Photo by Andrew Crowley/CP

ONCE AND FOR ALL, HELEN FIELDING IS NOT BRIDGET Jones. “I don't drink, I don't smoke, and I'm a virgin,” insists the creator of the compulsively self-improving heroine of Bridget Jones's Diary, poker-faced. Yes, and my name is Boutros Boutros-Ghali. When pressed, Fielding owns to more than a passing acquaintance with the London world of Singletons and Smug Marrieds in which Bridget churns, seeking perfection of mind and body en route to Mr. More-or-Less-Right. Fielding also confesses to filching her own mother's turns of phrase as grist for the mill of Bridget's flighty mum, and to having once made blue soup for a dinner party. Based on a year's worth of columns for the London newspaper The Independent, the falling-about-funny novel turned its boozy, klutzy, diet-obsessed, kind, brave heroine into a national treasure in Britain and then all over the world. In the U.S. the book, now out in paperback, became a runaway best-seller precisely among the career women you'd expect to hate it for exposing the insecurity that lies beneath their power-suited confidence. The Diary sold best in California, to Fielding's surprise. “I thought they would hate the cigarettes and alcohol,” she says. “Maybe it's a release from the healthy lifestyle.”

If Fielding shares her heroine's neuroses, she has them firmly under wraps while taking tea and scones on the patio of the Four Seasons. The blond, 40-ish sprite seems amply stocked with the inner poise that the perennially undone Bridget so desperately yearns for. Soft-spoken in the comfortable accents of the Northern textile town near Leeds where she grew up, Fielding betrays none of the pricey affect of her years at Oxford, where she majored in English and took minor stage roles (“a mute chambermaid”) side by side with Rowan (Mr. Bean) Atkinson. Nor is she disposed to pump up her stint as a regional producer for BBC television, working on the sort of news program “where you get 24 sheep in a Bristol studio, and the gentleman farmer had his hair done, and at 20 past 6 they go, 'Sorry, Bristol, we're dropping you,' and you're left with the sheep and the man with the hairdo.”

The delight in incongruity that is the backbone of Fielding's comic strategy — she had Bridget show up as a bunny girl at a party where everyone else was in business attire — permeates her warm, self-deprecating personal style. She also emits a discreet vibe of well-guarded privacy that warns me not to ask whether the slim gold band on the third finger of her right hand is a wedding ring. When I sidle up sideways, asking whether the book's success has gotten her more dates, she slyly returns the ball to her heroine. “People proposition Bridget,” she says. “One year she got 13 Valentine cards and I got one. I hated her that year.” Fielding cherishes the letters from elderly colonels who write one paragraph about the freshness of the prose, then six pages about the way Bridget's blouse brushes against her breasts. One man wrote, “Dear Sir, I would quite like to shag Bridget Jones. Could you let me have her phone number, please?”

About her own love life, Fielding will admit only to having encountered a whole zoo full of variants on Daniel Cleaver, the office Lothario who reduces Bridget to a quivering particle of unfulfilled expectation, until finally she gets the picture and plumps for Mark Darcy, the deceptively cool and remote hero whom Fielding blithely concedes to having lifted straight from Pride and Prejudice, which aired as a TV series while she was writing her novel. “When people ask if I know Daniel Cleaver,” she says ruefully, “I say, 'Oh, if only there had been just the one.'”

Not everyone has been amused by Bridget's obsession with the inadequacy of her thigh circumference, her wild swings between ecstasy and despair depending on whether Daniel is looking up her skirt at a given moment, or the fact that she takes her design for living from the annals of self-help. Some feminists slammed the book's romance-novel ending, in which Bridget snags the rich guy with the granite jaw. (They'll be relieved to know that the sequel Fielding is currently writing blows to smithereens Bridget's romantic fantasies: Far from being the perfect mate, Darcy knows naught of grocery shopping.) A Time magazine cover fingered Bridget, along with Ally McBeal and other pop images of '90s womanhood, as accessories in the murder of the women's movement. “I was so honored,” Fielding observes with the barest hint of acid, “that I managed to single-handedly bring down the cause of feminism with one comedy book.” About the particularly strong backlash in the U.S., she notes delicately, “I think 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 man as strident feminism' is going to make you cross.”

Fielding seems more bemused than defensive about the feminist critique of her work. She firmly identifies as a feminist, and sees in Bridget the essential dilemma of the modern woman, caught between her principles and a world with no firm rules for living, only a thousand ideas filtered through the loony tunes of self-help rhetoric. “It's like the 24-hour mascara ad: You're supposed to be getting up and whizzing to the gym, and then to the board meeting, then cooking supper for 12 people. Then the soup is blue and you feel like shouting, 'Oh, go fuck yourselves' when the guests arrive.”

TO JUDGE BY THE CROWD, MOSTLY YOUNG WOMEN and gay men, that flocks later that evening to a Writers' Bloc discussion where Fielding, nominally the main event, equably submits to playing straight woman to moderator Carrie Fisher (“You went to Oxford, you bitch? I never got out of high school”), Bridget Jones's Diary has struck a raw nerve among city singles. “There is a loneliness in urban life as well as all the fun. It's part of the human condition to vacillate between suicidal loneliness and wild spirits,” says Fielding, acknowledging that she wanted the novel to have its dark side: “Girls come up to me quite drunk at parties and tell me, 'I'm Bridget Jones.' I feel like the pope.”

Meanwhile, Bridget is ballooning into a franchise. Fielding stopped writing the column last Christmas when she found herself recycling plotlines, but the sequel is nearing completion. The Diary is being made into a movie for Working Title Films. If Fielding has her druthers, Colin Firth, the bonny fellow who, as Darcy in the TV series Pride and Prejudice, offered a fresh reading of Jane Austen by diving topless into a pond to cool love's ardor, will play Mark Darcy in the Bridget movie. Touchingly unaware of the protocol for casting mass-market movies, Fielding favors an unknown actress for Bridget, and her friend Sharon McGuire (who may or may not be the model for Bridget's pungently feminist pal, Shazzer, in the novel — Fielding will say only that McGuire coined the term “Fuckwittage” to nail the Daniel Cleavers of this world) to direct. Though Fielding worked on the screenplay with help from her friend Richard Curtis, who wrote Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral, it's been taken over by Andrew Davies, who wrote the BBC Pride and Prejudice that gave Fielding her plot. “It had been market-tested for centuries.”

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