Title: The Duke & I (Bridgertons, #1)
Author: Julia Quinn
Publication date: 2000
Length: 433 pages
Genre: Historical romance
From New York Times bestselling author Julia Quinn comes the first novel in the beloved Regency-set world of her charming, powerful Bridgerton family, now a series created by Shonda Rhimes for Netflix.
In the ballrooms and drawing rooms of Regency London, rules abound. From their earliest days, children of aristocrats learn how to address an earl and curtsey before a prince—while other dictates of the ton are unspoken yet universally understood. A proper duke should be imperious and aloof. A young, marriageable lady should be amiable…but not too amiable.
Daphne Bridgerton has always failed at the latter. The fourth of eight siblings in her close-knit family, she has formed friendships with the most eligible young men in London. Everyone likes Daphne for her kindness and wit. But no one truly desires her. She is simply too deuced honest for that, too unwilling to play the romantic games that captivate gentlemen.
Amiability is not a characteristic shared by Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings. Recently returned to England from abroad, he intends to shun both marriage and society—just as his callous father shunned Simon throughout his painful childhood. Yet an encounter with his best friend’s sister offers another option. If Daphne agrees to a fake courtship, Simon can deter the mamas who parade their daughters before him. Daphne, meanwhile, will see her prospects and her reputation soar.
The plan works like a charm—at first. But amid the glittering, gossipy, cut-throat world of London’s elite, there is only one certainty: love ignores every rule…
After binge-watching Bridgerton on Netflix, how could I resist reading the book that inspired the series? I’m not a big romance reader, and when I do read romance, it tends to be contemporary. But giving into my Bridgerton obsession, I dove into The Duke & I, and finished it in one day!
First, for the TV viewers: No, this is not an integrated society as in the Netflix series. The Duke & I is pretty traditional Regency-era romance, dukes and earls and the gossip of the ton, very solidly white. (Not in my imagination, of course — once you’ve encountered the TV version of Simon Bassett, there’s no way you’ll ever envision him as anyone else!)
Back to the book: The Duke & I has a very traditional romance feel to it, and let’s keep in mind that it was originally published 20 years ago! Daphne Bridgerton is the 4th child of the large Bridgerton family, which very conveniently names its children alphabetically, so it’s easy to keep track of who’s who. The oldest daughter, Daphne is now in her second season out in society, and while she’s received marriage proposals, not a single one has appealed to her. Having grown up with three older brothers, Daphne is perhaps too comfortable with the males of the species, so she’s seen as a great girl and a good friend, but not a romantic prospect. (Men can be stupid.)
Simon, the new Duke of Hastings, is the epitome of eligible bachelors, and “ambitious mamas” are continuously throwing their marriageable daughters at him. Simon is very good friends with Daphne’s oldest brother Anthony, and when he encounters Daphne dealing with an insistent suitor, he’s happy to come to her aid. The two form an agreement: By pretending to be courting, Simon will avoid the mamas, and Daphne will become instantly more alluring to other men, who will now appreciate her more after seeing Simon’s interest. (Again, men can be stupid).
Of course, their fake relationship leads to real feelings, but there’s a catch. Simon has sworn never to marry or have children, as a sort of posthumous revenge on his abusive father who treated Simon horribly and only cared about the continuation of the Basset family line. Simon has sworn to deny his late father’s ultimate goal by letting the family name die with him. Daphne, on the other hand, having grown up in a large, loving family, yearns for a family of her own.
After a compromising encounter, a duel, threats by her brothers, and all sorts of drama, Daphne and Simon do end up marrying. But while their honeymoon is a blissful sexual awakening for Daphne, all is not wine and roses. Simon has told Daphne that he can’t have children, but when she discovers that his “can’t” really means “won’t”, their young marriage in on the brink of collapse.
Okay, so anyone who’s interested in the book or in the TV series knows that there a major controversy about Daphne’s action and the issue of consent. So, I’ll throw up a big spoiler alert before going further.
He shifted restlessly, and Daphne felt the strangest, most intoxicating surge of power. He was in her control, she realized. He was asleep, and probably still more than a little bit drunk, and she could do whatever she wanted with him. She could have whatever she wanted.
The most controversial scene in the book is one in which Simon comes home very drunk, after the two have had a major falling out. Daphne gets a very belated lesson on how babies are actually made, and realizes that Simon has been pulling out when they have sex in order to make sure she doesn’t become pregnant. Daphne initiates sex, and Simon, though drunk, is a willing participant, until they get close to climax, at which point Daphne does not let him pull out as usual. He feels betrayed, and leaves her.
The TV version takes away the issue of Simon being drunk, but does still have Daphne take control of the situation so that Simon can’t pull out when he wants to. Again, he feels betrayed.
If you look on Goodreads or elsewhere, there’s a lot of discussion about whether Daphne raped Simon in this scene. I have mixed feelings. The sex act itself is consensual. You could argue that Simon was too drunk to consent, but in the context of their marriage, which has included a lot of very enthusiastic sex up to this point, I think it’s hard to make the case that Simon was not a willing participant.
Was she right to force him to finish inside her? Well, no, she did take away his choice there. But I think it’s a more nuanced situation.
Daphne was utterly and completely ignorant about sex prior to her marriage. She had absolutely no idea about the specifics of having babies, other than knowing that it happens during marriage. Daphne’s mother Violet comes to give her “the talk” the night before the wedding, and completely fails to give her any actual, specific information. No mention of body parts or anatomy, no discussion of how it all works, and nothing about how babies are made.
It’s only a housemaid’s random comment about “seed” and a “womb” that lead Daphne to start piecing things together, and to understand that Simon is choosing to “spill” his seed outside her (ugh, romance euphemisms). She feel betrayed by Simon, who let her believe that he was physically unable to father children, rather than explaining anything to her with honesty. And Simon absolutely knew that Daphne was clueless about how it all worked — he does a very good job of introducing her to sexual pleasure, but deliberately doesn’t explain things to her that would work against his own intentions.
So, yes, Daphne is wrong to do what she did — but Simon is wrong too, and Daphne’s mother essentially created the potential for this conflict by allowing her daughter to enter marriage with no knowledge about “the marital act” whatsoever.
Beyond all that, however, I can’t deny that The Duke & I was a compelling and enjoyable read. The characters are lots of fun, especially Daphne’s older brothers, who are fiercely protective and also very funny.
As I mentioned, I’m not much of a romance reader, and some of the descriptions and language are a bit over the top for me:
His face was quite simply perfection. It took only a moment to realize that he put all of Michelangelo’s statues to shame.
Her legs snaked around his, pulling him ever closer to the cradle of her femininity.
LOL. Cradle of femininity? That’s definitely a new one for me!
Still, there’s no denying I enjoyed this book, problematic issues aside. There’s a lot of fault to go around, and also, this book was written 20 years ago. I’d hope that a writer today would make different choices about how to depict Daphne and Simon’s key conflict.
As a fan of the TV version, I missed all of the non-Daphne, non-Simon plot elements concerning Eloise, the brothers, etc. But, as far as I can tell, these plots are all addressed in other books in the Bridgertons series. Eight books, eight siblings… each gets their own story!
Will I continue reading the Bridgertons books? Well… who am I kidding? Of course I will! As much as this isn’t my preferred genre, I do love the characters and want to read more about them. Onward!