the cover page of Romancing Mister Bridgerton autographed by author Julia Quinn
Marilyn Brant’s personalized autographed copy of Romancing Mister Bridgerton

Written by: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon Books, mass market paperback, copyright 2002
Total pages: 370
Genre: Buddy Love

Dear Reader, it’s time to peel off your white gloves, put down your fan or untie your cravat (don’t worry, I’ll wait), and delve into the story structure of Julia Quinn’s delightful novel, Romancing Mister Bridgerton!

While the original “Bridgerton” book series isn’t nearly as G-rated as, say, your Jane Austen’s brand of historical romance, for readers who love to escape into the Regency/Georgian period, there’s wit, charm, family drama, and oh so many sizzling scenes to be found across the novels. Fans of the new Netflix TV series (season one is based on the first of the Bridgerton books, The Duke and I, and a forthcoming second season has been confirmed) will likely enjoy the novels, too, even while noting the differences between the books and the television adaptation.

For novelists and screenwriters who share my love of Blake Snyder’s beat sheet, Quinn’s books have stellar pacing and strong story structure, which make them tremendously fun to break down. This particular novel, Romancing Mister Bridgerton, is the fourth in the series, and it happens to be my personal favorite. Take a peek below at the back cover copy:

Everyone knows that Colin Bridgerton is the most charming man in London . . .

Penelope Featherington has secretly adored her best friend’s brother for . . . well, it feels like forever. After half a lifetime of watching Colin Bridgerton from afar, she thinks she knows everything about him, until she stumbles across his deepest secret . . . and fears she doesn’t know him at all.

Colin Bridgerton is tired of being thought of as nothing but an empty-headed charmer, tired of the notorious gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, who can’t seem to publish an edition without mentioning him. But when Colin returns to London from a trip abroad, he discovers nothing in his life is quite the same—especially Penelope Featherington! The girl who was always simply there is suddenly the girl haunting his dreams. When he discovers that Penelope has secrets of her own, this elusive bachelor must decide . . . is she his biggest threat—or his promise of a happy ending?

While it’s been exciting as a longtime fan of the books to hear of the warm reception the Netflix series has received, I’m also pleased that such attention has turned to popular romance fiction. I hope the enthusiasm for the genre will continue. Of course, as a writer of romance—albeit contemporary, not historical—I’ll admit to being pretty biased.

I’d initially come across Romancing Mister Bridgerton just a few months after its publication in 2002 and before I knew of the existence of the prior novels. Immediately upon finishing this fourth book, though, I went back to devour the three earlier stories, and then I snapped up the subsequent books in the series as soon as they were released. As an aspiring fiction writer in July 2003—and still five years away from getting my debut book contract with Kensington—I attended my very first Romance Writers of America’s National Conference in New York City where one of the week’s highlights was a huge multi-author book signing. Julia Quinn was there, and I couldn’t wait to meet her. I babbled, of course, about how much I loved all the Bridgertons and asked her to sign my stack of paperbacks. She was gracious then, and she’s continued to be so at other conferences and events in the many years since.

As Quinn herself has said of her books (quoting here from a December 29, 2020 interview on Good Morning America), “I’m probably not going to change the world, but what I really want to do is change your afternoon.” And that, in my opinion, she has certainly achieved with her compelling and compulsively readable novels.

So, let’s slip into the ballroom and mix in with the members of London’s high society, aka, the ton. Here’s my take on Blake Snyder’s beats for this steamy historical romance:

Opening Image (pages 1 – 4): In the Prologue, two days before her sixteenth birthday in April 1812, Penelope Featherington falls in love and discovers a reason to dream. She inadvertently causes Colin Bridgerton to fall off his horse in the park, but far from the anger she expects, his good-natured reaction endears him to her for all time. She knows it’s a hopeless crush and nothing could possibly come of it, but she likewise realizes even then that no other man would ever be able to compare to him.

Set-Up (pages 1 – 48): Fast forward 12 years to the spring of 1824. In the eyes of her community, Penelope is officially an “old maid” at the age of 28. Her best friend, who happens to be Colin’s kid sister Eloise Bridgerton, is similarly unmarried and a beloved confidante of the heroine. However, Penelope doesn’t disclose her longstanding infatuation for Colin to her BFF. The two ladies have simply resigned themselves to being spinsters together.

