Okay, fine, I’ll cop to it: I’m a basic bitch. I binged the Bridgerton series on Netflix. Twice. And when I saw the book on sale at KMart (with the basic-bitch movie cover, no less!) for twelve bucks, I snapped it up. For those of you who have been living under a particularly large rock, this is a Regency romance series based on the series of books by Julia Quinn. The Duke And I is the first book in the series, focusing on the marital prospects of the eldest Bridgerton daughter, Daphne.
Julia Quinn has written over two dozen historical romances, with a writing career spanning decades. Originally, she envisioned the Bridgerton books as a trilogy, but the series grew and there are now eight full-length novels (one for each of the children in the fictional family), plus a few extra bits and pieces. She was always very popular among romance readers, but the Netflix adaptation has catapulted her into the mainstream. It premiered just six-ish months ago, and has already been watched by over 82 million households, making it the most-watched-ever series on the platform. Naturally, Quinn saw a corresponding boost in book sales, and her twenty-year-old Regency romance went skyrocketing up best-seller charts.
The Duke And I is set in 1813 (think Austen’s era), in London’s “ton” during “the season”. No shame if you don’t know what that means (I didn’t before I watched/read!): the “ton” was Britain’s high society during the late Regency, and once each year these high-falootin’ folks would gather in the city so that young ladies could make their debut into society (i.e., swan around looking pretty in an effort to snag a husband).
The Bridgertons are a powerful and well-liked family, and a big one at that. The patriarch has passed, but there’s still Mama and her eight (eight!) children, so the house is hardly empty. Their gimmick is that the kids are named in alphabetical order, from oldest to youngest: Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth. Daphne is the middle child, but the oldest girl, so the first to make her debut – much to the delight of the ton’s gossip mongers.
Quinn positions Daphne as your typical girl-next-door: beautiful, but “cool” and friends-with-all-the-boys, so none of them want her in the romantic sense. Of course, that’s a disaster, because money and prestige were all tied up in marriage at the time, and the rules of polite society dictate that Daphne must marry before any of her younger sisters can debut themselves. She’s well aware of the weight of expectation upon her slender shoulders, but she’s still got enough self-respect to be a bit choosy.
“[She] wasn’t holding out for a true love match… but was it really too much to hope for a husband for whom one had at least some affection?”Bridgerton: The Duke And I (page 17)
Enter, the Duke: Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings and notorious rake. He has recently returned to London, but he has every intention of staying above the fray of the ton and living out his days as a confirmed bachelor. Of course, it wouldn’t be called The Duke And I unless there was a meet cute. Here it is: the Duke walks in on Daphne punching an overly-amorous would-be suitor.
They get to talking, and decide to forge ahead with
the trope a plan that suits them both: a fake romance! If they appear to be in love and an engagement imminent, Daphne’s stock will rise (make-them-all-see-her-in-a-new-light-et-cetera) and the Duke will be left alone (because obviously all the ladies will be throwing themselves willy-nilly at a bloke with his looks and title, despite the fact that he’s actually a bit of a dick). It works a charm… at first.
All of the local gossip is communicated by the pseudonymously-authored Lady Whisteldown’s Society Papers. It’s a very clever narrative technique used to great effect by Quinn. As she explains herself in the author interview section at the end of my edition, the Papers give her the chance to explain context to reader without having to cram a whole bunch of exposition into the dialogue. Fun fact: in that same interview, she also reveals that she actually had no idea or plan for the true identity of Lady Whistledown when she first started writing the series!
And – I can’t help myself – here we come to the compare-and-contrast part of the review. Naturally, spoilers abound, so look away now if you care.
The Duke And I introduces the Duke’s father’s abuses far earlier than the Netflix series ever did. The latter treated it as a “reveal” later on, once we’d formed a bond with the characters, while Quinn put it all up front in the Prologue. It was a heart-wrenching way for a romance novel to begin, and set a very different tone.
The diversity and representation for which the Netflix series is famous isn’t as explicit in the novel, though. For instance, the Duke – played by Rege-Jean Page in the series, a British-Zimbabwean actor – is described as having “icy blue eyes” and presumably white skin. The sole exception is that of Lady Danbury, a side character who plays a much smaller role in the book, but her use of a cane for mobility is mentioned sensitively and often. (And if you’re going to come down in the comments and have a sook about the Netflix series not being “accurate” because there were people of colour among the gentry, save it. Black people didn’t miraculously appear in England sometime in the 20th century, they were there all along – read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. Plus, if you’re coming to romance novels for “accuracy”, you have bigger problems.)
The Duke gets a lot more narrative time in The Duke And I than he did in the Bridgerton show (and he’d want to, being a titular character and all). The reader is privy to a lot more of his inner world and turmoil than the viewer ever was. That’s nice and all, but personally I kind of liked the element of mystery better – he is an enigmatic love interest, after all. Plus all that narrative space has to edge out something, and I’m sorry to say that Eloise and Penelope’s characters are completely submerged in the book, along with many other side characters and plots. I suppose they all come out in later books, but I’m not sure I’ll be reading that far to find out. As it stands, I missed them.
And, my biggest bug bear: The Duke And I is nowhere near as steamy as the show. I’m sure all the pearl-clutchers are happy about that, but it ticked me off. In the first hundred pages, there was just one reference to an erection. The story revolves around kids and marriage, without all the rooting that made the Netflix series fun. I threw an actual tantrum when – after 274 pages of build up – Quinn threw in a fade to black chapter break on the wedding night! She opened the door shortly after, but still, the momentum was totally lost.
Here’s the weirdest twist: the book leaves a lot more open-ended questions and unresolved plot points than the Bridgerton show (despite the fact that it’s been renewed for a second season, one that will undoubtedly disappoint given that the sexy Duke will not be returning, gah!). All told, I’d say The Duke And I was fine, but probably not worth the twelve bucks I splashed out on it. I haven’t read enough Regency romance to make a call on where it stands in the canon, but if you’re thinking of picking it up because the Bridgerton series hooked you the way it did me, I’d say don’t bother. Save your eyeballs for (yet another) re-watch instead.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Bridgerton: The Duke And I:
- “Quick reading very entertaining
.will finish the whole series to see who is Lady Whistledow also the sex of Daphnes” – Xiomara E. Delgado
- “With the production of the TV Bridgerton the book prices have gone up terribly. Just not fair!” – victoria belin-pauline
- “I get that it’s problmetic, but it’s a romance book, though. But I wish you new show fans could chill just a little bit?” – Samo
- “A very light read that may make you blush. Mrs Whistle down is the best part. Content is 18+ with some violence. Did not leave me feeling enlightened.” – CB