Monday, November 25, 2019

An Offer from a Gentleman: Cinderella and Class Politics

Kat's back with part 3 of the Let's Talk About the Bridgertons series. Buckle up, let's look into Sophie and Benedict's story. Enjoy!

Need to catch up?

An Offer from a Gentleman: Cinderella and Class Politics

Content note: Brief mention of sexual assault, description of physical child abuse.

What happened last time: Anthony (Bridgerton Sibling 1) and Kate (the older sister of the season’s Incomparable) overcame Anthony being an aloof asshole because he was afraid of dying at 38 (and also an arranged marriage via bee sting) to have a HEA.

Injecting fairytale elements into romance novels is not new. Most of our favorite romance novels could even fall into the category of fairy tales, as no one ever has diarrhea, orgasms are usually accompanied by fireworks of some description, and conflicts arise and resolve in ~300 pages. In general, I like seeing authors take a well-known story and spin it into something new, like a movie remake, but less terrible.

Who asked for this?

The third book in the Bridgerton series, An Offer from a Gentleman, is Quinn’s version of Cinderella that follows more in line with Ever After than the 1950 Disney classic. Our heroine, Sophie Bennett, is more active than OG Cinderella and she makes choices and takes actions that further her own story, rather than waiting for things to happen to her.

We first meet Sophie as a child, learning that she is the “natural child” (aka, legal bastard) of the Earl of Penwood, who comes to live on her father’s estate when her mother dies and grandmother can no longer care for her. She’s neglected by her father as she grows up, but treated well enough by the staff of the estate; she dwells in an ambiguous space, where she is not a daughter of the house, but neither is she a servant. When her father marries a woman with two daughters of her own, her new stepmother, Araminta, informs Sophie that she knows of Sophie’s heritage and hates her for it. After the death of her father, Sophie’s status is formally relegated to the servant class and with no real options elsewhere, she spends a few years after her majority as ladies’ maid to Araminta and stepsisters, Rosamund and Posey. As with Ever After, one stepsister (Posey) is nicer to Sophie than the others, and is also portrayed as less attractive (Quinn certainly hasn’t embraced a body positive movement outlook in her writing; fatphobia infiltrates the whole series).

The “royal ball” is just a party at the Bridgerton House in London, a masquerade celebration for Violet Bridgerton’s birthday. The other staff help Sophie dress up and get her to the party, where she meets Benedict (Bridgerton brother #2). From Benedict’s perspective, his only distinction is to be the tallest Bridgerton sibling; he feels otherwise overshadowed by his other brothers and large family in general. Thus, he is excited by the prospect of Sophie, who at first doesn’t know who he is, and who is also #NotLikeOtherGirls because she doesn’t know how to behave in society (she can’t even dance!). The clock strikes midnight and Sophie runs away after an amazing kiss with Benedict, never to be seen again.

Years pass and the story picks up again when Sophie is now working as a governess in a country house for a nice couple with an abominable son (he’d fit in with Brett Kavanaugh’s crowd). She encounters Benedict at a house party thrown by the son; Benedict is leaving (in disgust, I guess/hope) and Sophie is trying to avoid further molestation by some of the other guests (there are earlier depictions of smaller, but still enraging, sexual assaults). Benedict saves her and tells her that he’ll get her a position in his mother’s house in London and they leave together.

Benedict doesn’t recognize Sophie, which is a source of tension from her perspective. He’s basically infatuated with the Lady in Silver, but doesn’t realize she’s right in front of him. How could he - Sophie’s a servant! They spend some time at Benedict’s own cottage after getting caught in a rainstorm and Sophie helps nurse him back to health. He begins to lust after her; she’s carried a torch for him all these years, too. This leads Benedict to offer Sophie the position of his mistress (isn’t that what any lady wants to hear?). I’m not sure if that’s the titular offer from a gentleman, or if the title refers to the eventual marriage proposal.

Sophie refuses Benedict’s offer. Not only does she not want to be a kept woman, but she’s also concerned about getting pregnant, and bringing a kid into the world who would have the same experience she did growing up. Benedict is not pleased by this response. He gets really angry and it’s hard for me to understand why Quinn thought this was a good look. Benedict super pouts because a lady he wants to sleep with won’t sleep with him. Even if she didn’t have “legitimate reasons” (which she totally does), it’s super shitty of Benedict to act so affronted that she doesn’t want to bone him.

