget Jones's Baby: The Diaries by Helen Fielding is available to buy for £6.49 from amazon.co.uk