SEATTLE — “My agent called and said, ‘Have you heard of Shonda Rhimes?’ And I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
Julia Quinn, the Seattle-based author of dozens of bestselling historical romance novels (whose real name is Julie Pottinger), is on the phone, remembering the moment she learned that her series of books about the Bridgerton family in Regency London was headed to the screen. She was, at the time, sitting in her neighborhood Starbucks (originally from Connecticut, she’s lived here since 2002), astonished to learn that the television giant behind “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy” was interested in her work.
That was four years ago, and now the first season of “Bridgerton,” based on Quinn’s 2000 novel “The Duke and I,” debuted on Netflix on Christmas Day. In it, lovely Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) — the fourth in a well-off family of eight alphabetically named children — enters the marriage market, where she catches the eye of the brooding, handsome Simon, Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page). Their up-and-down courtship, and other romantic adventures in their circle, are documented by the mysterious society columnist Lady Whistledown (played, in voice-over, by Julie Andrews), whose identity is unknown.
And, as with all Shondaland productions (Rhimes is executive producer of the show, though its creator and showrunner is Chris Van Dusen), “Bridgerton” features a racially diverse cast; it’s an unusual choice for a period piece set among the wealthy in early 19th-century England. Though Quinn wasn’t part of the casting process, “I think it’s absolutely brilliant,” she said. “I love the way they did it.”
Quinn explained that it wasn’t that the casting was colorblind — “that implies there wasn’t a lot of deliberate thought given to it,” she said, explaining that the writers started with the historical nugget that England’s Queen Charlotte (1755-1818) is believed by some historians to have been biracial, descended from a Black branch of the Portuguese royal family. (Queen Charlotte doesn’t appear in the book “The Duke and I,” but she is a regal presence in “Bridgerton,” played by Golda Rosheuvel.)
“The idea was, what if that was just accepted?” Quinn said. “What if this was acknowledged and accepted, and she used her position to elevate other people of color to prominent positions in society, what would the world look like then? It’s a reimagined world, but one based on a real bit of history and I love that. We can see this world that looks a lot more like what we see in real life. ... You watch it and you’re like, ‘That’s how the world should be.’ ”
And while some fans have expressed dismay that some characters don’t exactly fit their descriptions in the book, Quinn isn’t concerned about it. “Whenever any book is cast, the readers start arguing,” she said. With Simon, for example, some people pointed out that he has blue eyes in the book; Page, who has British and Zimbabwean parents, does not. “I created the character and I didn’t even remember that he had blue eyes,” said Quinn, laughing. “I saw (Page) and said, ‘Hello? Don’t you want him as your romantic hero?’ He’s so talented and he has this aloof Mr. Darcy vibe, but he’s so vulnerable.” (Page is also, it’s worth noting, handsome enough to be on any romance novel cover.)
Quinn was able to see the “Bridgerton” world up close on visits to the production, which was filmed in London, Bath, Surrey and other British locations. Before filming, she said she had little involvement: Credited as a consultant, she was sent early scripts but found little that displeased her. “If there was something I objected to, I could certainly point it out, but that didn’t happen. The scripts were amazing. There were just a few very small things, like, ‘That’s not what you would say to an earl,’ really tiny granular things. I was just kind of along for the ride.” !
On her visits to the sets, that ride became surreal. “It was so amazing to see the sheer number of people!” she said. “Something that started out with just me in my head now is hundreds of people! Your jaw just drops when you realize that. I don’t even have the words to describe it.” She particularly enjoyed a visit to the costume warehouse, where the thousands of fanciful “Bridgerton” costumes — Daphne alone has 104 different dresses — were created.
“It was overwhelming, so sumptuous and beautiful and all handmade, which is how clothing would have been made for these people at the time,” she said.
Though “Bridgerton” has only been announced for one season, Quinn is hopeful that future seasons may soon be underway. (A promising sign: Netflix is promoting the show as “Season 1.”) She said that while the current season mostly follows “The Duke and I,” it’s clear to her that the writers have read all of the books in the Bridgerton series (currently eight books and two novellas). “They’re kind of laying the groundwork for hopeful future stories,” she said, though noting that “nothing is confirmed.”
Quinn has spent her entire career writing Regency romance novels. Now 50, she wrote her first book in her early 20s, while contemplating going to medical school. “It’s actually a very thriving subgenre within romance — historical romance,” she said, citing Georgette Heyer’s books as a precursor. “It’s something I’ve always loved reading.” Among her current favorite authors in the genre are Eloisa James (who is, by day, a tenured Shakespeare professor at Fordham University), fellow local Lisa Kleypas, Julie Anne Long and Sarah MacLean.
“I think people don’t realize how many great writers there are in romance,” she said. “I listened to Nancy Pearl giving a talk on KUOW, talking about different genres, and she said literary fiction is judged by the best of its examples, and romance is always judged by the worst. Yeah, there are bad romance novels — there’s bad everything! But whenever anyone wants to write about romance they actively search out the worst, which seems very unfair when there’s so much that’s great!”
Quinn hopes the Netflix series might draw more attention to the genre. And, while she’s disappointed to not be able to gather with friends and family to watch “Bridgerton” (she’s sadly said goodbye to a long-held plan of renting a movie theater for a viewing party), she’s excited to watch at home on a new “really fancy television” bought specially, “squealing about it with all my friends, in every way possible.”
“It really has been wonderful,” she said, of the anticipation for the show. “My friends and family and my colleagues within writing, everybody’s so excited about it. A lot of fans are just so excited — they feel very invested. It’s been so lovely and warm, and I just feel so loved.”