The Duke and I
by Julia Quinn
Some preliminaries out of the way: romance is not a genre I have a great deal of experience with, outside of romantic comedy films, but I have no prejudice against it. I do have a prejudice against aristocrats (and before you say, “But fantasy has the same problem!” I agree, and that’s why I don’t read a lot of modern fantasy any longer) and I am a bit of a history buff so certain things leaped out at me while reading this. For example, when the book begins it is 1813 and there is a rather expansive war happening in Europe and in the United States. Not a single character makes so much as a passing remark about that. One character, in fact, has just returned from six years abroad that included going to North America – although he did not specifically visit the United States in 1812-13, so that can be waved away. Another character however has just returned from the continent, where Napoleon has been a very naughty boy and the British are quite annoyed about it and many bullets and cannonballs are in flight, but you would not know it from the text.
Fair enough. This is, after all, not that kind of story. It is a romance novel, and that means it is focused entirely upon two incredibly attractive and wonderful people who belong together, but can’t be together, and how they end up together. And to be honest, Quinn does a solid job with that set-up. All the tropes are there, but they are executed fairly well and the two principals are entertaining personalities, especially during the courtship where they banter back and forth. It’s not quite Benedick and Beatrice, but it has that energy.
Our two main characters are Simon Basset and Daphne Bridgerton. Simon is the sole heir to the duchy of Hastings. He is devastatingly handsome, witty, and possessed of a dark secret: he has a stutter, which he has mostly conquered but still comes out when he is emotional. Said stutter delayed his speech as a child and led to emotional abuse and neglect from his father. Now that his father is dead, Simon has vowed never to marry and never to have (legitimate) children, having decided that the best revenge against his late father is to never carry on the family line and to let it die with him. Simon also has a reputation as a bit of a rake (a word that lost all meaning to me before the mid-point of the book), so you know he’s good in bed. Daphne Bridgerton is an understatedly beautiful woman with fierce intelligence, a quick wit, a boundless compassion, and an independent streak. She comes from a huge family, doted over by a widowed viscountess, and dominated by her older brothers. All the children have been named alphabetically, so after Anthony, Benedict and Colin comes Daphne. Why has she not been snapped up by a rich bachelor yet? It appears that she has been friend-zoned by the entire society of the ton. Daphne is so good at making friends (and has such intimidating older brothers) that no one worthwhile will approach her with a serious marriage proposal.
After the requisite meet-cute, which is rather well-staged by Quinn, Daphne and Simon hatch upon a conspiracy. They pretend to be courting in an effort to keep the vultures off of Simon and to trick the rest of London society into noticing that Daphne is quite a catch, since she drew the attention of the most eligible bachelor in the bunch. And it works! But of course along the way the two of them, who are obviously perfect for one another, fall in love. Points to Quinn for not letting either character be ignorant of this fact. Daphne in particular is all too cognizant of it while it happens. And points too for allowing the characters to be similarly intelligent about a related situation: Daphne’s older brother Anthony used to go a-raking with Simon when they were both in college and is horrified that his old wingman is now dating his sister. A lesser author, I think, would have wrung a great deal of cheap drama out of that arrangement, but Quinn has Daphne almost immediately, and rather sensibly, suggest that they just tell Anthony what is actually going on. Imagine that!
Of course drama still happens, the heroes are forced into a marriage that they both want but are afraid may not work out, and of course it works out until the twin desires of Simon for no children and Daphne for many children come to a head. Cue much heartache and the third act where the hero has to find the heroine at the train station/airport/city hall and find a way to make everything right again.
I mock, but I do so gently. I found myself legitimately enjoying the book, while also occasionally rolling my eyes at certain passages. The characters are fairly well realized, the romance develops organically, if predictably, and there are a lot of side characters providing color and commentary. I picked this book somewhat arbitrarily; I’ve seen a good deal of Austen and Austen-related material on Masterpiece Theater, and I know Bridgerton is a Netflix show based on Julia Quinn’s novels, so I thought I would be getting something of proven quality. One problem I have had in selecting a romance novel for this column is that they are on average twice the length of the average fantasy or mystery novel I read for it, but given the more sporadic nature of Paperback Punk’s publication going forward, longer books may appear in the future. I figured I would bite the bullet and give Quinn a shot. I’m glad I did.