The readers meet Penelope’s cold and dismissive mother, her other sisters, the entire Bridgerton clan, and several key members of society, like the infamous Lady Danbury. And from the pages of her witty but often cutting gossip rag, we’re also introduced to the mysterious Lady Whistledown, who anonymously reports on the goings on in town and spares no one—Penelope and Colin included—from her keen observations and frequent criticisms.

Colin, now 33 years old and a determined bachelor, has just returned from his latest excursion abroad and must deal with his formidable widowed mother and her near-constant petitions to find a bride and get married. As is often the case in Regency-era novels, one or both protagonists strongly resist this idea, and Colin is no exception.

Theme Stated (page 27 and page 54): One might say that “true love conquers all” is the underlying theme for every genre romance. This fits here, of course, but there are also other threads hidden between the pages. It surprised me when rereading the book to realize what a significant role the art of strategic thinking plays in this novel, particularly the necessity of persistence when making long-range plans and stubbornly adhering to one’s vision. On page 27, Eloise says to Penelope, “Tenacity can be a very good thing, at the proper time.” Penelope replies sarcastically, “Right, and at the improper time, it’s an absolute nightmare.” There’s also another strikingly relevant theme revolving around one’s true identity that pops up on page 54, shortly after Lady Danbury sparks the “unmasking” storyline in the Catalyst below. Lady Danbury turns to Penelope and says, “Isn’t it nice to discover that we’re not exactly what we thought we were?” This observation has profound resonance—not only for the hero and heroine, but also for a considerable number of their friends, family, and acquaintances.

Catalyst (pages 47 – 48): Lady Danbury offers the princely sum of 1,000 pounds to the person who can unmask the elusive Lady Whistledown. This creates a cascade of unexpected problems for the protagonists, even while drawing them closer together.

Debate (pages 49 – 100): Colin and Penelope share a familiarity and respect that has developed over more than a decade of friendly acquaintanceship. They find humor in each other’s company and banter frequently, but until now, it has been an entirely platonic relationship—at least from Colin’s viewpoint. The two of them debate the concept of popularity, which Colin has always enjoyed in great measure, while Penelope, as one of the ton’s resident wallflowers, most certainly did not. The concept of how much one should care about what others think versus being immune to society’s opinion is a dichotomy that plays heavily in their differing perspectives.

However, it turns out that in some matters Colin is not quite as confident as he’s always projected. When Penelope accidentally discovers his most recent travel journal and skims a page of it, she’s impressed by the snippet and wants to read more. Colin’s response to her snooping is absolute, uncharacteristic fury. His insecurities emerge—no one was meant to see his writing!—but Penelope is only further intrigued. Turns out, there has been more to him all this time.

She and Lady Whistledown have always been of the opinion that Colin Bridgerton is a charmer, but Penelope realizes he’s also a budding travel writer. That he delights in the perfect turn of phrase, the ideal description of a location, the art of making readers feel like they are in Greece, Cypress, Scotland, etc., right along with him. She suddenly understands a few important things about her longtime love interest: That he has hidden talents, unexpected fears, a dissatisfaction with his life, and quite a temper. She has, perhaps, never really known him at all.

Break into Two (page 101): Their argument causes a temporary rift, but with it, it also creates a fresh awareness between them. Not only must Penelope now see Colin anew, but he’s forced to rethink his opinion of her—namely the fact that he values their friendship significantly more than he thought. This worries him. He can’t figure out what changed in their dynamic to make him feel this way. He emphatically has no interest in marriage! Yet, he’s been back in England for a mere fortnight, and this woman, who was always at the fuzzy periphery of his life, has suddenly come into sharp focus—and now her views and emotions matter to him.

B Story (pages 101 – 120): Their friendship transitions to an unexpected love story, as Penelope is curious about these newfound facets of Colin, and he finds that he’s attracted to her in both an undeniable and unsettling way.

