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This review includes minor spoilers from Season One of “Bridgerton” on Netflix.
“Bridgerton,” the latest series to take Netflix by storm, is based on a series of eight historical romance novels by Julia Quinn ‘92. Each novel focuses on one Bridgerton sibling as they meet and fall in love with their eventual spouse. While the plot of the first season of Netflix’s adaptation was mostly based on the first book in the series, it also borrowed storylines from several others and created entirely new ones as well. Each book offers something individual, even as the series is unified by tropes of the genre and Quinn’s distinctive style.
The novel that primarily inspired Season one is aptly titled “The Duke and I” as it focuses solely on Simon and Daphne. Where the Netflix adaptation explored the dynamics of the family, this book — and indeed those that follow — are exclusively about one main pairing. While the show presents Daphne with multiple possible suitors, the novel presents only Simon. Additionally, there is a greater exploration of the continued impacts of Simon’s stammer on his life and Daphne’s struggle with looking for love when she is always viewed as the friend rather than the bride. They continue to have enjoyable chemistry and witty repartee in the book, so its insular nature is not a drawback. Unfortunately, however, one of the most problematic elements of the show — when Daphne finds out Simon has been lying to her about his infertitlity she decides to rape him — is somehow far worse in the book. Simon is drunk and asleep and Daphne holds him down. Daphne never regrets her actions, and the narrative never holds her accountable. It is shocking this flew as a plot point, even in 2000, and that it remained, if in a more sanitised form, in the 2020 show. It causes unconscionable harm to the story and has no place in what is purportedly to be light-hearted, escapist romance.
Despite continued criticism about the show’s shallow handling of issues concerning race, gender, and consent, Netflix has greenlit “Bridgerton” for a second season that seems to plan to pull from the second book, “The Viscount Who Loved Me,” about eldest child Anthony’s complicated courtship with a Miss Kate Sheffield. Thankfully, all of the most harmful tropes are absent from this novel. It is arguably the most enjoyable, with a brave, selfless and funny romantic lead who challenges all of Anthony’s previously held convictions. It’s about overcoming unresolved childhood trauma, being ultra-competitive as a way of showing affection, the value of familial love and the unique tension generated by the path from loathing to lovers. While accent at times, Anthony and Kate have hilarious, electric, and moving interactions in perfectly measured doses. Where the show made Anthony an obstacle in the early episodes, book Anthony was an exemplary guardian to his sisters and held his responsibilities as head of the family as the most important aspect of his life. It is interesting how the show plans to reconcile this with his roguish and short-sighted behaviour in Season One. Regardless, far more so than with “The Duke and I,” the source material has a lot of potential.
The third book, “An Offer from a Gentleman,” follows second-born Benedict who is perhaps only distinguished as the artsy sibling. The novel is a Cinderella reimagining that breaks the mold by having the love interest be Sophie Beckett, an illegitimate child and servant rather than a fellow member of the upper classes. Benedict meets, and pines for, a beautiful masked woman (Sophie) at a ball. He then meets the beautiful but troublesome servant (also Sophie) whom he cannot love because he is still hoping to find the masked woman again. Full of hijinks and miscommunications, it carries a lovely message about how the messy and imperfect reality of loving someone will always outshine an idealized dream. Unfortunately, this is dampened with more gross misunderstandings about consent as Benedict relentlessly pursues Sophie, despite her asking him to stop as Benedict’s privilege allows him to ignore the danger the disparity between their circumstances presents to Sophie. In the show, Benedict was used to introduce the idea of queerness-or-something (the show doesn’t seem to be sure) but this could be a chance to scrap the whole book in favour of a male love interest for Benedict. There is potential if tweaks are made, but this is not the best of the books despite a promising premise.
The fourth book, “Romancing Mr. Bridgerton,” follows third-born Colin as he realises that if he wants his life to mean something he has to put some effort in, and that as a rich white man, doors are — shockingly — open to him. Love interest Penelope Featherington finally gets the appreciation she deserves as Colin and Penelope’s relationship blossoms from friendship to something more, with many bumps in the road in a way that feels remarkably genuine.
The fifth book, “To Sir Philip, With Love,” follows fifth-born Eloise as she runs off to meet a secret suitor. Claudia Jesse’s version of Eloise is very different from her characterization in the books where she does, in fact, want a husband (quite desperately as the book begins) — she just wants one she can love and respect. The novel includes demonic step children that can only be wrangled with the wisdom that comes from having seven siblings, the poor use of a deceased character’s mental illness as a plot device for angst, and a hilarious incident involving all of the Bridgerton men and a dining table. It’s a perfectly enjoyable book, if a bit trite. Based on the show’s version of Eloise and its drastically different inclusion of Marina Thompson and Philip Crane, some degree of retconning would be needed. Though, since so many changes involving the loudest Bridgerton sister have already been made, it would be lovely to see her fall in love with a woman, or alternatively no one at all, as romantic partnership is not the be all and end all. Regardless of the specific choices made for her, it is clear that Eloise’s character needs more to do than just judge her sister.
The novels about the youngest three siblings are all fun and interesting contributions to the historical romance genre; however, at this point, the sameness in which all of the books are fun and interesting becomes particularly apparent. Sixth-born Francesca’s novel “When He Was Wicked” deals with finding love again after the untimely death of her first husband, deciding what you want your life to be, and seeing love where it wasn’t before. Youngest Hyacinth’s novel, “It’s In His Kiss,” features a mystery, a love interest hated by his father, dubious methods of seduction, and the realisation that you have to try for the things you want. Finally, seventh-born Gregory’s novel, “On The Way To The Wedding,” is the only story to involve more than one love interest and contains seventh-hell levels of drama in a comedy of errors where everyone falls for the wrong person and gets engaged to the wrong person. As a story about being brave and going after what you want, it is truly ridiculously over the top.
Overall, the “Bridgerton” novels are strong examples of their genre. Like the first season of “Bridgerton,” they all have potential. Despite containing varying degrees of entertainment and romance, most of them are worth picking up.
— Millie Mae Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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