It is 2018 and we are, at long last, back to our favorite parlor game: reading the beloved romances of all time, and writing long, somewhat tortured essays about them!
Today's book is the 2006 regency classic THE DUKE AND I, the first installment in Julia Quinn's beloved Bridgerton series.
There was one thing I absolutely loved about this book and one thing I absolutely hated and they both concerned one rich, age-old topic:
The Getting of Babies.
Children, and whether or not to have them, is the central theme of this book, and the plot is fairly simple: Daphne Bridgerton wants to marry the nice boy she has fallen in love with (a charming, sweet Duke by the name of Simon), but he cannot have children and she wants to be a mother. She is sad about this conundrum but decides Simon is enough for her and marries him anyway, despite his misgivings about not being able to give her the life she wants. And then, a few weeks after they are married, she finds out that he actually can have children but doesn't want to. She becomes very angry at him for the verbal shenanigans that led to this misunderstanding, and they have several terrible fights about it and it nearly ruins their relationship.
The root of Simon's desire not to have a child is one we have seen in many a romance novel: he believes perpetuating the family name will vindicate the abusive father who tortured and rejected him. But if his reasons for avoiding parenthood are standard romance novel fare, his palpable sense of suffocation at the notion of becoming a father is not.
This is the part that I loved.
Julia Quinn is beloved for her musical, witty, light-as-air dialogue, but a quieter gift of this book is the realism with which she portrays Simon’s inchoate dread at the thought of having kids. Daphne Bridgeton’s desire to have a child is treated just as sympathetically. Daphne comes from a large, loving family and keenly desires one of her own. It is her dream to be a mother, and the expected occupation for a woman of her station, and when Simon tells her, before they marry, that he cannot have children, she is heartbroken. She must make a choice that many men and women in our own modern age must make all the time: do I want this person, or a child, more?
When Daphne chooses Simon, it is easy to feel that her choice comes with as much loss as joy. It is the stuff of Modern Love columns and dating podcasts and subtly observed literary novels set in certain parts of Brooklyn. I am a massive sucker for historical romance novels that look at modern problems through the lens of the past, and I was moved by this portrayal of two lovers genuinely wanting to preserve the other's happiness, but finding it impossible to reconcile their own ideals and visions of family with their partner's.
How, I wondered, would Simon and Daphne resolve this seemingly intractable problem?
I knew they WOULD resolve it, of course, because that is the fun of a romance novel. The reader is guaranteed they will face this fundamental difference in values and find a way to both get what they want.
Because one of the great pleasures of romance is trying to figure out the plot once the central conflict is established, I began to weigh various outcomes in my head as soon as these two kids tied the knot.
Here are a few potential solutions:
A secret baby might show up on Simon’s doorstep, awakening his paternal urges just as he’s about to lose Daphne.
Simon's attempts at family planning (the ol' pullout method) might work imprecisely, resulting in an accidental pregnancy that will force him to face his fears whether he likes it or not.
- Daphne might start a school, or take in orphans, in an attempt to reconcile her longing for family with her husband's desire to remain childless, and find that this fulfills them both in unexpected ways.
- Simon and Daphne might talk it out and consensually come to an understanding of how they, as a deeply in love couple, will shape their family in a way that will leave them both satisfied. Together, they will decide to have a baby the old fashioned way.
Spoiler Alert: None of these things are what happens.
Instead, Daphne waits until Simon is drunk, sexes him while he is half-asleep, and physically forces him to ejaculate inside of her while he is too addled to get away.
For those following along at home: GUYS, THIS IS NOT HOW YOU GET A BABY.
Sexually coercing a drunk person is not romantic. It is also not legal.
The book depicts Daphne's act as a rebalancing of power. Because Simon took advantage of Daphne's lack of sexual education to make her think he “can’t” have children, Daphne believes herself justified in taking advantage of his temporarily powerless state in order to conceive.
There is a long-running debate about whether or not Daphne is winsome or loathsome on All About Romance, and I am firmly a vote for team Loathsome.
But I am also for team Missed Opportunity. Historical romance novels are often a way of interrogating our own modern culture, and it would have been interesting to see this very relevant problem resolved in a less troubling and more nuanced way.
In short, I wanted a happier ending.
Next week we will turn to a book I've been looking forward to rereading: Courtney Milan's THE DUCHESS WAR.
Until then, feel free to concoct ethical ways of getting or avoiding babies in the comments.
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