Fun and Games (pages 101 – 152): Regency/Georgian romance joins forces here with light mystery. Colin and Penelope’s early courtship is magnified by the unexpectedness of this experience for them both and intertwined with the secret of Lady Whistledown’s identity. Male versus female power, self-determination, and the need to have a sense of purpose are explored alongside their flirtation and growing attraction. There is a dreadful musical performance that they both attend. There is dancing at a ball. There is even a great deal of conversation. But most of all, there is a kiss. A very surprising kiss, which is at Penelope’s request, and it rocks Colin’s world. However, he’s unable get a grip on his feelings long enough to tell Penelope that her interpretation—that he kissed her only out of pity—is incorrect.

To add to both of their anxieties is the increased interest in Lady Whistledown and any revelations about her identity. This is worrisome to Colin because he suspects that his very own sister Eloise might be the mysterious woman herself, and that would be a disaster. He fears, if it were true, that she would be cast out of polite society. Lady Whistledown has insulted far too many people in her Society Papers for everyone to just forget the years of literary mockery. It would be a scandal that Eloise—or any well-born woman—wouldn’t be able to overcome. As Eloise’s best friend, Penelope has her own set of concerns about this. But then the most remarkable thing happens in their social circle, and it seems life will soon get easier for all of them.

Midpoint (page 152): False victory. Lady Whistledown announces her retirement. Oh, yes, the speculations about the gossip writer persist, but surely that won’t linger, and there is no longer a reason to be concerned for Eloise’s reputation. Colin and Penelope can now relax and get back to where they left off after that kiss, right?

Bad Guys Close In (pages 153 – 261): Not so fast. A few days later at the next large ball, Penelope’s nemesis, the clever but mean-spirited Cressida Twombley, claims she’s Lady Whistledown. Colin is certainly surprised, but mostly he’s relieved it’s not Eloise. Penelope is in a state of utter disbelief. But Lady Danbury’s skepticism is not only strong, it’s loud. Lady Danbury says she’ll only pay the promised “unmasking” reward to Cressida if she can provide irrefutable proof that’s she’s truly Lady Whistledown.

Colin’s original purpose in attending the ball was to seek out Penelope and apologize to her for his inability to express himself clearly after their kiss. He’s unable to do so, however, because of Cressida’s announcement. So instead, he goes to visit her the following day. Only, before he’s able to get to Penelope’s door, he sees her sneaking away. In a hired carriage, no less. And on her own! That’s pure insanity and incredibly dangerous for any woman of their time. So, of course, he follows her. Colin has no earthly idea where she might be headed or why, but as her carriage winds its way toward the heart of the city, he comes to the increasingly obvious conclusion that he only thought he knew her. Their most recent encounters have convinced him that he never really did. And that feeling will only be amplified by what comes next…

***HUGE SPOILER ALERT for the Bridgerton series below!***

Penelope’s carriage drops her off in front of a church, where Colin spies her hiding an envelope in one of the pew pockets. He confronts her, snatches the envelope, and reads its contents—only to discover that, in fact, Penelope Featherington has been Lady Whistledown all along. Her purpose in publishing this last missive, even though she’d announced her retirement, is to formally contradict Cressida Twombley’s claim of being the witty and anonymous gossip columnist. Penelope is proud of her body of work over these past 11 years, even though no one but her publisher knows her secret. And while she doesn’t want to be named publicly as Lady Whistledown, she absolutely refuses to let someone as detestable as Cressida, someone who’s hurt her so often in the past, take credit for her writing accomplishments.

Colin is understandably floored by all of this and wants to destroy the letter with this final column. However, there’s another feeling rising to the surface of his consciousness that he can’t quite name. An emotion that makes him more uneasy than even his growing affection for Penelope or her surprising identity.

Her hired carriage has departed by the time they leave the church—and without her letter being left for the publisher as planned. Despite Colin’s fury at Penelope for the many ways she’s put her life and her reputation in jeopardy, he insists that she ride home safely in his carriage. They argue over many subjects, and the themes of tenacity and identity both play into their discussion, but there is also the strength of their attraction. Things get hot and heavy in the carriage, and by the time they reach Penelope’s house, Colin can barely compose himself long enough to ask, “Are you going to marry me or not?”

