Monday, August 8, 2022

The Bridgerton Effect: The Rise of Modern Regency Novels

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THere is a schism in the world of historical romance. It is larger than the British Regency subgenre and even older Bridgeton, the hit Netflix series based on Julia Quinn’s bodice-ripper octet. But the hugely popular TV version — which flips noncommittally between a series featuring racially blind casting and one that attempts fantastically reinventing 19th-century racial politics — definitely pushed the issue. How historically accurate does a historical romance have to be to still be considered historical?

It’s a follow-up question, for fans and publishers. Historical romance is the most popular sublisting in romance novels and is considered the “gateway drug” of the genre, as one editor put it to me. From there, a reader could branch out into contemporary romance, or the American western, or even the paranormal. But historical romance is where the fascination usually kicks in, and most historical romance is, in fact, Regency fiction-esque Bridgeton.

Oh, Bridgeton. The series, produced by Hollywood powerhouse Shonda Rhimes, didn’t debut in December 2020 so much as it bulldozed the historical scene. The first season, which centers on a romance between a marriage-seeking white noblewoman (Phoebe Dynevor) and an institution-forsaken black duke (Regé-Jean Page), has quickly become Netflix’s “greatest series ever,” according to the streamer expressed at the time. The second season, in which a white viscount (Jonathan Bailey) pursues an Indian bride (Simone Ashley) from Bombay – presumably against the unspoken backdrop of colonization – had even bigger numbers.

But aside from the cross-racial casting — and a gay sex scene with a supporting character that accused the show of “queerbaiting” — Bridgeton plays the greatest hits of the Regency romance genre. There are social calendars dominated by balls and conversations dominated by what characters intend to wear. The focus is on the constraints of society: the heroine fighting for autonomy and the duke bucking his commitments, which somehow puts them on the same footing. The series also trades in the most ubiquitous genre tropes. In the first season, as in Quinn’s first novel, we get a forced close romance: two people falling in love while playing out a fake relationship (for nonsensical reasons, I might add). The second season is a classic slow burn from enemies to lovers.

This may all have caused readers to tear their clothes at one point. “Traditionally, historical readers knew their story … They never wanted to make a historical inaccuracy,” says Amy Pierpont, managing editor at Forever, Grand Central Publishing’s romance imprint. Forever releases some of the biggest names in the genre, like Elizabeth Hoyt and Grace Burrowes. But now, she says, writers have “a little more leeway,” not least because of the influx of new readers Bridgeton has recruited himself into the genre.

And these readers weren’t raised on the behind-closed-door romances of OGs like Burrowes. In her “Gateway” show, a black actor plays Queen Charlotte and the beautiful world brings her quadrille to a string quartet cover of Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next”. (I swear it works.) They’re attuned to anachronism, eager to be representative, and if Amazon’s blurbs and Goodreads community reviews are to be believed, what they want most of all is to know how a hot new release is in the compared to cut off Bridgeton.

Amalie Howard’s new summer book, Always be my duchessabout a duke courting a ballerina in violation of all propriety is marketed as “Pretty Woman meets the Bridgertons.” Sophie Irwin’s 2022 release A Lady’s Guide To Fortune Hunting is recommended “for readers of Jane Austen and fans of Bridgeton“. and Call by Lex Coucher recently hit stores with a race-inclusive cover and the unlikely praise: “If Bridgeton and fleasack had a book baby”. (Although my personal favorite for the novel is 2021 Redemption by Philip Thane: “Bridgeton meets Groundhog Day“.)

Some publishers saw this new wave of love coming, and ditched the cheap, bulky, mass-market treatment the genre usually gets. Instead, they began publishing titles in trade paperbacks with richly illustrated covers, the kind that wouldn’t look out of place on an upscale women’s bookstore table. You lean into the Bridgeton Time impact and its audience, even major releases, with the series’ season premieres.

And readers, I’ve read them all. No not true. There really are that many Regency romance novels. But in the last few weeks I’ve been reading about lovable villains; I’ve seen enemies become lovers and friends become lovers. I read about secret dukes and second chances. I’m reading a Sapphic Regency romance – a burgeoning sub-sub-genre – for “fans of Bridgeton“. I read a non-binary Regency romance that, strangely enough, no one was compared to Bridgetonalthough I personally noticed connections.

At first I preferred the steamy novels, but eventually skimmed sex scenes and even flashed through the mischievous encounters. Once you’ve seen one case of mistaken identity, you’ve seen them all. I’m here for the HEAs (meaning happily ever after) and self-actualization. Because every good love book I’ve read has been a quest for myself, which I think gets overshadowed Bridgeton. Who is our heroine? How does her past affect her? Yes, she has to get married because this is a romance novel. But what private need does true love fulfill? A love editor compared her job to being a psychologist, which is not without reason exactly what Jane Austen aspired to: penetrating journeys of female interiority disguised as mannerisms.

The more I read and talked to people in the industry, the more it seemed that inclusive TV shows liked it Bridgeton – and the new adaptations of conviction and Mr. Malcolm’s list – corrected the obliteration of the old guard of romance novelists. The duke might not have been black, but there were blacks in Regency society, as sure as there were queer romances — even if the lovers didn’t dance in front of the queen. Amalie Howard, the author of Always be my duchess, told me her duke—an anxious man with a routine existence—was inspired by her own neurodivergent son. “This would not have been diagnosed in the 19th century,” she tells me, “but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.”

For Howard, a BIPOC Regency romance novelist who can rattle off the names of non-white women in Queen Victoria’s court, historical accuracy is critical to the sense of “immersion” in historical romance. She mixes real history with her own inventions and checks her period-specific dialogue against etymological dictionaries.

She is also a fan of Bridgeton.

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