As I’m sure many did, I binged the entirety of Bridgerton in just a couple of days. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last two months, Bridgerton is a Netflix original TV series set in Regency London and follows eight alphabetically named siblings and their romantic exploits. The first season, which premiered on Netflix in December, follows Daphne Bridgerton. The series is based on the similarly named book series by Julia Quinn, and the first season is based on the first book, The Duke and I. I had a fun time watching the show and being an avid reader, I had the foresight to put a hold on the first three Bridgerton books at my local library. The hold came in in January, and I immediately started reading them.
After watching the show, I knew that the first book was going to be problematic, and went into it with low expectations. It certainly did have issues, but, since I knew that, I largely glossed over the issues I had. I heard great things about the second book, The Viscount Who Loved Me, so I forged ahead. The book featured the enemies-to-lovers trope, which is one of my favorites, as well as a witty and fairly spunky female character. I knew going in that Anthony (the titular viscount) was pretty sexist; in the TV series and in the first book, he had little regard for Daphne’s opinion or point of view. However, I was looking forward to a tale of Anthony Bridgerton learning to drink his respect women juice, and fall in love with an independent woman.
What I got was … not that. This time, I could not ignore the outright misogyny from our supposed romantic heroes. In The Duke and I, Simon has many a sexist moment, including one where he feels the need to remind Daphne, “I own you.” Anthony turns out to be no better. In The Viscount Who Loved Me, when Kate asks that they wait a week to consummate their marriage, Anthony’s response is, “I don’t like being denied my rights.” The sexism from the male characters plagued the books and was met with a weak attempt at white feminism that consisted solely of women making comments about women really being smarter than men.
In a big way, the misogyny was a huge downfall of the books (and I will personally fight anyone who cries “period accurate”). You cannot have men making degrading comments towards women and make me as a reader feel good about the romance he has with a woman. Not to mention that all of the sex scenes (in both books) boiled down to controlling, dominant alpha males defiling innocent, virginal women. Which is just … bleh, and also the most boring possible take you could have on heterosexual sex.
Most importantly, the writing in both books was truly not good. None of the character arcs were believable. Although it was clear that Quinn spent a lot of time giving her characters flaws to make them well-rounded, the constructed nature of those flaws was also glaringly obvious. None of it felt natural; instead, it felt like she was shoving it in the reader’s face. And on top of all of this, the thing that romance readers are there for, the romance, was bad. It has taken me a long time to figure out exactly why it was bad, but I think I finally got it. Quinn put a lot of page time into developing the sexual chemistry of the leads, and not enough page time with the romantic chemistry. As a result, the only emotional payoff happens halfway through the book when the couple has sex for the first time. By the time they truly confess their love for each other at the end of the book, there is not any emotional payoff because there was not enough emotional build-up within the romance in the first place. She was too focused on writing sexual tension, and not focused enough on yearning, which is what I want as a romance reader.
I was so frustrated by the writing that I could not finish the third book in the series. By that point, I just could not ignore the poor writing anymore; it all got on my nerves. (If you want to get into it further, the third book is a Cinderella retelling; and while I am not opposed to fairytale retellings it seemed like an odd premise to plop into the middle of an already-developed series. But I digress). Needless to say, I did not get very far in the eight-book series.
I also had the pleasure of learning later that Julia Quinn has basically said in this interview she does not like writing diversity into her books because then her white characters would have to be racist for historical accuracy, and she wants to think of her characters as good people. Because if she makes them not racist, she has to “come up with a good explanation” for why they are not racist. As well as plenty of other questionable things about race. So, you know, not necessarily someone I am personally huge on supporting. Granted, that statement really makes me understand why she writes her men so horribly.
However, I still love a good period romance, and there’s a good chance you might still have that itch to scratch after watching Bridgerton. So here are some other books that you can try instead:
A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Murder by Dianne Freeman
Countess Frances Wynn is a young widow, but you will not see her complaining. Her late husband was horrible. So horrible in fact, that he died while in bed with his mistress. Frances is moving on by renting a house in London and planning to escort her younger sister through the London society season. But trouble brews when it becomes apparent that a member of London society is stealing jewels, and Frances is being accused of murdering her late husband! Can she successfully clear her name, find the thief and fend off her sister’s suitors at the same time? She’ll have to forge ahead with the help of her charming sister, her business-savvy aunt and her handsome new neighbor. This is sure to be a season to remember!
