Posted inOxford News

The Best, Worst Book(s) I’ve read

Illustration by Ben Beechener

I have a confession. Over the first lockdown, before it was a Netflix show, before it was of any cultural relevance, I read Bridgerton. I don’t mean that I read the first book, which the show covers; I read the entire eight-book series, as well as the various prequels, sequels, and extended epilogues. If Bridgerton were a box of sweets, I might have cavities by now.

As an English student, I feel there might be a certain amount of shame attached to this confession. English students have a certain online aesthetic. They all seem to live in crumbling castles and haunt old libraries by candlelight. They peruse The Greats: Milton, Brontë, Dickens, Chaucer. They form complex and nuanced opinions on these texts as they sip tea and adjust their blazers. 

Perhaps this is how some English students live – it’s certainly how some think they do. I, however, must admit that whilst I appreciate the classics, and my tutors might think my life’s burning passion is Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, they aren’t what brings me joy.

Perhaps my true confession isn’t that I read all of Bridgerton, but that I liked it.

I will be the first to admit that no character behaves naturally: they make ludicrous and completely illogical decisions and seem to be driven by insatiable sexual appetites. The dialogue is sharp, but it’s also very shallow: the Duke of Hastings does not seem to care very much about his fiancée’s opinions on the Corn Laws, surprisingly enough. Every beat of the plot is so regular you could set a watch to it.  

There is also no diversity in the books: every character is white, posh, cisgender, and seemingly neurotypical. There is a singular queer man introduced in eight books, and his queerness is nothing more than a convenient plot device.  

Finally, each character is so unbelievably attractive it is a wonder society was able to get anything done. The women are perfect and charming and have no idea how beautiful they are (perhaps mirrors hadn’t been invented yet?). The men are built like Chris Hemsworth and proclaim the feminist values of Simone de Beauvoir. Crucially, no one wears a powdered wig, because these are hideous and Julia Quinn knows better. 

The men brood; the women blush; the reader smiles. The author knows what she’s doing.

In levelling these criticisms, you might accuse me of looking for more than I’m going to get. You don’t read romance books of this type when you’re looking for your intellectual faculties to be engaged. Bridgerton is remarkable because you want to believe the story it spins; to ignore the obvious problems and escape into this slightly frivolous, charming, ahistorical world.

During the first lockdown, along with most of us, I was struggling not to commit parricide. When my dad baked his fifteenth loaf of sourdough in a week or my mum told me once again that ‘Couch to 5k’ was really the best thing ever and I should really do it with her, I would retreat to my room and count little fluffy sheep in my head, because apparently that’s healthier than screaming into a pillow. 

And in times of dire stress, I can promise you there is no balm more soothing than Bridgerton.  

It was hard to be stressed about UCAS when I could slip into this fantasy world of teatime and house parties (not the kind with a keg stand). At a time when every day felt like it was blurring together into some extended grey mush, Bridgerton was a ray of bright pastel sunshine. Julia Quinn knows she isn’t the next Zadie Smith, but she does what she does, and she does it very well. 

So, I won’t feel ashamed of it. I know it doesn’t fit in with my degree. It’s not high-brow and I’m not thinking about its bearing on Foucault, but I don’t care. Books are sources of pleasure and that can come in many forms: intellectual engagement (a good Dickens), emotional fulfilment (cathartically sobbing at the end of Call Me by Your Name), and just gleeful amusement, as Bridgerton kindly provides. I don’t remember half the plots anymore, but I do remember thinking, all the way through my last glassy-eyed lessons of the day, ‘I cannot wait for this to be done so I can go and read my book’. Say what you will, but I don’t get that with Milton.