This week I posed a question in my Instagram Stories: have other romance readers/readers of The Viscount Who Loved Me noticed that non-readers of the series/the genre seemed to enjoy Season 2 more than they did? In short, does reading the Bridgerton books ahead of time actually diminish your enjoyment of Bridgerton, the show? I received a range of fascinating responses to my question—and they really helped me think through the issues of adaptation and genre that I have been dwelling on after completing my own viewing of Season 2. In these responses, a lot of people noticed what I had initially observed: that friends/family who hadn’t read The Viscount Who Loved Me and aren’t historical romance readers seemed to enjoy the show more. However, the more I talked to people, the more complicated the picture became: some fans of The Viscount Who Loved Me adored Season 2 and some non-readers had real complaints about the plotlines and arc of the season.
My question was initially prompted by a conversation that I had with my brother. At first (over text), he told me that he loved Season 2, saying it left “a Bridgerton-shaped hole in his life” when he was done. Then, however, when we talked later, he had a lot of complaints about the love triangle and the lack of steam! He said—and I quote—“we are here for the smut!”, which was hilarious to me because my brother is very much not a romance reader and yet he was mirroring a lot of the concerns of those very familiar with the original content of The Viscount Who Loved Me. I also discussed Season 2 with a close friend of mine. While she gave the caveat that she watched “uncritically” and had the show on in the background, she nevertheless felt this season wasn’t as good as the first.
I have been trying to gauge the reactions of other Bridgerton viewers not because I am really questioning the objective quality of Season 2. While it has flaws as an adaptation and as a freestanding story, ultimately I enjoyed the eight episodes and that is a feat in and of itself. In general, I am hesitant to call entertainment I enjoy “bad”—for myself, I don’t think it is fair to call a show “bad” if I happily watch it in its entirety!! A DNF is my reaction to an aesthetic failure, not giving up eight hours of my life—at least in my opinion. (Which isn’t to say that content that I watch the entirety of can’t be many other things besides bad, such as problematic, disappointing, saccharine, cringe-worthy, etc., or that it is immune from criticism.) I think that Season 2 was a very high-quality production and that the acting by Simone Ashley and Jonathan Bailey was truly superb. And, as with last season, the racial diversity of the casting and the newly envisioned world of the show was gratifying to see and a wonderful change to the source material. For me personally, there is no doubt that I will watch Season 3.
I am so interested in hearing the reactions from my friends and family and the histrom community at large, however, because I am ultimately fascinated by what the reception of Bridgerton says about its status as an adaptation of a historical romance novel. What really keeps me thinking and talking about Bridgerton Season 2 isn’t whether I found it successful or unsuccessful as a show, but a different question altogether. Specifically, I keep asking myself: what genre does Bridgerton Season 2 belong within? Because we saw so little of Kate and Anthony together, this season seemed to me much more like a conventional romantic drama than a romance.
And this issue is really my big concern/disappointment--but also point of fascination--with Bridgerton Season 2. Julia Quinn’s original series is squarely in the historical romance genre—published by Avon, the house I always see as the high canon of historical romances modern and old school, the Bridgerton books are completely of the genre and for its readers. The show is pitched as an adaptation of these books and, last season, it seemed committed to bringing the genre to life on screen: we watched Simon and Daphne’s relationship develop with the fine-grained detail we expect from a historical romance. Bridgerton Season 2, however, felt not only more like a conventional soap opera or dramedy (how many times have we seen an engagement break down at the altar??), but also more like an actual nineteenth-century novel. For instance, there is a late nineteenth-century novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells, which has a plot with striking similarities to Season 2 of Bridgerton. In this book, a wealthy man from a prominent, aristocratic family begins to visit and socialize with a nouveau riche family in which there are two daughters. The younger daughter is the acknowledged beauty of the family and everyone assumes that the young man is there to court her. The younger daughter falls in love with him. Both families expect an engagement. Then the young man confesses his love to the bookish, acerbic older sister. The entire time he was visiting for her and not the younger sister; the older sister suspected his feelings and returned them, but had no evidence to support her intuition, especially when everyone seemed so certain he was interested in her sister. Eventually, the older sister and the young man marry, but not before the angst ratchets up to 1000 and everyone involved has endured emotional torture.
To me, on some fundamental level, Bridgerton Season 2 felt more similar to The Rise of Silas Lapham than The Viscount Who Loved Me. And I felt this way not because of any particular scene being left out or any one change, but because of the tone of the whole. The level of angst, the deep emotional inhibition of Kate and Anthony, and most of all the scanty development of their relationship echoed actual nineteenth-century novels more than contemporary historical romances. I love The Rise of Silas Lapham! But it is not a historical romance. And I think this conflict crystallizes my central gripe with Season 2: I want to see historical romances adapted for the screen and Season 2 just did not feel enough like one to me. Bridgerton fans who liked Season 2 say that you have to separate the book and the show and see them as different in order to enjoy both—and I think this perspective is very smart, sound advice. I can totally see the show as a very enjoyable separate entity with characters who are similar to but not the same as those in The Viscount Who Loved Me.
However, that said, I think the reason that many Bridgerton fans and historical romance readers have been so dissatisfied with Season 2 is not because the show changed aspects of the original plot and characters to translate its arc onto the screen—but because the show runners kind of ended up adapting The Viscount Who Loved Me out of the historical romance genre altogether. To me, Season 2 felt disturbingly close to a steamier version of a Jane Austen adaptation (I mean, Jane Austen would never tolerate sister v. sister for her central protagonists, but I digress). Really, it was a Jane Austen-esque conflict with heightened dramatic stakes and a bonus sex scene. And I love Jane Austen and would actually love to see one of her books adapted with a really erotic bent (like the most recent adaptation of Emma x 10), but such a production would still be fundamentally different from a historical romance. Historical romance is a genre that consciously presents its chosen time period to mirror the concerns of contemporary readers, especially its sexual and gender politics. Novels by Austen and other nineteenth-century realist writers aim to depict and comment on their society and its central concerns as they actually existed, at least in the mind of their creators. In the end, I think Season 1 of Bridgerton delivered as an adaptation of a historical romance novel, but I’m not sure that Season 2 did. That doesn’t mean that Season 2 wasn’t enjoyable or valuable, but, as someone who loves the genre and is eager to see it adapted for the screen, I was disappointed.
As always, I am very curious to hear the thoughts of others!