Monday, February 17, 2020

To Sir Phillip with Love: You’ve Got Mail in the 19th Century

Kat's back with part 5 of the Let's Talk About the Bridgertons series. Buckle up, let's look into Eloise and Phillip's story. Enjoy!

Need to catch up?

To Sir Phillip with Love: You’ve Got Mail in the 19th Century

Contains spoilers for for Saw 3 and Saw 4 (it makes sense, I promise).

Content note for brief mention of depression and suicide; discussion of sexual assault.

What happened last time: Penelope (aka Lady Whistledown) was able to see past Colin’s (Bridgerton Sibling 3) professional jealousy and sexual possessiveness to allow him to remain in her life, providing sexual services and occasional witty banter while she continued to be excellent.

To Sir Phillip with Love and Romancing Mr. Bridgerton are sort of like Saw 3 and Saw 4. Not in the elaborate-death-traps way, but more in the way that when you get to the end of Saw 4, you realize that the two movies are happening at the same time and place and it’s mind-blowing (literally in one case). Right before the big reveal of Penelope’s alter ego, Eloise Bridgerton (Bridgerton #5) disappears. She’s planned her getaway very carefully and hares off to parts unknown as we’re getting to the climax of Romancing Mr. Bridgerton.

When we get to her story, To Sir Phillip with Love, we understand what Eloise has been doing with all that correspondence. Just, you know, corresponding with people. One of those people is the titular Sir Phillip Crane, the widowed husband of Eloise’s late cousin, Marina (discussed in Part One of this series). What started off as a condolence letter morphed into a casual acquaintance then a friendship, and Eloise is startled when Phillip pops the big question. Eloise always assumed that she’d grow old together with Penelope (I think we’d all like to see that story), but since Penelope’s hooked up with Colin, Eloise feels at loose ends. So she decides to go on an adventure and just see if she and Phillip would suit. And she basically walks into a minefield.

Phillip Crane’s first wife, Marina, was not a happy person. From the prologue, it sounds like she was always that way. I recounted the events of Marina’s death in Part One, but briefly, she attempts to end her life, and then she inadvertently succeeds, leaving Phillip with the care of his two children (Amanda and Oliver) on a rather isolated country estate. So when Eloise writes and then continues writing to Phillip, what began as a pro forma interaction becomes to Phillip one of the few sources of pleasurable social interactions. It’s an impulsive decision to ask Eloise to marry him, but it sounds like he’s also more concerned with finding someone to wrangle his unruly children than find an equal partner.

I know that authors may not have a lot of control over the blurbs that go with the novels. The publisher (and whoever else) thought that this story was one of disrupted expectations:

Sir Phillip Crane knew that Eloise Bridgerton was a spinster, and so he’d proposed, figuring that she’d be homely and unassuming, and more than a little desperate for an offer of marriage. Except… she wasn’t…. Eloise Bridgerton couldn’t marry a man she had never met! But then she started thinking… and wondering… and before she knew it, she was in a hired carriage in the middle of the night, on her way to meet the man she hoped might be her perfect match. Except… he wasn’t.

Messing with expectations, both the characters’ and the readers’ expectations, can be a great way to craft a story. But with this description, there’s a little too much romanticization. As with the four previous male protagonists in this series, Phillip is… a dick. Not even kind of one - he’s a whole dick. He expects that Eloise would be so grateful for his offer and that she’d be subservient and eager to take care of his hellion children. None of these turn out to be the case, of course. Eloise doesn’t need to marry, she generally speaks her mind, and doesn’t have that much experience with children, though eventually she tries a newfangled idea called “treating them like people” to good effect.

I’ll say straight out that I do not think Phillip is a good match for Eloise. He absolutely does not deserve her. In fact, for a while it seems as though the only thing they have in common is sexual chemistry, but that could be explained by Phillip’s incel-ness and Eloise’s lack of experience. Maybe if Eloise had found herself a discreet rake (or a certain lady friend…) her curiosity and appetite would have been whet (whetted?). Putting that aside, though, there are some themes in this book that can speak to dating and sex today.

Matchmaking Through Text - Is It Genuine?

An early research idea I had when I was a baby grad student was to determine whether women could, in an online dating situation, pick out who was a potential predator. Like, I had this plan to somehow construct an artificial OKCupid setup where women would check out a handful of men’s profiles, and based on the information in the profiles, select which one was most likely to be Ted Bundy. The project didn’t get off the ground for a variety of reasons, but I still feel it’s a valid question - particularly when we have reality shows centering on how good people can catfish.

