I am not a connoisseur of the romance genre but will occasionally pick up a book that I have seen recommended somewhere (or that is free for kindle). With all of the Bridgerton hype on Netflix, I figured I would read some of the books before I delved into the show. Also, I like historical fiction. So I checked out of my local library the first three books in the series. This review will cover all three books. Warning: spoiler alert.
I really liked these books, mostly, despite two rather disturbing scenes – the marital rape in book 1, and the kiss of an unconscious, delirious with fever romantic interest in book 3. These scenes were unforgivable, and at least in the second case, completely unnecessary to the plot. Beyond this I will not be discussing them in this review. I also will not discuss Lady Whistledown, the mysterious gossip columnist who acts as a narrator in the stories with her observations of all things love and society.
The Bridgerton’s, the family at the center of these books, are one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Regency England. The Dowager Viscountess Bridgerton and her late husband were a “love match” and had eight children whom they named in alphabetical order. The late Viscount Bridgerton died at a young age from a bee sting (this becomes relevant in book 2). The Dowager Viscountess is now focused on getting her older children married, 3 boys and 1 girl, which is where we find ourselves at the start of book 1.
Book 1 – The Duke and I
In this book the new, young and very handsome Duke of Hastings (Simon) arrives back in England angry at the world but really mostly at his late father who mistreated him as a child. The Duke has such anger issues against his father that he vows never to marry or father children. He wants the title to die with him as his ultimate revenge on his father. Unfortunately for him he falls instantly in lust with Daphne, the eldest Bridgerton daughter, and younger sister of his best friend, the new Viscount Bridgerton. Daphne falls equally in lust, and eventually in love, with Simon, but is not interested in the social scene around being forced to marry. She is smart, funny, and independent (as much as a woman of her time can be). She and Simon agree to have a pretend courtship so that no one will bother either of them about getting married. Unfortunately, hormones take over and they find themselves kissing and in a “compromised position” while at a party. The Viscount, Daphne’s over-protective older brother, finds them and is really mad – challenging Simon to a duel over his sister’s honor. Before anyone can get killed, Daphne intervenes at the dual and convinces Simon that they should get married because they are in love. He agrees but says he cannot have children. They marry, but then Daphne finds out that Simon can have children, he just won’t (he uses the “pull out” method, which frankly, if Daphne had waited long enough she would have found did not work and she would have gotten pregnant any way). But since Daphne knows little about sex, she tries to convince Simon that he is being an ass and that his anger at his father will not end well. Here we have the disturbing marital rape scene where Daphne manages to get a very drunk and barely consenting Simon to impregnate her. He gets really mad and leaves her and she goes back to London. Eventually, Simon realizes that Daphne was right and that acting like an ass and being mad at his dad and not having children is not the answer to his problems. So he goes to find Daphne (who was not pregnant after all), and is very concerned that she was hurt in a riding accident because he still thinks she was pregnant and could have miscarried. Anyway, they make up, Simon realizes the error of his ways, and they live happily ever after and have many children.
Book 2: The Viscount Who Loved Me
If we thought the Duke of Hastings had anger issues, we have not yet met the Viscount Bridgerton (Anthony). He is also angry at his father, but this time because his father died young, presumably due to an anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting. Anthony is convinced that he too will have an early demise and refuses to fall in love because, in his noble mind, he does not want to hurt his future wife. So he sets out to find a wife who will produce an heir and will be tolerable and they can be friends, but whom he will not love. It would also be better if she not love him either. He sets his sights on Edwina, the loveliest thing of her coming out year. Unfortunately for him, Edwina has an older sister, Kate, who wants to make sure that lecherous men do not seek to marry Edwina because she is beautiful and sweet and kind, like a delicate English rose. Kate, on the other hand, is pretty but not considered “classically beautiful.” She is however a complete firecracker – smart, sassy and confident, although she does lack some self-esteem. She is also determined that the Anthony should not marry Edwina because, as far as she is concerned, he is a “rake,” aka a player. They spar verbally and Anthony falls instantly in lust with Kate, and after some time, she with him. It’s one of those classic “he’s mean to you because he likes you” situations, except it goes both ways. Anyway, after being found by their mothers and an insufferable gossip in a “compromising position” where Anthony is trying to suck the bee venom out of Kate’s neck (where she was stung), they agree to marry (by this point Kate has realized that she loves him). But he tells her he will not love her and generally acts like an ass. Finally, after much angst on both their parts, Anthony realizes he is in love with Kate when he finds her injured in a carriage accident. And they live happily ever after and have many children.