Eventually Benedict finds out that Sophie = Lady in Silver, which pisses him off even more. Sophie gets arrested on Araminta’s claim that Sophie stole some jewelry when she left home, and Benedict comes to her rescue again, claiming that they’re engaged, and I guess there’s a HEA. Other than overcoming extreme douchiness, Benedict’s character arc is his acceptance that he arts good and that can be a place to stand out (and as we hear in the next book, one of his paintings ends up in a museum gallery, so he’s talented by some standard) and his acceptance that he won’t be able to hang out in proper society much with a low-born wife. Truly heroic stuff.

The Titular Offer

There are a few different conflicts in this book: (1) how will Benedict and Sophie find each other after the masked ball; (2) how will Benedict recognize Sophie after mooning over the Lady in Silver for literal years; (3) will Sophie accept Benedict’s offer to be his mistress; (4) will Benedict get his head out of his ass and see that Sophie can choose her own course in life; (5) will Sophie actually put up with Benedict’s bullshit to have a HEA.

I’m not actually sure what the offer of the title refers to - is it Benedict’s side chick offer to Sophie, or is it his offer of marriage (which isn’t so much an offer as Benedict claiming Sophie as his fiancee to get her out of prison)? I don’t think this is an insignificant question, because Quinn uses the title to spotlight it. If the offer is to be Benedict’s mistress, then knowing what we know about Sophie’s background and attitudes, the title seems kind of sarcastic: An “Offer” from a “Gentleman.” What kind of good guy would say, “hey, because your social station is below mine and there’s no way I would legitimize our relationship, how about I spend a bunch of money to keep you in a fuck house so I have access to sex whenever I like? Where is the downside here?”

The offer, from Benedict’s perspective, is totally normal. All of the men in the series seem to have major fuckboi energy (except for Phillip, who’s got a little incel aura), and they’ve all got mistresses stuffed in various apartments throughout London (it sounds like the Bridgerton men are single-handedly funding the demimonde). But from Sophie’s perspective, it’s pretty insulting. Now, there’s nothing wrong with sex work. And if Sophie was actually “low-born” (aka, not raised as the quasi-daughter of an earl), this would actually be a good arrangement for her. She could live well for a few years, get a bunch of money that she could wisely invest and live off the interest for the rest of her life. What girl could want more in Regency London?

Setting aside the class politics aspect (which I go into further in the next section), the offer is shitty because Benedict doesn’t listen to Sophie at all. She has legit concerns about bearing illegitimate children and Benedict just brushes those off. (How could she deny Benedict cock for such petty protestations?)  He even thinks about and attempts to seduce her into changing her mind. He’s really only interested in getting his dick wet with Sophie, which also seems in contradiction to his Undying Love for the Lady in Silver (Benedict wants to bone Sophie even before he knows who she actually is).

So this continues the trend of having male MCs who are not actually good guys. Benedict is a pretty big dbag. Not only for the offer and for continuing to push Sophie to accept it, but because he installs her in service at his mother’s house, then uses his higher social position to importune her further. He could easily have her fired from her post for refusing him. Tbh, I’m surprised he doesn’t during his giant temper tantrum. Considering all the work Quinn did to try to make Anthony more relatable in The Viscount Who Loved Me, Benedict gets no favors from his characterization.

Not Seen or Heard: Where is the Lower Class?

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that Quinn’s focus is on specific categories of people: white, straight, cis. Even though the Bridgerton family is only at the Viscount level (the lowest in the titled hierarchy: King, Duke, Marquis/Marquess, Earl/Count, Viscount), they’ve apparently got a lot of money and as an old family, they still enjoy a pretty high status in society. So our perspective is mostly from the top; we only rarely see or hear from anyone below nobility.

Yet, it’s also not a mystery how the people in the Bridgerton universe feel about people in lower social classes. They are generally disposable and interchangeable. Their lives and feelings don’t matter. The only ones who can break through are the ones who matter to the plot. For example, for a couple weeks, Sophie acts as ladies’ maid for Eloise and Hyacinth, and is invited to tea each afternoon. She participates in the tea by drinking tea and eating biscuits, but she also always has something to do, like mending or other women’s work. Violet notes that Sophie shouldn’t feel obligated to do that, but it’s clear that Sophie wants to keep at least some class barriers intact (wanting to remember she is not a lady of the house).