How authentic are we when our existence is curated? There’s a lot of personality research examining how accurately people portray themselves on social media (mixed results - some people are genuine, some people aren’t), and lots of social psychology research investigating the effects of seeing others’ Instagram or Snapchats and comparing ourselves to them. Basically, it’s a blessing and a curse. With great technology comes great responsibility, etc.

The concept of hooking up with someone from afar is certainly not new to Romanclandia - there’s a whole subgenre of mail order bride stories (primarily set in the U.S. West in the mid 19th century). They feature women who are trying to escape from something or someone, or who want a different life, or who just don’t want to grow old alone, and men who want someone to perform domestic and/or sexual labor, or provide childcare. Of course it’s set up as utilitarian, but then they fall in love and that’s what romance is all about, right?

So Phillip’s and Eloise’s conversation through letters begins with Eloise sending a note expressing her sadness at her cousin Marina’s death. Then they just keep writing. Phillip is also a botanist, so he talks a lot about flowers. We’ve learned that Eloise is a faithful correspondent, and she writes to literally anyone (whether or not they reply). It’s probably not that they’re misrepresenting themselves and that leads to their subverted expectations. They just don’t talk about the important stuff. I think we do that often now. Life is depressing (the world is depressing) so we’d rather focus on not-serious things or things that don’t necessarily matter when you’re trying to make a decision of whether to legally bind yourself to another person for the rest of your natural life.

Regardless of how well Phillip and Eloise portray themselves on the page, when they finally meet in person, it feels like meeting a stranger. They don’t really know how to act around each other, and Phillip is definitely rusty from not having much interaction with people of his same class for quite some time. And then, rather than letting the two possible lovebirds figure things out for themselves, Quinn has the Brothers Bridgerton show up to muck everything up (with fisticuffs included, naturally). So Phillip and Eloise have to navigate their relationship (now a fait a compli because of pressure from Anthony) and eventual marriage under the watchful eyes of the family.

This… Isn’t Very Romantic

*Content note: Descriptions of assault from text*

One thing that I’m extremely curious about in Phillip’s portrayal is that Quinn basically… tells us Phillip is a rapist? Like, from Phillip’s perspective, we hear his description of how he was with Marina:

She had not refused him, but nor had she taken part in his lovemaking.  She’d just lain there, doing nothing, her head turned to the side, her eyes open, barely blinking.  It was almost as if she hadn’t been there at all. 
He’d left feeling soiled, morally corrupt, as if he’d somehow violated her, even though she had never uttered the word no.

So… wtf? Not only do we get a nice little rape myth there (lack of consent still = assault, even if the person doesn’t say no!), but because this is from Phillip’s perspective, it centers his feelings. He felt morally corrupt and soiled. Let’s definitely be sympathetic to Phillip, rather than Marina, who was severely depressed (probably exacerbated via postpartum depression and maybe even postpartum psychosis) and who literally has no voice.

But Eloise is different! She’s definitely interested in sex, and part of Phillip’s internal conflict that he needs to get past is being sexual with someone who is sexually agentic, I guess. I… it’s a choice. It’s definitely a choice. I mean, Phillip goes on to say that after that night, he never touched Marina sexually again, but he also says:

He behaved like an animal, desperately trying to rouse in her some sort - any sort - of response.  When that had proven impossible, he’d grown angry with her, wanted to punish her.  And that had terrified him. 
He’d been too rough.  He didn’t think he’d hurt her, but he hadn’t been gentle.  And he never wanted to see that side of himself again.

So, good start there, not wanting to terrorize your spouse again. Phillip’s also got baggage from his abusive father, which also provides some inner conflict of “what if I’m just as abusive?” and tbh, Phillip, mate, it’s definitely a concern. Especially given the way Phillip handles his children.

Parenting and Gender Role Expectations

So I know this is set in 1824, but the reliance on traditional gender roles in parenting was grating. If Phillip were on Twitter today, he’d definitely be a dude who wants congratulations for “babysitting” his kids, or “helping out” by entertaining them for an hour. Amanda and Oliver are definitely awful. Von Trapp kids at the beginning of The Sound of Music awful. There’s even a setup where their machinations lead to Eloise falling down the stairs and getting banged up pretty bad. But considering how they grew up - a depressed mom who couldn’t spend a lot of time with them or take care of them and an absentee father who left them in the care of staff - it’s not unreasonable that to them, any attention is good attention.