The road to love never runs smooth in a romance novel, but even the path to engagement can be rather rocky. Such is the case here when Penelope’s mother is unable to grasp that Colin is not interested in proposing to Penelope’s younger sister (which their mother had previously hoped for), but in fact, Colin just wants to marry Penelope. There are also additional hurdles involving Colin’s feelings for his future bride. In a life partner, he seeks passion, friendship, intellectual conversations, and a good laugh on occasion. He realizes he has all of these with Penelope… but is that actually love?

He plans to proceed with their engagement regardless, but he debates the strength of his emotions because there’s still something else that’s needling him, and he’s unable to put a finger on it. Although Penelope has come to realize that Colin is far from being the “perfect man” of her youthful daydreams, her love for him is steadfast. But their relationship is gravely tested on the night of the big Bridgerton family party given to officially announce their engagement. The final column by Lady Whistledown, denouncing Cressida Twombley as the mysterious author, has been published despite Colin’s wishes, and it appears in the hands of the ton several days earlier than Penelope had planned. Major problem.

All Is Lost (pages 262 – 275): Whiff of death. There will be no engagement night bliss for Penelope, she fears. Her fiancé’s anger at this betrayal can scarcely be contained until they’re out of view. Didn’t he already make it clear that she shouldn’t publish that final piece? That it might put her reputation at risk? She knew that Colin would never break their engagement once it had been made public, but she likewise could not allow Cressida to continue to accept credit for Penelope’s/Lady Whistledown’s writing. Colin warns her that she’s going to be found out and, still, she stubbornly refuses to concede to his way of thinking. The Lady Whistledown papers are too precious to her. After all, they’ve been her life’s work.

Dark Night of the Soul (pages 275 – 277): It’s in that moment that Colin realizes he’s jealous of Penelope. This was the emotion he couldn’t pinpoint before. That, despite her having written anonymity for all these years, she has something that he always wanted for himself: A life’s work that would give him that deep sense of purpose. He also realizes that, despite his anger at her behavior and his fear of the potential repercussions, he genuinely loves and admires her.

Break into Three (pages 278 – 290): The pair seals their commitment to each other with a steamy night of love. They belong together, and both of them are determined to start their happily ever after as quickly as possible. They’ll be married soon.

Finale (pages 291 – 367): Of course, the fact that wedding bells are in the air for Colin and Penelope does little to stop the ton from contemplating who Lady Whistledown might be, since it’s not Cressida Twombley. However, the happy couple is allowed some fun at first. There are dress fittings, shopping excursions, innumerable preparations, and the joyous ceremony itself. There is also a growing realization on Colin’s part that if he’s to feel as comfortable in his own skin as he’d like, he needs to have the courage to pursue his writing passions. Penelope’s bravery has inspired him. He finally works up the nerve to ask her if she’ll read his travel journals and offer editorial suggestions. She agrees with pleasure.

Unfortunately, Cressida is almost as smart as she is cruel, and she’s never forgotten an insult. She pieces together the clues and is the only person who figures out that Penelope and Lady Whistledown are one and the same. Desiring both cash and revenge, Cressida tries to blackmail Penelope into giving her 10,000 pounds of hush money, otherwise she’ll tell the ton the big secret and the newlyweds will be ruined.

Penelope has no idea what to do, but when she finally confides in Colin, he comes up with a plan to silence Cressida—one that capitalizes on his understanding of popularity and his experience as a beloved Bridgerton. Colin is proud of his new wife and wants the world to know this. He intends to tell society the truth himself. And, thus, the strength of a sincere and well-worded speech, plus the power of a loving and well-connected family, come to the rescue. Even Lady Danbury couldn’t have been more pleased by the big reveal.

Final Image (pages 368 – 370): The following year in 1825, while Penelope is expecting their first child, Colin is excited by the arrival of his first literary baby—his newly published travel book, An Englishman in Italy, with several more releases on the way. Penelope finds herself playing around with a new writing project of her own—a novel tentatively entitled The Wallflower.