Springboard: Julia Guinn, on the success of Bridgerton

Springboard: Julia Guinn, on the success of Bridgerton

If one of your coping strategies for the past 12 months has been bingeing on streaming services, then your year has probably been bookended by being glued to two series derived from books: “Normal People”, the spring 2020 smash adapted from Sally Rooney’s second novel, and “Bridgerton”, the Netflix Christmas release and monster global hit based on American author Julia Quinn’s octet of Regency romances.

On the surface there is probably little to connect the slice of Irish Millennial angst with the frothy and lively costume drama, except perhaps that the intimacy co-ordina- tor was probably the first name on the call sheet on both sets. Yet, the relative speed at which both went from an option to our screens was perhaps another link. Quinn, now famously, was in her local Starbucks “pretending to write, as one does” a few years ago when she got a call from her agent, who said that Hollywood mogul Shonda Rhimes was interested in the Bridgerton series.

This was a surprise, Quinn tells me over Zoom from her home in a snow-bound Seattle, as the first Bridgerton book, The Duke and I, was published in 2000 “and we weren’t actively shopping it. Not for any lack of thoughtfulness on our part, but the books were older. No one in Hollywood had ever been interested in, not just in these books, but the genre. There have never been really true historical romance books optioned... The closest would be ‘Outlander’ [based on Diana Gabaldon’s series], but it’s more romance- adjacent as it has elements of time travel and hairy men in kilts, fighting with swords. Not to get all gendered here, but I think that’s an easier sell to the men who make decisions in Hollywood, as they can say, ‘Oh, we have a sword fight here, I can relate to that.’”

The show’s blend of diverse casting, dishy light-hearted fun and, let’s be honest, star Regé-Jean Page’s superhuman good looks and rippling torso, struck a nerve. At the end of January, Netflix announced that it was the streaming service’s biggest success ever, with 82 million viewers spread across the globe.

This has resulted in a surge in sales in the UK. While Quinn regularly hits the New York Times bestseller list in the US, and is a superstar in Brazil, her books have performed solidly if not spectacularly in Britain, with all-time sales of just over 260,000 units for £1.6m through Nielsen BookScan. But with Little, Brown rushing out a new series look to tap into “Bridgerton” mania, Quinn has shot up the charts; last week The Duke and I hit ninth overall, Quinn’s first top-10 spot in the UK. The Bridgerton series has also raced up the e-book charts, but the rights are split— originally sold in the time when publishers still did that sort of thing—with Avon US publishing the books digitally into the UK.

Netflix’s global reach has also been a boon to Quinn’s translation sales, with a number of territories coming on board. Quinn says: “When the deal was announced, there really wasn’t a huge initial uptick in actual book sales, but it really expanded my own publish- ing landscape, with a flurry of international deals. Because of the number of countries Netflix reaches, a lot of publishers were saying, ‘Oh, maybe we should look at this.’”

If you fancy a diverting cross-cultural look at how global publishers design romance titles, go on the “JQ Around the World” tab on Quinn’s website, which has the covers of all her books, ranging from stately and restrained (Croatia, Italy), extremely bosomy (Denmark), head-scratchingly abstract (Korea) and, frankly, bat-shit crazy (Latvia).

The Bridgerton series is chock full of strong women characters with plenty of agency, but Quinn concedes that making Regency-set novels feminist is a balancing act. “Feminism to me is all about being able to make choices. And some women didn’t necessarily want to break out of the strictures of their time. And that’s fine. But the more recognisable side of feminism is seeing people pushing against their boundaries, and Regency women had different boundaries than we do.”

She cites an example of her most recent book, First Comes Scandal, from Bridgerton-prequel The Roksebys series. The heroine is married to a physician and becomes interested in the medicine. “Because we’re about 100 years out from the first women in Britain being admitted into medical school, I don’t think I could really have her banging down that door quite yet; she would be the generation of which the next generation of women would build upon. So I have her reading her husband’s medical books and becoming his assistant. It’s unfair that he gets to be a doctor and she is just the assistant, but the mere act of acquiring the education for herself is an empowering and feminist thing. I like to think that for every woman who has been the one to break down a wall, there were hundreds of women beforehand, quietly taking the bricks out for her.”

What the doctor ordered
The medicine theme is interesting, as Quinn herself nearly became a doctor. She grew up in Connecticut, went to Harvard then to Yale Medical School (“bafflingly” she says, as she did an art-history degree at Harvard) and wrote her first two romance novels after her undergraduate, when she was agonising over what to do with her life. She sold those just as she was starting medical school, and soon decided to ditch the scalpel for the pen.

Though has been busy in the past year with “Bridgerton” publicity, she has taken a step back from her day job, partly because her husband is an infectious disease special- ist who has been working day and night during the pandemic and “I think I just needed to take a step back and support my family”. But Quinn and illustrator Violet Charles are coming out with a graphic novel, Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron (due in September), a sort of in-joke for Quinn fans as it is an over-the-top Gothic novel that various characters read in several of her books.

Additional casting for the second “Bridgerton” series, based on Quinn’s The Viscount Who Loved Me, has just been announced, with the main love story revolv- ing around the eldest Bridgerton brother, Anthony, and the headstrong and new-to-the- Ton Kate Sharma.

New fans wanting to explore more have much to choose from, as Quinn has published 40 novels, novellas and collections from the Bridgerton universe. The stories spill out from the Regency era, but not by much, spanning from the 1780s to just before the Victorian era. What is it about that period that intrigues her? Quinn says: “The simple answer is that when I started writing, it is what I liked to read; I’ve always thought the Regency was the pinnacle for romance. And I did a gap year in England, and one of my fondest memories was spending Christmas with this family who lived in Hampshire—I remember sitting around on Christmas Day and all of us were reading Georgette Heyer. Plus, I’ve never gone into the Victorian era as the dresses were just god-awful.”

Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron (9780349430454) will be published by Piatkus in September