This Victorian mystery reminded me a lot of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and is loads of fun. You get a mystery, the drama of the London season and suitors and a light romance on the side. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which is the first in a series, and cannot wait to read the rest! I would definitely recommend this series, especially if you would like a period setting, but a lighter romance.
Trigger warnings: death, guns
Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins
Rhine Fontaine has built a life in Nevada by passing for white. But when he meets the beautiful, fiery Eddy Carmichael by rescuing her from the desert, he is willing to throw it all away for her. Eddy is grateful to Rhine, and cannot ignore the chemistry between them, but she is planning to move to California as soon as she can, and does not want to throw it all away for him. Where will their reckless and forbidden entanglement take them?
I first have to admit that I have not actually read this one yet, but I have only heard great things. With over forty books, Beverly Jenkins is one of the most prolific Black romance writers — probably one of the most prolific romance writers, period. Her books all center on Black people, and as a former research librarian, she is famous for weaving Black history into all of her books. Although Forbidden is the first book in her Old West series, she has many different historical romance series, all set in different time periods, so there is plenty to choose from!
To Love and to Loathe by Martha Waters (Out April 6th, 2021)
Widowed Lady Diana Templeton is very much enjoying her life. Having inherited her late husband’s fortune, she is allowed the freedom of a widowed woman and has no intention of remarrying. It also allows her to do things like banter and make bets with the infamous bachelor Marquess of Willingham. Bets where she insists that he will marry within the year. So she is incredibly surprised when he soon after approaches her with a different kind of arrangement. After a recent tryst criticized his skills in the bedroom he wants Diana’s … assurance. Someone has to lose the bet, but they both might lose their hearts.
This regency romance made me extremely happy. I received an advanced reader’s copy from the publisher in January, and I was actually dreading reading another regency romance after disliking the Bridgerton books so much, but I absolutely loved it! It is a fantastic story of enemies-to-friends with benefits-to-lovers The banter was simply exceptional, and both the characters and the romance were incredibly strong. And despite the set-up, it is actually light on the smut. If you want a regency romance with modern sensibilities, this is definitely the one I would recommend you pick up.
Trigger warnings: mentions of death
Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance by Jennieke Cohen
This young adult, Regency-set novel follows Vicky, a young lady whose parents decide she must marry when her older sister’s husband turns out to be a scoundrel. Vicky, fiercely independent and an ardent Austen lover, is armed with high standards for her future husband and wants to marry for love. Unfortunately, her only eligible option seems to be a man who may or may not be responsible for all the dangerous events befalling her lately. And then there is the matter of her childhood best friend Tom, who has ignored her for the last ten years but has recently returned from the continent. Finding danger in both scoundrels and suitors, Vicky must use her wits and instincts to save her family’s estate and ensure she is alive for her wedding day.
Overall, this book is pretty fun. The conflict with the “eligible suitors” kind of got to me, both of them were being stupid, and I was not totally sold on the romance at the end; I would have liked more of a redemption arc. However, if you are looking for a modern take on a regency romance, then this is one I would recommend.
Trigger warnings: death, spousal abuse, guns, robbers, physical violence, vehicle crash
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzie Lee
The promiscuous Henry “Monty” Montague is embarking on his grand tour of Europe. Joined by his best friend and long-time crush Percy, as well as his obnoxious and smarter-than-him younger sister Felicity, Monty’s journey across Europe is filled with adventures and shenanigans of every kind.
This is an absolutely hilarious young adult historical fiction novel, featuring a bisexual protagonist. It is literally such a fun read, and is a breath of fresh air to read a diverse historical fiction novel. In the spirit of disclosure, I think there are a few things worth mentioning. First, Lee herself is bisexual, and therefore this is an OwnVoices book. OwnVoices is a term used to describe character representation when the author shares the same marginalized identities. But it’s also important to note that she has come under quite a bit of backlash for another book (which will no longer be published) that was marketed as a female/female romance, when in actuality one of the characters was a trans man. So you can use your own personal judgment on whether or not you actually want to read her books.
Trigger warnings: domestic abuse, guns, epilepsy, alcoholism, sexism, racism, ableism, violence, major injuries, explosion, homophobia
Good old Jane Austen
In the end, if you really want an Austen-style romance, your best bet is to just read the incomparable Austen. It is definitely harder to read and may take you longer, but it is well worth it.
I really wish this list were less white and less straight, so I do apologize on that front. If you are interested in more books that fit this theme and are more diverse, you can also check out An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole (Black leads), The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite (sapphic romance), A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee (Chinese main character) and The Spinster and the Rake by Eva Devon (Autistic-coded character).