Book 3 – An Offer from a Gentleman
This is the most troubling of the three books. This one involves Benedict, the second Bridgerton brother, and Sophie, the illegitimate daughter of an earl. The earl raises Sophie as his “ward” but does not recognize her as his daughter. He also basically ignores her. The story takes on a Cinderella vibe when the earl marries an awful, cruel and ambitious woman, Araminta, with two awful daughters, Rosamund and Posy (well, Rosamund is really awful, but Posy just has low self esteem and is easily controlled by her mother). The earl dies and Araminta is forced to keep looking after Sophie or she will lose her inheritance. But she turns Sophie into an unpaid housemaid and ladies maid. One evening, when Araminta and her daughters go to the Bridgerton’s masquerade ball, Sophie (now 20) is left behind. But the kindly housekeeper dresses her up in her grandmother’s old gown and Araminta’s shoes, and sends her to the ball with strict warnings to be home by midnight. At the ball Sophie immediately encounters Benedict who is enchanted by her. He takes her to a private balcony where he kisses her passionately. But she will not tell him anything about herself. When the clock strikes midnight Sophie flees, but Benedict manages to grab one of her gloves, engraved with the earl’s family crest and her grandmother’s initials. He then sets his mother to help figure out who she is. Araminta figures out that Sophie wore her shoes and went to the ball so she throws her out of the house. Benedict spends the next two years pining for the mystery woman. Sophie has fled London and taken a job as a housemaid in a country estate, where it turns out, Benedict is attending a party. He finds her (but does not recognize her) when she is fleeing the party because the host and some male guests are trying to rape her. He gets her into his carriage and off they go to his country house nearby. But they get caught in the rain and Benedict becomes ill. Sophie nurses him back to health, and although Benedict still does not recognize her, he realizes that she is not just an ordinary housemaid, and begins to fall in lust with her (Sophie is already in love with Benedict). This is where things really go south in the story. Benedict turns into a complete and utter entitled condescending ass with anger issues (as seems to be the case with all the leading men in these stories). First, he asks Sophie to be his mistress. She unequivocally refuses because (although she does not tell him) she will not bring illegitimate children into the world to suffer the same fate that she has. Angry that she has refused because he feels that this is an excellent offer for someone in her position, Benedict tells Sophie that he knows what is best for her and takes her to London against her will to get he a job at his mother’s house, where he tries repeatedly to convince her to be his mistress and she repeatedly refuses. The Dowager Viscountess notices that Sophie is extremely well educated and carries herself in the manner of the gentry. She also notices that Benedict and Sophie have a thing for each other, and she, along with Eloise (a now 17yo Bridgerton sister), help fan the flames. She gives Sophie a job as a ladies maid but treats her kindly and even allows her to take tea with them and befriend her daughters. Benedict persists being alternately charming and an angry ass, especially when he finds out that Sophie was the mystery lady from the masquerade ball, but that she hid this fact from him. Eventually, Sophie agrees to sleep with Benedict, but still refuses to be his mistress. He is now really mad and condescending. Sophie tearfully decides to leave the Bridgerton’s employment but upon stepping outside, she is seen by Araminta, who has her arrested for theft. Benedict has by now figured out that he loves Sophie and, after consulting with his mother, that he must marry her. He also figures out that he was an ass. But Sophie is now in jail and facing deportation to Australia. Benedict, his mother and Araminta all turn up at the jail and Benedict declares that she is his fiancee. (So maybe still a bit of an ass for assuming she would say yes). The Dowager Viscountess threatens Araminta if she tries to harm Sophie again. But then, in an unexpected twist, like in the Frozen movie, the real hero is not the man, but rather the sister, Posy, who turns up, stands up to her mother, and lies for Sophie to get her released. In the end Benedict and Sophie marry and live happily ever after and have many children.
Overall, these books are a fun, light read. I am inclined toward historical fiction and happily ever after stories, so these books are quite satisfying in that regard. The sex is steamy (for Regency England), but what is really both nice and a bit odd is how these men with anger and other issues are very concerned with the care and pleasure of their wives. There are some wonderfully humorous parts, like where the Duke figures out that Daphne thinks he is impotent, or the competitiveness between Anthony and Kate. I love that Daphne and the other Bridgerton sisters, as well as Kate are very independent strong women.
More troubling, in addition to the two lack of consent scenes, is Sophie, and book 3 overall. Sophie, while a survivor, is definitely still written as a victim, with Benedict her savior. Maybe it is because it is more fairy tale style, but after the first two books where the men realize that they are better people because of the intelligent strong women in their lives, it is a little hard to stomach the more traditional trope. Also hard to stomach is the sheer entitlement and ass-holishness of the main male characters, but I am willing to overlook that, (although it is harder to overlook with Benedict, as mentioned above), because in the end they end up as decent people who were just fighting some big demons and who realize that they appreciate the smart, capable women in their lives for who they are. And like I said, I like a happily ever after story.
With all of these critiques it might seem like I did not enjoy these books. On the contrary, I enjoyed them very much. Much more than I thought I would. I look forward to reading the next several installments and finally getting around to watching the Netflix version of the Duke and I.