As a writer and an editor, I had to read both of these novels when I stumbled upon them. How do these books measure up to my expectations and my professional biases? Let’s examine the textual evidence!
There are spoilers in these reviews. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text.
Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mr. Bridgeton (2002)
During her first London season, Penelope Featherington was slightly overweight, acne-prone, and ill-dressed. That pathetic image of her stuck in the minds of the haute ton and Colin Bridgerton, the man Penelope’s secretly loved for years.
Now considered a spinster, Penelope’s often overlooked by everyone, which suits her just fine…somewhat. What people don’t know is that Penelope’s put her years as a wallflower to good use. She has a secret: she’s been writing an anonymous society column for a decade. Writing as the witty and outspoken Lady Whistledown, Penelope cuts everyone down to size…except for Colin, of course. No one, not even her best friend, knows her alter ego.
Colin Bridgerton has his own secrets: he has a temper, he eats too much, and he’s secretly jealous of his brothers who have a purpose in life. When he comes home from yet another aimless trip abroad, he finds that everyone has moved on with their lives—including Penelope Featherington, who doesn’t seem to be the same person he used to know.
Will Penelope and Colin go back to having the casual friendship they once had or will they get to the bottom of each other’s mysteries?
It’s usually a challenge to summarize a Julia Quinn romance due to the delicate and slow-moving nature of her characters. Somewhat like Quinn’s Just Like Heaven (one of my personal favorites), Penelope and Colin spend a lot of time talking and thinking. They don’t jump out of speeding carriages, become pirates, or chase ghosts. If you’re looking for an action-packed historical romance, this isn’t it. Romancing Mr. Bridgerton is: 1) an ode to the ugly duckling trope, and 2) a love letter to every reader who wants to become a writer, and doesn’t know where to start.
Penelope’s a great heroine while Colin is a sweet, memorable hero. It’s adorable when a male protagonist can admit to being jealous of their loved one’s superior talent. Everything is resolved nicely, and the novel ends with unicorns and rainbows. (Not literally, but you get the idea.)
heat meter: three final rating: buy
Wynn Selworth can finally put his years of writing racy gothic romances behind him. He just inherited a distant relation’s title and estate, and now he has enough money to do whatever he wants. Wynn’s spending for his half-sister’s first London season, but he isn’t keen to conquer high society. Wynn’s real dreams involves taking his radical ideas to the House of Lords.
Unfortunately, his usual writing style is just wrong for political speeches! Desperate for a writing coach, Wynn decides to look for his favorite essayist. Prometheus was the pen name of Lisle, a Member of Parliament known for his fiery rhetoric. Since Lisle’s death, however, someone else close to him has taken up the nom de plume, and Lord Selworth’s determined to find out.
Since her father’s death, Philippa “Pippa” Lisle has become more than a secretary—now she’s writing in his stead. Only three people know Pippa’s secret, because her slightly seditious essays can ruin her reputation and land her in jail.
Naturally, Pippa isn’t amused when the handsome Lord Selworth arrives at her doorstep, pleading to know who the new Prometheus is. Pippa doesn’t care how much Wynn’s willing to pay for editorial guidance.
Pippa’s mother, however, thinks Wynn’s arrival is heaven-sent. The Lisles needs the money, especially now that Pippa’s younger sister needs a London season. Besides, Mrs. Lisle hasn’t given up hope that both her daughters will find good husbands…
Crossed Quills is an engaging romance: it takes an unabashed look at middle-class husband-hunting while raising the issues confronted by socially conscious writers. The combined themes surprised me, to be honest.
I never thought a romance novel could ever remind me of my left-leaning writing years, but Crossed Quills managed to do just that. Pippa’s fear of discovery is natural, and her horror of social injustices—and her calls to action—feels genuine. I love how Pippa and Wynn are both members of the vacillating intelligentsia, concerned about child labor and the price of luxury goods. And yet they scramble so hard to appear politically moderate to everyone they know! God, that’s adorable. They want to be subtle about affecting social change.
Crossed Quills is plotted around an elegant conceit: the heroine must hide her political writings, lest she be censured for unladylike behavior, while the hero must hide his past as a successful romance novelist in order for Parliament to take him seriously. Maybe I’m over-reading, but Dunn might be commenting on gender roles, writing, and paratext. How can I not like this book?
Despite my enthusiasm, Crossed Quills has its issues. I felt that the ending was rushed, and I wished there were “excerpts” of Pippa and Wynn’s writings. It’s a missed opportunity to show and not tell: their writings could have come in the form of epigraphs. Oh, maybe I ask for too much. Still, Crossed Quills has more depth than the average historical romance.
heat meter: one final rating: buy
Some Final Thoughts
Is it unfair to compare the two books? Probably. Still, for those who care about these things, I think Crossed Quills does the secret writer concept best while Romancing Mr. Bridgerton better articulates why writers feel the need to write at all.
In a contest between our two fictional literary heroes, Colin’s diary is pitch-perfect for the era but Wynn’s gothic thought-processes is full of purple prose. It’s a pity there are only hints of Wynn’s writing style because I’m sure he falls into “so bad it’s good” territory. God, I’d love to read that.