TW: discussion of racism and sexual violence
‘My name is Sarah and I’m a survivor’. This is the first line of the top Goodreads review for Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I, the first instalment in her nine-part series of novels that inspired the hugely popular Netflix romance drama Bridgerton. At first, I couldn’t understand why a seemingly harmless romance novel could cause upset and hurt. After reading the book, it became clear that the fantasy world of the novel is underpinned by a darker, problematic narrative – one that, for a number of reasons, leaves you feeling that at times, making it to the next page is a struggle.
The ‘Bridgerton effect’ has taken the world by storm: corset sales have soared 39% according to eBay, while Netflix claims that 82 million households have watched the show. We are all living vicariously through the Bridgerton fantasy as lockdown drags on – and thirsty for more, I had high hopes for the book that started it all. I was apprehensive when I opened my copy, with its front cover graced by Regé-Jean Page in all his duke-ish glory. Would it contain that same sparkling, wisteria-framed world I saw on screen? I tore through the book in one night (as I had the series), gasping at the sex scenes – even more outrageous when described by an onlooker. Yet, the book, as with the series, isn’t without big problems.
TV producer and screenwriter Shonda Rhimes, an avid fan of Quinn’s series herself, gave her prodigy Chris Van Dusen the task of making The Duke and I into a TV series. In an interview with The Wrap, Van Dusen explained how ‘colour and race are very much a part of the show and…the conversation.’ His decision to feature Black characters as members of landed society in the series (based on the biracial Queen Charlotte, wife of George III) has led to a conversation around the role of race in the period drama genre.
Disappointingly, the novel doesn’t tackle race at all – Simon is white and, at one point, compares the insufferable ‘Ambitious Mamas’, managing their daughters’ marriage matches and transition into high society, to “dangerous” people he had encountered on his travels in Africa. The Duke and I is a romantic fantasy and Quinn plays with historical accuracy in all kinds of ways, but otherwise doesn’t dare dip a toe into the issue of race in Regency England. Yet in comparison to Quinn’s novel, I found myself asking: does Van Dusen explore the issue enough on screen? The whisperings of the importance of race in Quinn’s book are reflected in a single conversation in Episode 4, where Lady Danbury refers to the marriage of Queen Charlotte and King George as an example of the way that ‘love conquers all.’ Race is explained away in one conversation about an interracial marriage, one that feels somewhat shoehorned in. It is a small hinting at racism – an improvement from Quinn’s novel but even so, alarmingly understated, decidedly clumsy.
At the core of the novel is the escapism offered to the reader, and this quality has been captured by Van Dusen. Bridgerton walks the line between fantasy and reality – after all, string quartets can be heard playing Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next’ as real historical figures waltz. It is in this same world that Black characters can supposedly exist without the burden of colonial reality. The casting choices have opened the genre to viewers of colour in a way that has rarely been done before; director Alrick Riley has attributed the enthusiasm for the show to its romantic plots, rather than its treatment of race. Still, applying such escapism to issue of race, neglecting the plot lines of Black characters, glossing over the issue in a single conversation, creating a fantasy world removed from a true colonial past, leaves much unsaid. Quinn’s handling of race in The Duke and I is nonexistent. But is one lighthearted onscreen conversation much better?
Eloise Bridgerton, who has become something of a feminist icon off the back of the show, also doesn’t so much as make a peep in The Duke and I. Devastating. The only hint of female empowerment we get from Quinn is in Daphne’s tendency to punch those that anger her. One thing I am glad to see lost in the TV series is the ability to hear Simon’s repugnantly sexist thoughts in the original novel – whether that be his declaration that he ‘owns’ his wife, the preoccupation with her body as she ‘prattles on’, or his self-image as a ‘dangerous man, a menacing predator.’ Quinn’s Simon is a misogynist – and there were several moments where I’d like to have punched him myself, instead settling with angrily scribbling ‘SEXIST!!!’ on the page instead.
The scene in which Daphne rapes Simon is no less controversial or upsetting in the novel, where it is also poorly handled. Simon’s stutter returns as a result of the assault and as he leaves Clyvedon, Daphne considers whether she ‘had taken advantage of him.’ In Episode 6 of the series, although not intoxicated as in the novel, Simon is similarly pinned underneath Daphne, amidst his cries for her to ‘wait, wait’. Even worse, she shows no regret, with the voice of Julie Andrews posing the question ‘does the ends ever justify the means?’ The question – of consent – is never answered, and the conversation which occurs on Daphne’s behalf – about whether what she did was right – is absent in the series. Bridgerton not only misses an opportunity to address the issue of consent with its millions of viewers, it actually leaves it unanswered, entirely in a grey area.
I’m glad I read the original novel. It has opened my eyes to the issues which are embedded in the world of Bridgerton, ones that no number of garish dresses or outrageous boffing can disguise as fantasy. Though ironed out, the major creases in the fabric of Quinn’s novel are still present in Van Dusen’s production, and they cannot simply be glittered over. There is a fine line between escapism and ignorance, and more time should be spent in future seasons of Bridgerton fulfilling the promise made by introducing Black characters into Quinn’s story. As much as the series is an improvement on Quinn’s novel, much work is yet to be done.
Illustration: @illustroke [Instagram]