Every romance has a happy ending. No spoiler alerts here; that upbeat resolution is what defines a romance novel, at least according to the Romance Writers of America. In a year interrupted, woefully short on actual endings beyond a few brutal ones, nothing tempts like the promise of a satisfying finish.
Which is why Netflix’s Bridgerton series, inspired by the works of a Seattle author and produced by TV heavyweight Shonda Rhimes, arrives just in time (dropping on Christmas Day, to be exact). But beyond the happy ending, the TV show also brings a not-so-subtle message: It’s time to take romance seriously.
Bridgerton was born an eight-novel series from bestselling author Julia Quinn, an absolute giant in the romance genre. And given that romance is the country’s highest selling fiction genre after general fiction, that makes her a giant in the publishing world as a whole. Except Julia Quinn is actually Julie Pottinger, a Harvard-educated Seattle writer rarely counted among our city’s literary luminaries. Few locals know the mother of two has international fame, despite the fact that Pottinger has written more than three dozen books, including 18 consecutive New York Times bestsellers. Yes: Eight….teen. In a row.
“The Bridgertons are absolutely iconic in the romance world,” says Kate Cuthbert, Australian host of “What Would Danbury Do,” a podcast that analyzes the series. When Grey’s Anatomy creator Rhimes inked a reported $150 million deal with Netflix, she chose Quinn’s books about eight love-seeking siblings in Regency England as her first series project. This choice didn’t surprise the millions of romance readers—which, to repeat, outnumber almost every other kind of book reader in the world according to a 2016 study. Though the premise predates the teen sensation, the Bridgertons are oft referred to as Gossip Girl by way of Jane Austen; an anonymous gossip writer known as Lady Whistledown fuels the plot with newspaper missives reporting every rumor and scandal.
The Netflix version debuts with plenty of swagger: a sprawling cast, impeccable period sets, and none other than Dame Julie Andrews herself voicing the pseudonymous narrator. The eight hours of escapist joviality are a candy-colored Christmas present for the weary 2020 survivors, and the mature adaptation could do for romance what Lord of the Rings did for fantasy. “The community is used to being mocked,” says Cuthbert. “With Shonda Rhimes picking it up, there was a real sense of it being taken seriously.”
Julia Quinn—the name, at least—came about as a bid for a little respect from a recent college grad. New England-raised Pottinger had sold her first novel the same month she got into Yale Medical School, and “Julia” sounded more mature than “Julie.” She tacked on a pseudonymous last name, picking Quinn because it shelved her next to the successful Amanda Quick.
Only two months into carving cadavers, Pottinger realized she preferred penning romances, the style of writing she’d first poured over as excerpts in her grandmother’s copies of Good Housekeeping. Dropping out of medical school was absolutely the right decision, she says now, comparing her flexible schedule to the stresses of her doctor husband Paul, director of the University of Washington’s Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine Clinic. (Though it’s admittedly a particularly intense year for him.)
The couple landed in Seattle, coincidentally the same city where fellow romance author Amanda Quick, aka Jayne Ann Krentz, writes her bestsellers. The genre superstar Debbie Macomber lives across Puget Sound and boasts even more than 200 million copies in print, and the twin pillars of 2000s young adult and erotic romance, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, are set in the Northwest. But is anyone actually referring to romance when they laud this UNESCO City of Literature?
“I don’t think I’m the first person literary Seattle looks to,” Pottinger says. As of mid-December, Elliott Bay Book Company’s Capitol Hill flagship didn’t stock a single one of her books on the anemic four shelves of romance; even “Fiction Anthologies” boasts a larger section. But she notes that she’s occasionally invited into Seattle anthologies or writerly events—a Garth Stein write-a-thon at Hugo House, that sort of thing.
Pottinger likes to quote Seattle’s own book doyenne Nancy Pearl: “Literary fiction is always judged by its best examples, and romance is always judged by its worst.” Pearl, for the record, calls Pottinger “one of the best-loved romance writers of our time”; her Bridgerton novels are largely lighthearted romps, known for witty repartee, slapstick situations. “Iconically romance and thoroughly romance,” according to Australian podcaster Cuthbert. But they also delve into issues like consent, trauma, pregnancy loss, and class—worlds away from Fabio’s shirtless mugging.
The stereotype of the bare-chested hunk persists, as has the picture of a frumpy housewife reader, “wearing those puff paint sweatshirts and eating bon bons,” says Cuthbert. And the assumption that every novel is a bodice-ripper oozing regressive gender roles among all-white, all-straight lords and ladies. It all feeds the persistent, global, and somehow still vague dismissal of romance as a whole.
“What women value is often denigrated,” says Sarah Wendell, who has run a blog called Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for 15 years. “It’s the hat trick of easy targets: relationships, emotions, and sex.” Women make up more than 80 percent of the massive readership. But the past few decades brought romance out of the closet; the internet has linked readers, created communities, withered some of the stigma. In 2014, time-traveling romance series Outlander got the prestige TV treatment, more Game of Thrones than Hallmark Movie of the Week.
The legion of romance readers isn’t afraid of center stage. Stacey Abrams wrote romance novels under the name Selena Montgomery before she upended the Georgia electoral system and helped turn the state blue in 2020; her fellow authors have raised almost half a million dollars for the Senate runoff races she’s helming under the name Romancing the Runoff—and they’ve sworn to return for Abrams’ future gubernatorial bid.
And the genre has only gotten wider. Sure, there are still plenty of lovelorn lords, as in Quinn’s first Bridgerton book, The Duke and I; one bookshelf at the Northgate Barnes and Noble holds no fewer than 21 titles that contain the word “duke” (the best: An Inconvenient Duke; Tall, Duke, and Dangerous), while British gentility publishers Debrett’s note that there are currently only 24 dukes in all of England. But browse the rest of the book covers, through the contemporary and paranormal and religious and erotic romance shelves, and something else jumps out: Modern fonts. Trendy pastels. People of color.
“There’s still a lot that needs to be done…but it’s become a lot more diverse and inclusive,” says Pottinger. She was thrilled when Rhimes and company (notably showrunner Chris Van Dusen) reimagined Bridgerton with BIPOC characters, including casting Zimbabwe-born Regé-John Page as the dashing duke.
The move is part fantasy—“romance novels, were never perfectly historically accurate to begin with” acknowledges the author, waving off any claims that it jars the rest of the story—and part overdue recognition. British Queen Charlotte, wife of George III and a character in the show, was rumored to be of mixed race; the show simply wonders what it would have been like if that was known and acknowledged in high society.
“There has been a lot of discussion of how race is represented in romance, the mass exclusion of people of color from historical fiction,” says Rudi Bremer, Cuthbert’s podcast cohost and a Gamilaroi woman, from an Aboriginal nation in Australia. “There’s something kind of fascinating” about Bridgerton’s inclusivity, even if, to her disappointment, fan reactions to casting news have been mixed. In true unapologetic Shonda Rhimes fashion, the show doesn’t ignore LGBTQ identities either.
The once staid romance landscape has unquestionably widened, and Bridgerton the show is as much a glitzy blend of genre tropes and modern sensibilities as it is about the actual, stodgy 1810s. For all the overdue growth in her field, though, Pottinger is adamant that there’s nothing retrograde about romance. “We’ve always been kind of a subversively feminist bunch,” she says. “I don’t think there’s anything anti-feminist about wanting to be in a loving relationship...It’s things that we all want out of life.”