Friday, November 12, 2021

Entree to the Bridgerton World

I no longer remember how I came across Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I. It was 2000 or 2001, a time when Amazon existed but was not yet the behemoth it is today, and I lived next to a college town with three to four bookstores nearby. Most likely, I found it browsing at the local Borders, which sat opposite my favorite grocery store and where I spent a lot of time. Books have always been my preferred form of relaxation, and even the Internet’s breadth of offerings can’t really equal the pleasure of browsing in a physical bookstore.

Be that as it may, I found The Duke and I, enjoyed it, and moved on. Indeed, over the next two decades I shifted away from the historical romance genre altogether, so I had little sense of the popularity the later books were achieving. I had more or less forgotten about that long-ago read when I logged into Netflix one day last year and saw an ad for Bridgerton, the TV series based on the books. I watched a few episodes, then hunted down the first book and re-read it.

The differences between Quinn’s Daphne and the version in the Shondaland series struck me as interesting. I began pursuing the idea of interviewing Julia Quinn about her series as a whole, and in preparation, I read the other seven books, as well as at least one prequel and the latest offering: The Wit and Wisdom of Bridgerton, which Avon Books released this past Tuesday. Another Bridgerton-derived title, a graphic novel of Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron, is due for release in January. According to rumors circulating on the Internet, Netflix will release the second season of Bridgerton early next year, and seasons 3 and 4 are already in the planning stages. That single novel from 2000 has become a juggernaut.

At some point, I still hope to interview Quinn for New Books in Historical Fiction, but that plan has been delayed for reasons that have nothing to do with the books. So instead I’m offering this brief look at The Wit and Wisdom of Bridgerton, which does an excellent job of capturing the series’ strengths and offering quick reminders of or introductions to the main characters.

So what does set the Bridgerton series apart? For me, the best part is the dialogue, which often sparkles with wit at the same time it offers insight into the characters. The Happy Ever After ending required of romances set in any period means that there’s little doubt about who will end up with whom—the fun lies in discovering how they get there—and heated love scenes can become repetitive when you read eight books in a row. But lines like “I do love my family, but I really just go for the food” (Colin) or “Men, [Daphne] thought with disgust, were interested only in those women who terrified them” are precious.

Then there’s Lady Whistledown, the pseudonymous society chronicler whose broadsheet the haut ton loves to hate but willingly supports at the outrageous rate of fivepence an issue. Her wry commentary foreshadows and reflects on the developments in each book, giving the whole series a refreshing tongue-in-cheek quality. Last but not least, the depiction of the interactions between various members of the Bridgerton clan are spot on, loving yet competitive, charmingly flawed, and often hilarious.

For those who don’t know, Bridgerton traces the romantic lives and marriages of a family of eight children, named alphabetically by order of age—Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth. They live in Regency England, and their adventures take place, more or less, from 1813 to 1824. Their father died just before his youngest daughter’s birth, leaving Anthony to become head of the family, as Viscount Bridgerton, at the age of eighteen. The children’s mother, Violet—another of the series’ great strengths—has been the mainstay of the family ever since. Hers was a love match, and she has chosen never to remarry, but she wants to see all her children settled happily, even though she’s willing to give them a say in whom they choose. Each book in the series explores the choices and eventual decision of one of the eight, starting with Daphne and ending with Gregory.

There’s only one way to enter this complex and by now fully realized world, and that’s to read the books in order. They’re all available in print and e-book, with splashy new covers to reflect the popularity of the television series. But if you know someone who fell in love with the Netflix version or is in general a Bridgerton fan who will appreciate the opportunity to revisit her favorite lines, then The Wit and Wisdom of Bridgerton would make a lovely present to stash under the Christmas tree or its winter holiday equivalent. It consists of thirteen chapters—one showcasing each child, one for Violet, plus chapters for three of the spouses (Kate, Penelope, and Simon) and one for Lady Danbury, a character who, although present throughout the novels, really comes into her own in the Netflix series. In addition, Lady Whistledown contributes a new set of commentaries, in addition to older quoted passages, and Julia Quinn herself adds an introduction.

And let’s leave it to Quinn herself to sum up the central point.

“A Bridgerton. To be such is to know that you are part of a family tightly webbed with staunch loyalty and unquestioning love. And laughter.

“Always laughter.”

—Julia Quinn, “Introduction,” The Wit and Wisdom of Bridgerton 

(New York: Avon Books, 2021), ix.

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