There are occasional housekeepers and butlers who are named, like the woman who practically raised Simon in The Duke and I. But I had to go back and check what the Bridgertons’ butler’s name is (Wickham) because he is such a background character.

[Mild spoilers for To Sir Phillip, With Love]

Besides the kindly domestic helpers, the other category of named servants are those who are awful. A good example of this is Nurse Edwards in To Sir Phillip, With Love. Nurse Edwards is the woman in charge of wrangling Phillip’s ill-behaved children, Amanda and Oliver, a thankless role if there ever was one. And of course I don’t condone child abuse (of course), but Nurse Edwards (no first name) is depicted as a two-dimensional villain. No one likes her, the children actively despise her, and Phillip walks into a scene where she’s beating the children on their back with a book. So, not a good person.

I don’t think Quinn meant Nurse Edwards to be a referendum on the serving class, but she is one of very few examples and she’s sort of a monster. Juxtaposed with Sophie, Nurse Edwards embodies all the stereotypical qualities of those in service (from the perspective of the ruling class): scheming, hateful, manipulative, uncaring, unfeeling. Sophie, on the other hand, is depicted as all goodness and light. And further, she escapes - she marries up into the ruling class (the capitalist’s dream!).

Another example of problematic class dynamics in the series is Portia Featherington, the matriarch of the Featherington family. While she is still in the Bridgertons’ social circle, it’s obvious she has less money, and as we hear in Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, she expects to live out her life in quiet circumstances, being nursed by Penelope. So even though she is “one of them,” she is still set apart, and that is partially due to her financial straits. The other part, of course, is that she’s a ninny (did the name give it away?). She’s a huge gossip, she’s not very bright, and she’s not very nice to Penelope. I’m not arguing that Portia’s character is driven purely by her somewhat-lower-class station, but she is one of the few people of this slightly underclass we see in the series, and thus, we don’t have much to go on to draw conclusions.

In closing, I think Quinn does pretty good at re-interpreting Cinderella into An Offer from a Gentleman (though I’m still not quite sure which offer that refers to). As my refrain goes, I just wish Benedict was less of a tool. Sophie is very sweet and Benedict gets big mad about how she won’t have sex with him. How does he deserve her? He definitely would not get the title of Prince Charming.

That title belongs only to Richard Madden and his brilliant blue eyes.

The fairytale of Cinderella focuses on a woman happily doing enormous amounts of domestic work (or at least faking the happy), who lucks into a HEA because she’s mysterious and the Prince is horny. I guess the message is “You too can be lifted out of poverty and drudgery by happenstance and then be waited on by people like you!” I mean, you have to be really sweet, and sing with birds, and make tiny clothes for mice. But really anyone can do that.

Basically, let’s just overthrow capitalism.  

Ok, I didn’t intend to end like this, but here we are.

Next time, we’ll peek into the misogyny that undergirds the series (and so much of romance, unfortunately).

~ Kat

An Offer from a Gentleman by Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon (August 25, 2015) Latest ebook publication; originally published 2001
Series: Bridgertons, 3
Genre: Historical Romance (M/F)

Will she accept his offer before the clock strikes midnight?

Sophie Beckett never dreamed she'd be able to sneak into Lady Bridgerton's famed masquerade ball—or that "Prince Charming" would be waiting there for her! Though the daughter of an earl, Sophie has been relegated to the role of servant by her disdainful stepmother. But now, spinning in the strong arms of the debonair and devastatingly handsome Benedict Bridgerton, she feels like royalty. Alas, she knows all enchantments must end when the clock strikes midnight.

Who was that extraordinary woman? Ever since that magical night, a radiant vision in silver has blinded Benedict to the attractions of any other—except, perhaps this alluring and oddly familiar beauty dressed in housemaid's garb whom he feels compelled to rescue from a most disagreeable situation. He has sworn to find and wed his mystery miss, but this breathtaking maid makes him weak with wanting her. Yet, if he offers his heart, will Benedict sacrifice his only chance for a fairy tale love?

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Thanks for the discussion, Kat! *

If you missed part 2, you can find it HERE.

Stay tuned for part 4!


Until Next Time,

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