By Miriam R. Kramer
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In her eight Regency historical romances, focusing on the family Bridgerton from 1813-1827, Julia Quinn might take this introductory sentence to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and slightly re-write it: “It is a truth acknowledged in the Bridgerton family, that any Bridgerton heir has enough money to marry well and for love, and should do so post-haste.” If you have binged the two costume-drama seasons on Netflix, with Shonda Rhimes as the showrunner, you will mostly know what to expect.
The highly popular novels do take a slightly more serious tone at times. Their titles are as follows: The Duke and I (Daphne), The Viscount Who Loved Me (Anthony), An Offer From a Gentleman (Benedict), Romancing Mr. Bridgerton (Colin), To Sir Phillip, With Love (Eloise), When He Was Wicked (Francesca), It’s in His Kiss (Hyacinth), and On the Way to the Wedding (Gregory).
The Bridgerton family, heir to the deceased Viscount Edmund and vibrant Viscountess Violet, comprises eight stair-step children named in alphabetical order according to age. Anthony, the Viscount-to-be, is pressured by the responsibility that will fall on his shoulders of looking out for his siblings. Next come Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth. With a loving, wise mother ready to push her children into society to find spouses, Quinn puts a happier, lighter spin on the Austen society satire and adds in the boisterous nature of an exceptionally large family whose members all adore and support one another.
The first novels start with comments from a light-hearted, acerbic, and anonymous society maven named Lady Whistledown, who knows everything about the glittering society in which the Bridgertons move. In a newsletter published twice a week, she dashes off pointed observations about them and others in their milieu, called the ton. In the fourth book we find out her identity as she ends her broadsheet, but her asides make the first books enjoyable.
As they reach their majority, the Viscount’s offspring each get a novel about their search for love and fulfillment, with either the Bridgerton or potential spouse brooding over an implausible worry that prevents true love from running smooth. Their focus on their love interests grows slowly, until they cannot imagine not having these people in their lives. Often this interest is accompanied by a type of personal growth, encouraged by their wise mother, Violet, and the situations they find themselves in.
In the classic manner of female wish-fulfillment romance tales, some of the young women are not conventionally beautiful, but worthy with personalities that complement their male suitors. The men, on the other hand, are all dashing, very handsome, and sometimes rakes with unsavory pasts full of dalliances with unsuitable opera singers and married women. If they are left along with unmarried gentlewomen, on the other hand, the pressure is on to marry the compromised ladies. They, of course, no longer want to stray once they meet the women they love.
It is refreshing to see the women loved for their spunk, forthrightness, and character along with their looks, instead of for being coy, conventional misses showing decorum and servile natures to win a man. In this Quinn deviates somewhat from romance novel formulas, but certainly follows the path of Jane Austen’s character Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. Obviously Pride and Prejudice is the primary literary source that influenced and encouraged this series, despite its far superior satirical observations of a more middle-class societal milieu. Yet it too has a happy conclusion, and Quinn takes inspiration from it.
Quinn’s tales are, quite simply, enjoyable and amusing. The eight protagonists do show different personalities, some better realized than others. Her stories take a different tack than some historical romances, in delving into the changing personalities of the Viscount’s children as they grow up. She also does well in showing their comedic sibling rivalries, for example when they play a silly family game that encourages breaking rules and ultimate competition.
If you want this kind of fluffy escapism, do not binge read the books. While there is no bodice-ripping, and in fact more bodice unbuttoning, the Bridgerton clan engage in sex that Quinn writes almost the exact same way in each book. Her stories are generally better than her writing. She blithely uses modern phrases and sometimes shoehorns unrealistic plot devices into her stories. Every now and then—yes, once in a while—she will write something along the lines of noting a character’s “sapphire eyes.” Reader, it pained me. So be forewarned.
Jane Austen it is not, but Julia Quinn is happy to be silly, enliven tired Regency fiction tropes with her loving stories about a united family, and author enjoyable stories for herself and others. She certainly does not take herself too seriously.
So if you need distraction, or are reading the latest Nobel Prize–winner because you love beautiful language and soul-stirring content, you can pick this up as a contrast for fun. Shonda Rhimes took a modern tack in her color-blind casting for the Bridgerton Netflix series, which has worked well. You will probably relish watching these costume dramas, and enjoy the gorgeous men, even if you have not read the novels themselves.