The huge ratings and buzz for Netflix’s Bridgerton, coming on the heels of Starz’s success with Outlander, should make it clear to all but the most willfully ignorant producers that viewers are here for historical romance. And if you’re a producer looking for the Next Big Thing, Romancelandia will reciprocate. We’re here for you, with all the info you need to pick your next breakout Brit historical romance hit.
See, just because a book is a beloved historical doesn’t mean it would adapt well. I adore Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm, but it would be extremely hard to capture the Duke’s internal life given the speech loss that results from a stroke, and to replicate the effect of Kinsale’s prose. A director with an eye for gore could turn Carla Kelly’s gentle romances into something unwatchably grim.
Some books, though, are begging for adaptation. If you’re looking to ride the British historicals wave, these are my recommendations for the series that you should snap up.
If you want: To stick with what’s working
Lisa Kleypas’s Wallflowers series has the most overlap with character types, setting, and tone of Bridgerton. Loretta Chase’s Carsington family series (would that name be an advantage or a disadvantage?) is also similar, but would require deep pockets for that Mr. Impossible Egypt shoot. One of the most talked-about Bridgerton points is the racially diverse cast, without which the series would be missing most of its finest performances. Vanessa Riley’s Rogues and Remarkable Women series includes diversity from the get-go. The first book, A Duke, The Lady, and a Baby kicked off the series this year, and book two is due in April).
Riley’s series is brand new, but there’s treasure in Romancelandia’s archives, too. Marion Chesney (M.C. Beaton – whose Hamish Macbeth series of detective novels was adapted to huge success back in the mid-1990s) has several series of historicals which could have been designed for television. In the A House for the Season series (the first book is The Miser of Mayfair), each book features the courtship story of a different set of upper-class tenants, a perfect length for one season. However, the below-stairs staff fall in love, too, and their stories burn over multiple books, giving viewers a reason to keep coming back. Don’t you think people are ready for a happy ending-filled Regency Downton Abbey?
If you want: A different kind of Regency
Focused on rival French and British agents, Joanna Bourne’s action-adventure-romance Spymasters series is set in a Regency worlds away from Bridgerton’s high society. These heroines are more likely to wield a stiletto than a fan (or maybe a fan with a secret stiletto compartment), and some of the physical showdowns with the heroes offer great sexy combat scene potential. Bourne is the queen of simultaneous plot threads, so screenwriters would have a lot of interesting pacing options, and the historical, military, and diplomatic components would add a new dimension to the Regency.
If you want: British accents and fancy dresses, but not necessarily the Regency era
Sherry Thomas and Courtney Milan are prolific authors of romances set in the nineteenth century, and their series include novellas, which could be adapted into secondary plotlines. For Thomas, I’d pick the Fitzhugh Trilogy, three Victorian society romances including Ravishing the Heiress, a marriage-in-trouble relationship different from the courtship stories of Bridgerton. The novella The Bride of Larkspear is an erotic romance, a “book within a book” written by the hero of one of the novels for his heroine, loosely starring themselves, which would offer some spicy material.
The Brothers Sinister series is probably the most beloved of Courtney Milan’s series, and has timely allegories of #MeToo, Men’s Rights Activism, women in politics, reproductive rights, and more. There’s a weight to them that evokes The Handmaid’s Tale. On the other hand, the Turner series has one of my all-time favorite romances, Unclaimed. I’d love watching the story of a courtesan seducing the man who wrote the book on male chastity that now I’m sorry I even mentioned the Brothers Sinister. You can’t buy the kind of advertising that think-pieces on the virginal Sir Mark Turner will provide.
This year’s coming-out trauma storyline in Lifetime’s Christmas film Happiest Season shows that we need more happy LGBTQ+ stories. Look no further than KJ Charles, who offers multiple historical options combining comedic capers, mysteries or heists, and heartfelt love stories with witty dialogue that can go straight into the script. I’d lean towards the Lilywhite Boys duology set in the 1890s (one an m/m romance and the other a m/f romance with a bisexual heroine), because the presence of a m/f romance might give the story broader marketing appeal. There’s also her marvelous Sins of the Cities trilogy, a three volume, multi-plot story in the finest Dickensian tradition, complete with pea-souper fogs, missing heirs and dastardly villains. To be honest though, you won’t go wrong with any Charles story.
If you want: To think outside the box
These are wonderful options. But my absolute, one-hundred-percent top recommendation would be Again by Kathleen Gilles Seidel. If you option this book, every news article will say, “The show takes place on the set of a Regency tv show (think Bridgerton),” thereby allowing you to piggyback off of Bridgerton’s success without having to figure out how to have a completely different spin on the era yourself. Actors would salivate at the chance to play the dual roles of actors and their Regency characters (I would LOVE to see someone take on Alec Cameron, the kind-hearted Canadian who falls in love with the showrunner while playing a frigid villain of a duke). There is literally nothing not perfect about this except that it’s a one-off, but that might just let you get even bigger names on board. God in heaven, someone make this happen.
And now, over to you, readers. Which romance novel series deserve the Bridgerton treatment? Do you agree with my picks, or would you choose something else (or a different work by the authors I listed?) I limited myself here to British settings, but you don’t have to. Let your producer imaginations run free!
~ Caroline Russomanno