Romance novels set in the Regency era recently adapted into a TV series
Content warning: spousal rape
Unless you have been living under a rock (no shame if you have!), you will have heard of the hit TV series “Bridgerton“. This lush, colourful TV series reimagines the Regency era of the United Kingdom’s history as racially diverse with characters of colour in leading, powerful roles instead of relegated to servitude or slavery. I was looking for my next running book, and I saw that the book that inspired the series was available as an audiobook. I was really interested to see how the original compared to the adaptation. I didn’t realise at the time that the second season was just about to be released. After binge-watching it (ahem, twice), I had a bit of a family health emergency that involved a lot of driving to and from hospital. With so much stress and time in the car, I decided to listen to the second book as well, so today I’ll review both books.
“The Duke and I” by Julia Quinn and narrated by Rosalyn Landor is the first book in the “Bridgerton” series. The story is about Daphne Bridgerton and her eight siblings Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory and Hyacinth who belong to a wealthy family in England in 1813. The Bridgertons are a tight-knit family and known for their parents’ decision to choose names based on letters of the alphabet corresponding with their birthday. As the sister of a viscount, there is a lot of pressure on Daphne to marry well. However, it is her second season out in society and she has yet to secure interest from any eligible suitors. When she manages to fight off the interest of a very ineligible suitor, she has a chance meeting with Simon, an old friend of her brother Anthony who also happens to be an extremely eligible duke. Simon has sworn never to marry, but the two agree to pretend to be courting to keep the women away from Simon and pique the interest of the bachelors in Daphne. However, once they start spending more time together it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between what is pretend and what is real.
Season 1 of the TV series drew heavily on the main elements of this book, and while not identical, the stories certainly followed a very similar path. I think I actually preferred book Daphne in some ways: the focus was less on her beauty and grace, and rather on her personality and gumption. I felt that apart from his race, the duke’s character was very similar in both the original and the adaptation, and considerable time was spent on his backstory and his ongoing anger and shame about the way he was treated as a small boy. One of the features of the TV series is the ensemble cast and we get to see snippets of many of the Bridgertons and other characters as well as the main romance. In comparison, the book had a much narrower focus, and we barely get a glimpse of the other characters at all. I found the writing of the first book reasonably compelling and Quinn goes into a lot more depth when it comes to some of the more compromising situations the characters find themselves in. I enjoyed Landor’s narration and felt that she did an admirable job distinguishing between the different characters with dynamic voices.
Not to be an English purist, but it became swiftly clear to me that the author, although trying to emulate a Jane Austen-esque tone, is herself an American. Using phrases such as “off of” in place of “off”, saying “spit” in both present and past tense and referring to buttocks as “fanny” (which any Australian is going to raise an eyebrow at” did break the illusion for me a little. The audiobook included a little additional epilogue about the characters much later on, and I’m not entirely sure that it added much to the story.
Without trying to give too much of the plot away, I did want to mention a pretty universal criticism of both the book and the TV series. There is a particular scene in the book where one male character is drunk, and one female character takes advantage of this and has sex with him. It is pretty clear from the story that he was likely unable to give consent and had he been sober would not have consented to the sex. The scene in the book was far less ambiguous than the corresponding scene in the TV series (where the male character is not drunk but is certainly reluctant and feels there has been a considerable betrayal of trust) and it left me feeling very uncomfortable that there was not much remorse or condemnation of this act which fell within the definition of spousal rape. Instead, the reader is left with the sense that the ends justify the means. I felt that had the genders been reversed, it would have been completely unacceptable and while the book was published over 20 years ago, it really isn’t an excuse.
“The Viscount Who Loved Me” by Julia Quinn and narrated by Rosalyn Landor is set in the following year, 1814. This time, the story is about Anthony Bridgerton, a viscount who inherited his father’s title at just 18 years old and notorious rake, who has finally decided to marry. The caveat, however, is that he has decided that the marriage must be business only and that he will absolutely not fall in love. Half-sisters Kate and Edwina Sheffield have come to London to be presented to society in the same year. Dedicated older sister Kate is determined to find her beauty of a younger sister a successful match and Edwina is determined to have Kate’s approval. However, when Edwina catches Anthony’s eye as a sufficiently beautiful and intelligent woman, Kate refuses to consider someone with such a bad reputation as suitable for Edwina, no matter how wealthy and powerful. As Anthony persists in courting Edwina, he and Kate spend more and more time together and soon find that first impressions aren’t always correct.
I found the second book far less engaging. The chemistry between Kate and Anthony was lukewarm at best and what little tension there was resolved very early in the book, with many, many chapters spent on self-realisation rather than any meaningful plot. In fact, the plot was in many ways very similar to the plot of the first book with themes of compromising positions, love growing over time and the man withholding something until he realises his love for the woman. The writing seemed even less inspired, and I lost count of how many times characters “murmured” or “swallowed convulsively”. Quinn goes into absolute minute detail in her scenes, labouring over each character’s thoughts and observations. I felt that she was hamming up the English imitation a little much and wasn’t quite able to capture the humour or irreverence of other American writers writing about England like Connie Willis or Mary Ann Shaffer. Again, there was an extra epilogue in the audiobook that again, didn’t add much.
In contrast, Season 2 of the TV series was absolutely fantastic. Kate was reimagined as Kate Sharma who travels from India with her younger sister to try to find a match in London. The Kate of the TV series, played by Simone Ashley, was haughty, imperious, spirited and stubborn and is as fun as she is frustrating to Anthony. The way culture was woven into the story has attracted a lot of discussion, and questions of authenticity and consistency aside, it certainly added to the richness of the show. Anthony, played by Jonathan Bailey, brought a smouldering intensity to the character that generated white hot sparks against Ashley’s Kate – a testament to his acting skills as he is gay in real life. The pacing of the TV adaptation was exquisite, with the incredible tension between Anthony and Kate maintained throughout the entire series. Similar to the first season, the rest of the characters all have engaging and interactive stories so the romance is not in a vacuum, and I especially enjoyed the Queen’s interactions with Eloise and Edwina.
Although I was looking for something light-hearted during a particularly difficult time and this book certainly met that criteria, I think I will stick to the TV series from now on.