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The Duke and I by Julia Quinn and Reflections on the Romance genre and Bridgerton

After watching the Netflix series, Bridgerton, and enjoying it thoroughly, I was encouraged by a dear friend to also read the books by Julia Quinn. It’s been a long time since I picked up a book marketed as purely “historical romance” – especially one with the kind of cover that looks like something Barbara Cartland would have adored (and I adored her and her books when I was a teenager). Yet, as I read the first book in the Bridgerton series, The Duke and I, staying up far too late, laughing, sighing, being transported to a different time and place, I wondered why had I waited so long? What is it about the word “romance” and especially when it’s applied to a genre, that has people either flatly refusing to read it or denying the pleasures it offers? When I thought about it, every book I read (and write), regardless of genre, either has romance at its heart or is unashamedly romantic – even if it’s a love affair between the words and the reader. But what is it about the term “romance” and romance books and their writers generally that sees them excluded from serious evaluation in the review pages of newspapers, scathingly referred to (and usually by people who have never, ever read one), and ignored when it comes to awards unless they’re specific to the genre? As one writer recently pointed out in The Times, the romance genre, which sells in the squillions, is what keeps publishing houses and, indeed, writers in other less finically viable genres afloat!  Try as I might I cannot get the link to damn well work!

Well, what I really, really love about both the “Bridgerton” book and the Netflix series, is what they remind and/or teach those who either don’t know or have forgotten about what the “Romance” genre – literary or visual – contributes to popular culture and social discourse. Often dismissed as “chick-lit”, or as only dealing with women’s concerns (as if women’s concerns weren’t relevant or significant!), it is, as I said above, overlooked in favour of more “serious” genres. Yet, “Romance” deals with everything from sexual desire, love – fulfilled and unfilled, sexual identity, morals, mores, gendered norms, restrictions and freedoms imposed by femininity, masculinity, challenges to these, violence, coercion, familial bonds, professional and personal boundaries, feminism, friendship, expectations in relationships, break-ups, heartache, marriage, mother and fatherhood, misunderstandings, personal histories, and so much more. Historical romance locates all of these within different pasts, contributing to our understanding of how far we have or haven’t come. Not only that, but they’re well-researched too.

If you don’t believe me, then just look at all the conversations – civil and uncivil, posts, newspaper articles and more that both Quinn’s books and the recent Netflix series have generated. I don’t think a day has passed where I haven’t read or seen people discussing how much they loved or loathed the show or books, their reasoning, and then heated defences of these positions with many examples. Whether it’s Daphne “stealthing” Simon (SPOILER: she has sex with him when he’s drunk and he ejaculates inside her after trying, for various reasons not to), the violent dialogue and masculine braggadocio of the male characters, how like the  book it places an emphasis on friendship, or the casting of the show. The latter particularly has facilitated many debates as, despite the book having all white, Anglo characters (in keeping with Britain’s colonial past and the Regency period), Bridgerton, the Netflix series, chose to include people of colour and different cultural backgrounds in their cast – as Dukes, royalty, middle-class merchants, the ton etc as well as servants and ordinary folk. While this definitely doesn’t adhere to historical “fact”, as Quinn herself said, her books aren’t factual and Bridgeton is not a documentary! Even so, it’s amazing how many people this casting choice offended (it wasn’t “colour blind” as some have suggested which, as Shonda Rimes the Executive Producer says, infers it wasn’t deliberate, which it was), simply because this didn’t happen in the past. So what? It’s been fabulous seeing so many different cultures and colours represented in ways they never have been on the screen. Even if the premise for them having different social roles is convenient (it’s also really nice – I think it’s episode 4 where it’s revealed) it works at so many important social cultural and televisual levels. But neither did women have trimmed pubic hair at that time, but you don’t read or hear so many complaints about that (!), but I digress… Likewise, some argue that the show presents women as commodities (sorry, in some ways, that’s very historically accurate!) and their (naked) bodies are there for men’s viewing pleasure alone; some talk about the violence and “pornography” of the sex scenes as opposed to the way in which the books deal with sex as mutual pleasure etc etc etc.

Look, I’m not going to debate every little point, some of which I wholeheartedly agree with and others which I don’t. What I do want to reiterate, however, is how much I love all the different conversations this kind of book, this GENRE, this oft-demeaned, belittled and snubbed (except by those of us in the know) genre generates. And not just these books or the series. This has been going on for decades! Important discussions which lead us to examine everything from relationships, race, culture, gendered behaviour, social change, bigotry, prejudice, colonialism, class and so much more.

Mind you, I find that so many different genres do this – sci-fi, fantasy, speculative fiction of all sorts, horror, historical fiction, crime – in other words, any darn good story that engages the reader. Yet, so often, these genres if not poo-pooed, are disregarded for prestigious awards, for reviewing in newspapers and magazines – a point that is worth repeating. But, just like their more “literary” counterparts, they deal with so many of the same issues but in easily accessible and often relatable and very entertaining ways. I mean, who doesn’t want to find love, for example? Yet, they’re “punished” for it! Go figure.

So, back to The Duke and I – after all, this IS a book review! While possessing a deceptively simple title that smacks of the historical romance it so cleverly embraces, it also has so much heart and, like the show based on it, deals with an abundance of social, sexual and gender issues. The Bridgertons are a wealthy family, overseen by the widow, Violet who has eight children. The fourth, her eldest daughter, Daphne, is of marriageable age. Focussed on trying to make a good catch for her, after all, not only will that ensure Daphne is secure socially, economically and in every other way, but potentially, her younger siblings (and older brothers) as well. It’s all about connections – familial and otherwise. Yet, after meeting the Duke of Hastings, who has more baggage than a coach-and-eight, a handsome young man who finds the social scene of the ton and its incredible expectations abhorrent, they come up with a convenient arrangement to get mothers off their backs – one where they’ll pretend an interest in each other. In doing so, the Duke will be left in peace and Daphne, well, now that she’s seen to be desired by someone top of the pecking order, will be inundated with suitors and able to choose her future husband with ease. But this a romance and Cupid has a way of throwing even the best laid plans awry.

A clever, witty delight – not without its issues – but like the show, this is what makes it so worthwhile and so damn social media and water-cooler worthy.

Now, off to unearth my Georgette Heyers, thank you!

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