“Bridget Jones” Author Helen Fielding Reflects on the Character's Kindness — and Critics (Exclusive)

“I assumed that no one would read it because it was too trivial,” Fielding says of the column that became 'Bridget Jones's Diary'

<p>Romy Curran; Penguin Books</p> Helen Fielding and the 25th anniversary edition of

Romy Curran; Penguin Books

Helen Fielding and the 25th anniversary edition of 'Bridget Jones's Diary'

Before Renée Zellweger had to choose between Hugh Grant and Colin Firth on the silver screen — and before millions of readers fell in love with the novel — Bridget Jones’s Diary was a newspaper column in London’s Independent. And author Helen Fielding felt certain would be canceled within weeks.

“I assumed that no one would read it because it was too trivial,” Fielding tells PEOPLE exclusively.

Oh, how wrong she was. The character quickly struck a chord with readers with her messy love life, relatable foibles and perpetual struggle to develop “inner poise.” Rather than being dropped, the column ran in The Independent for several years, jumping to The Daily Telegraph in 1997, and spawned four novels and three films — with a fourth set to be released next year — making Bridget Jones an avatar for charmingly imperfect single women everywhere.

This week, a new 25th anniversary edition of the first novel hits U.S. shelves from Penguin Books, a testament to the character’s enduring popularity.

<p>Penguin Books</p> The 25th anniversary edition of 'Bridget Jones's Diary'

Penguin Books

The 25th anniversary edition of 'Bridget Jones's Diary'

Related: Renée Zellweger Smiles on the Set of Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy in London

“The thing which most often happens is that people tell me about their own ‘Bridget Jones moment,’ ” Fielding says. “Sometimes I almost feel like the Pope and that what they want me to say is ‘Bless you my child, you are Bridget Jones.’ ”

But long before she was canonized as the patron saint of singletons — not to mention one of the great comic voices of her generation — Fielding was a journalist writing for the BBC and British newspapers with designs on becoming a serious literary novelist. Her first book, 1994’s Cause Celeb, Fielding says, “had some good reviews but hardly anyone bought it.”

Fielding says she was “seriously broke” at the time, making ends meet writing book reviews and “trying to be a serious journalist” while working on a follow-up to Cause Celeb. That’s when the editors of The Independent approached her to write a column about single life in London.

“I said ‘no’ because it would be, ironically enough, hopelessly embarrassing and exposing,” she says. “But I really needed the money and said I would make a character up. The result was that I wrote a comic exaggerated version of myself which was read by tens of millions of people — and everyone ended up thinking it was me anyway.”

<p>Romy Curran</p> Helen Fielding

Romy Curran

Helen Fielding

Writing the column anonymously in Bridget’s voice, Fielding says, “freed me up to write with an emotional honesty about what was actual going on for me as a woman at that time. I think that honest peep behind the curtains was what led to it resonating as it did.” But, she adds, “writing the column was just quick, instinctive and unselfconscious. It was not intended as a serious piece of social commentary.”

“Basically, the column had a format like a sitcom, but was also journalistic, so I'd weave in a Bridget's story with a news story,” Fielding recalls. One memorable example was a column in which, shortly after Princess Diana’s tragic death, Bridget lays a copy of Vogue and a chocolate bar amongst the flowers outside Kensington Palace.

Of course, a sitcom heroine needs a love interest, and Fielding gave Bridget two: the dreamy but uptight Mark Darcy and the dreamy but toxic Daniel Cleaver.

“Most of the characters are based on an amalgam of real people,” Fielding says. “A lot of people have claimed to be Daniel Cleaver and one thing I have found is if you’re going to use real people in a book, they probably won’t mind as long as you make them really attractive.”

Related: Hugh Grant Teases 'Funny' New Bridget Jones Sequel: Renée Zellweger 'and I Always Seem to Click' (Exclusive)

<p>Jason Bell/Universal/Studio Canal/Miramax/Kobal/Shutterstock</p> Colin Firth, Renee Zellweger and Hugh Grant in 2004's 'Bridget Jones's Diary'

Jason Bell/Universal/Studio Canal/Miramax/Kobal/Shutterstock

Colin Firth, Renee Zellweger and Hugh Grant in 2004's 'Bridget Jones's Diary'

That character, she explains, was based on the familiar archetype of the “witty, charming, sexy bastard” that single women seemed to encounter regularly. Mark Darcy, meanwhile, was her version of Firth’s Mr. Darcy in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. “Being something of a magpie, I found myself following the plot of Pride and Prejudice in the columns. That was quite handy when my publisher suggested I make the columns into a book,” Fielding says.

Beloved as she remains, Bridget has, nonetheless, come in for some critique in recent years. In a 2018 essay, Fielding had the character reconsider the workplace sexual harassment she dealt with through a post-#MeToo lens. And more recently, Bridget’s obsessive calorie counting — which Fielding says came directly from her own university diaries — has been criticized.

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“Bridget has come in for criticism from the very moment she was published — particular from people who don’t understand irony,” Fielding notes. “My feeling is that if we as women can’t be ironic, or laugh at our imperfections then we haven’t got very far at being equal, have we?”

“And let’s face it, women worrying about body image was a reality when I first wrote Bridget and is even more of a reality now,” she adds. “To me, the ability to laugh at yourself is a mark of strength not weakness. The origin of writing Bridget was honest and from the heart. There was no grand sociological intention behind it. The fact that it resonated with so many people spoke for itself — there was clearly some truth there. I think it’s better to look at the reasons why the voice resonates than to complain about its existence.”

<p>Dave J Hogan/Dave J Hogan/Getty</p> Helen Fielding at the 'Bridget Jones's Baby' premiere in 2016

Dave J Hogan/Dave J Hogan/Getty

Helen Fielding at the 'Bridget Jones's Baby' premiere in 2016

Related: Bridget Jones 4: All About the Romantic Franchise's Next Installment

Nearly three decades after her first Bridget Jones column appeared, Fielding feels that her theme of “the gap between how people feel they are expected to be and how they actually are” is even more resonant in the age of social media.

“There is a new audience for Bridget in amongst 15– to 25-year-olds, and it doesn’t require neuroscience to connect that with the effect of social media,” she says. “As a parent with a houseful of teenage girls, I know how reassuring it is to share the feelings around these things and to laugh together about the issues.”

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“Like Bridget, I think women enjoy honest, nurturing friendships with other women, where you share your vulnerabilities and draw strength from your community of friends who are radiators rather than drains. Most women I know don't want the friend that comes home, says ‘Oh, look at me, so perfect and successful.’ You want the friend you can go to and say, ‘Oh god, you won't believe what's just happened to me, get me a glass of wine!’ and come away feeling human, comforted and supported,” she continues.

“I also think there's decency to Bridget. She’s all over the place but she's essentially kind, moral, clear-sighted, and not mean-spirited. She’s far more likely to blame herself than others. And she builds community around her," Fielding shares. "And as the world gets more and more scary, the small communities around everyone, and good values of kindness, honesty and mutual support in those communities, become more and more valuable and important.”

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