“People look down on romance novels,” says Julia Quinn. “We’re the ugly stepchild of the publishing industry – even though romance novels make so much money for publishers that they’re able to take chances on poetry, literary fiction and other things that don’t really make money.”
This is why Quinn never dreamed that any of her novels – Regency romances in which smart, witty women fall for handsome titled men – would ever make the leap to TV. She was happy with her regular slot at the top of the bestseller lists, if a little irked at the way the genre is looked down on by more literary types. “I dream big, I do,” says Quinn, speaking from her home in Seattle. “But nobody had ever done it, nobody had ever shown any signs of wanting to. And not just my books, but the genre as a whole. If somebody wanted to do a period piece, they wanted to do Jane Austen again.”
This is partly because of the instant prestige Austen bestows. But it is also, Quinn believes, down to snobbery. “Nobody,” she says, “ever wanted to adapt a contemporarily written historical romance.” Nobody, that is, except Shonda Rhimes, whose production company Shondaland came calling. Rhimes, who was the showrunner on Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, is a huge fan of Quinn’s Bridgerton series. Last year, she told the Hollywood Reporter: “I remember I was almost scaring people, like, ‘We have to get these crazy romance novels – they’re hot and they’re sexy and they’re really interesting.’” Thanks to Rhimes, they are also now a Netflix hit.
The Bridgerton books recount the romantic adventures of the noisy, loving Bridgerton children in the high society of early 19th-century London. There are eight novels, one for each sibling’s adventures. “Such industriousness on the part of the viscountess and the late viscount is commendable,” writes Quinn of the family’s remarkable size.
The first book, as millions of people now know after it began streaming on Christmas Day, follows eldest daughter Daphne as she agrees to a fake courtship with “rakish” Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings. Basset, who has had a difficult childhood, is determined never to marry and never to have children. He’s hoping the phoney romance will keep society’s “ambitious mamas” at bay, while Daphne is hoping the interest of London’s most eligible bachelor will increase her own value on the marriage market. Obviously, they fall for each other, leading to a great deal of fun and hilarity.
Quinn, whose real name is Julie Pottinger, grew up mainly in New England and studied art history at Harvard. She then decided to become a doctor but, as a lover of historical romances set in Regency London, had tried writing one of her own. She got into Yale medical school the same month she landed a publishing contract – and the rest is bestsellers by the dozen. Light, pacy and full of feisty heroines, they’re all dedicated to her husband Paul, and all deliciously titled – from The Viscount Who Loved Me to How to Marry a Marquis and It’s in His Kiss.
It was in January 2017 that she got the call about TV interest. “I was just sitting in Starbucks, as one does when one lives in Seattle, and I got a call from my agent. He said, ‘I heard from one of Shonda Rhimes’ representatives. They’re curious whether the rights are available to the Bridgerton books. If so, are you interested in having them option it? I was like, ‘Yes, is this a trick question?’”
Quinn, now 50, has been a consultant on the series, but mainly stepped back and let showrunner Chris Van Dusen and his team get on with it. “They’d ask me minor things like, ‘We want the Bridgertons to be higher rank than the Featheringtons, so what do we do?’ I think all their choices were brilliant – the colour-conscious and inclusive casting has certainly raised my awareness into how badly we needed that.”
The show switches the race of some of Quinn’s key characters, who are white on the page: the duke is played by Regé-Jean Page, while Adjoa Andoh is the magnificently acerbic dowager Lady Danbury. “I think it’s wonderful and joyous,” says Quinn. “Previously , I’ve gotten dinged by the historical accuracy police. So in some ways, I was fearful – if you do that, are you denying real things that happened? But you know what? This is already romantic fantasy, and I think it’s more important to show that as many people as possible deserve this type of happiness and dignity. So I think they made the absolutely right choice, bringing in all this inclusivity.”
What’s more, when she heard that Julie Andrews would be the voice of Lady Whistledown – the gossip columnist who spreads scandal around “the ton”, as high society London is called – Quinn says she “stopped breathing for so long I legitimately should be dead”.
The arrival of the TV show, glowing with life and fun as the pandemic rages and the world is stuck indoors, has thrilled viewers in their millions, among them Quinn’s fellow authors. “They knew we needed beauty and colour and rainbows and deliciousness,” says bestselling Irish novelist Marian Keyes. “And they gave it to us, first of all visually and then with the men. I mean the duke – mother of God! I love the absolute abundance of everything, too. The queen’s wigs were incredible constructions. It was just fun. And the colours were so pretty: the wisteria round the door, the afternoon teas, the cakes and macaroons.”
British author Harriet Evans agrees. “It is so slick and enjoyable. The casting is insanely good. When you have background music by Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish, you know that these are people in control of their narrative. Historical romances are essentially about the only time women had any power – which is when they were out in the marriage market, trying to find husbands. That’s not romantic to me, that’s just terrifying. And that’s what Bridgerton does so well. You see the actual peril they’re in. Some of them will have terrible lives as a result of the marriage choices they make. Some will die in childbirth. What Bridgerton does so well is distill the brief hope of promise.”
Quinn published The Duke and I, the first Bridgerton novel, 20 years ago. One scene (spoiler warning) in the adaptation, in which Daphne manoeuvres the Duke into having sex without pulling out as he usually does, has proved controversial. But Quinn says there “wasn’t a peep” about Daphne’s trickery when the novel was first published.
“In all of my books,” she adds, “that’s probably the only scene that comes close to something of non-consent. But at the time, not a single person really said anything. If anything, the reaction was, ‘You go girl!’ The fact that it has come into discussion shows how far we’ve come. Women’s understanding of ourselves and our agency has changed so much. It’s harder for us to identify with Daphne and the fact that, within that marriage and in that society, she has no power. I’m not saying what she did was right. I’m just saying it’s harder for a modern woman to understand it than it was 20 years ago.”
If Quinn were to write the scene now, would she alter anything? “Certain things would be done a little differently,” she says. “Even if I wouldn’t actually change what happened, I might change how it is described.”
Seeing the huge international reaction to the series has been “surreal” for the author. Netflix said earlier this month that, in its first four weeks, the adaptation is expected to reach more than 63m households, making it the streaming service’s fifth biggest original series, while Quinn’s UK publisher is rushing out reprints of the Bridgerton books as they race up the charts. With eight books in the series, she’s hopeful the adaptations will continue. Although nothing is confirmed, Van Husen has expressed his keenness to “tell stories, and love stories, for all the Bridgerton siblings”.
After all, Quinn points out, “people love a happy ending” – and that’s what romance novels deliver. “When Downton Abbey was on,” she adds, “and everyone was saying they wanted more from Mary and Matthew, I was like, ‘Guys – that’s a romance novel!’”