Dear reader, don’t bother with ‘The Duke and I’
Isabella Volmert | Tuesday, March 30, 2021
Like most Austenian-reared hopeless romantics, I too was swept away by Netflix’s “Bridgerton” into the bright and dramatic world of Regency England. The colors, cinematography and string quartet rendition of “thank u, next” charmed my escapist self and trapped my attention for the two days I binged the show. Naturally, I then wanted to delve even more into this fictional world, so I picked up Julia’s Quinn’s “The Duke and I.” I have no qualms spoiling this novel for you, dear reader, because to be as frank and scrupulous as Lady Whistledown, it is not a good book.
Aside from the many smaller differences between the two, more irksome themes propagate throughout the novel that the show resolves with grace. Overall, “Bridgerton” is able to take the despicable culture of “The Duke and I” and render it into a glorious and romantic fantasy world, with an emphasis on the fantasy.
First of all, Lady Whistledown does not nearly have the impact on the novel as she does in the show. Instead of actively driving the plot, she serves as a frame narration at the beginning of each chapter, rendering her powerful position virtually useless.
Whistledown is just one of the characters the show frees from sexist narration by giving her voice rightful influence. “Bridgerton” also grants Daphne similar agency, which she often lacks in the novel. In “The Duke and I,” Daphne is decidedly “not like other girls.” At the first ball, she drones on to Simon about what a deplorable event it is, much to my disappointment, as I do love a good ball. Daphne often shrugs off the extravagant life “Bridgerton” makes so vibrant. Additionally, her constant invocation of her many brothers and how they taught her to be less ladylike makes Simon all the more attracted to her. Such sufferable sexism is entrenched in almost every character, which was one of the greatest letdowns of the novel.
Of course, both the novel and the show are centered around the premise of arranged marriage largely grounded in sexist principles. But as Phoebe Dynevor, who plays Daphne in “Bridgerton,” said in an interview, show-Daphne is a sort of a feminist for her time. “Bridgerton” Daphne is a woman trying to balance growing up, the dream of falling in love and the heavy duty of marrying well and quickly. Under enormous pressure, she still fights back against her brother and Simon to control her own life, even if she lives in a misogynistic society. Additionally, most of the women in “Bridgerton” exhibit the same kind of control and resolve. Think of Queen Charlotte, the opera singer Siena Rosso and Marina Thompson, all of whom were additions to the show. Book-Daphne, on the other hand, is confusingly portrayed as completely helpless and simultaneously superior to other young women of the ton because of her occasional un-feminine traits.
Even more disappointing is Simon. The romantic scenes, supposed to be seemingly swoon-worthy, are largely told through his very misogynist perspective, amounting to page after page of cringe-worthy content. Additionally, the questionable sex scene between Daphne and Simon in the show is explicitly assault in the novel, effectively destroying the romance that is supposed to resolve their fraught relationship. I’m not by any means trying to argue “Bridgerton” is the woke version of “The Duke and I.” But I do think the show vastly improves the humanity and nuance of each character and their relationships, as well as the romance.
Not only this, but “Bridgerton” expands beyond Daphne and Simon’s relationship. “The Duke and I” is only ever narrated from their points of view, whereas the show adds depth and intrigue with characters such as Benedict, Eloise, Lady Danbury and many others. It embraces the luxurious life of the upper-class with stunning fashion, aesthetic architecture and intricate on-set details while (admittedly briefly) highlighting the plights of the lower-class, like Simon’s mother and the boxer Will Mondrich. “Bridgerton” also celebrates the beauty of diversity and humanity with its famous casting of people of color. Of course, it’s highly questionable to gloss over the atrocities of colonialism as quickly as the show does, but the representation of people of color in the show makes it a far better period piece compared to many of its predecessors, and also, “The Duke and I.” Instead, “Bridgerton” creates and celebrates a fantasy world and the beautiful, flawed and human characters who call it home.