It may be a little gauche to compare a book published in 2003 with one published in 2018, but I’m going to anyway because it’s my review. Phillip’s treatment of and reaction to his children brought to mind Chase Reynaud in The Governess Game (Book 2 in Tessa Dare’s Girl Meets Duke series). In The Governess Game, Chase has guardianship of two girls who’ve been orphaned and passed around his family. Part of his character development arc is Chase figuring out what it means to be a father figure and just generally part of a family, where you rely on others and have them rely on you. (It’s a really good book - highly recommend, and I don’t even like kids.) The major difference between Chase and Phillip (besides likeability, of course) is that Chase isn’t required to love Rosamund or Daisy or to seek out and enjoy their company. They’re not his “real” children. But he grows into that anyway. With the help of the titular governess, Alex, Chase becomes comfortable setting boundaries and showing Rosamund and especially Daisy that they have a home with him and that he’s not going anywhere (and neither are they).

This is a stark contrast to Phillip, who has neglected his actual blood children. In his absence (both physical and emotional), Amanda and Oliver have grown up understanding that their existence is an inconvenience, that something was wrong with their mother but it was probably their fault, that their father hates them. Phillip has effectively isolated himself from his children and only with Eloise’s arrival does the wall between them begin to come down.  Part of Phillip’s reluctance to even be around his children is his fear that he will act like his father and violently beat them.  Which, ok, no one wants to become their parents, but maybe work that shit out on your own and not take it out on your kids? Maybe that’s too cutting-edge. (I mean, to be fair to Phillip, Sigmund Freud won’t suggest the radical “talking cure” for another 60 years, so.)

But Phillip’s parenting style just sucks. The kids, in their quest for their father’s attention, do some pretty dangerous stuff and go through governesses quite quickly. The staff member watching over them when Eloise arrives is actually physically abusing them, so Phillip still manages to allow that to happen to his kids even if he wasn’t the one doing it. Eloise does some outside-the-box thinking and decides to get to know the children, find out about their interests, treat them like people. It isn’t surprising when they begin to like her.

But the idea that Eloise is going to handle kid duty is part of Phillip’s expectations of what a wife is. A wife is apparently primarily a mother. She should take care of the children (and be quiet or at least agreeable). Phillip just sort of foists his children off on Eloise with the assumption that, as a woman, she knows the magic formula of “fixing” them. And then he’s able to reap the rewards of her compassion and empathy with some form of halo effect.

Ok, I didn’t expect this would turn into a pile-on about Phillip. But seriously, fuck that guy, he doesn’t deserve Eloise. Also, it’s super gross how he consistently compares her to Marina, with Eloise coming ahead because “she’s happy!” Jfc. We get it. Disabled people are “a burden.” (That’s literally textual: “Marina herself had been a burden and he was still wrestling with the guild he felt at his relief that she was gone.”) And Eloise really snaps up bits of affection. Like, he growls at her something controlling (“no, you can’t do Thing”) and she’s all “oh he must be concerned about me for Reason.” Ugh.

Next time, I’ll turn to a more enjoyable task, discussing my favorite Bridgerton story, Francesca and Michael and dirty talk.

~ Kat

To Sir Phillip with love by Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon (January 31, 2017) Latest ebook publication; originally published 2003
Series: Bridgertons, 5
Genre: Historical Romance (M/F)

Sir Phillip knew from his correspondence with his dead wife's distant cousin that Eloise Bridgerton was a spinster, and so he'd proposed, figuring that she'd be homely and unassuming, and more than a little desperate for an offer of marriage. Except . . . she wasn't. The beautiful woman on his doorstep was anything but quiet, and when she stopped talking long enough to close her mouth, all he wanted to do was kiss her...

Eloise Bridgerton couldn't marry a man she had never met! But then she started thinking... and wondering... and before she knew it, she was in a hired carriage in the middle of the night, on her way to meet the man she hoped might be her perfect match. Except... he wasn't. Her perfect husband wouldn't be so moody and ill-mannered. And he certainly should have mentioned that he had two young - and decidedly unruly - children, as much in need of a mother as Phillip is in need of a wife.

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Thanks for the discussion, Kat! *

If you missed part 4, you can find it HERE.

Stay tuned for part 6!


Until Next Time,

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